Food For Thought

Education is the foundation for self-sufficiency and empowerment


We had to leave behind all of our possessions. The only thing we could bring with us is what we have in our heads, what we have been taught … our education. Education is the only thing that cannot be taken from us.”


—Woman who fled from Darfur to Chad, 2004

(Women’s Refugee Commission)


By Donna Shaver

For girls in the developing world, perhaps the greatest stumbling block on the road to equality has been lack of education.  Without education, women cannot compete on equal footing in the marketplace or in the halls of power.  Equality for women means having the tools necessary for leadership, and education is the foundation.


Education for boys as well as girls has been a significant barrier to progress for developing countries worldwide.  But until the advent of the UN Millennium Goals, families who believed in the value of education usually put their efforts first and foremost into obtaining education for boys, as evidenced by extreme disparities in gender enrollment. This is not surprising in societies that view the role of women as mothers, wives, caretakers of the household, field hands, and even beasts of burden of hauling water and firewood – to meet the needs of the family.  The social constructs that value boys over girls are still powerful, but there are growing pressures within and outside the society for change.


The UN Millenium Development Goals put pressure on countries worldwide to invest in primary education for all their children. In the ensuing years, considerable progress has been made.   Because so many children – girls and boys – are graduating from primary school, significant progress is being made in secondary education.  Part of the impetus is the growing body of evidence that educating all citizens is in the economic interests of every country. Although much progress has been made in secondary education, much remains to be done. Surprisingly, girls outnumber boys in secondary schools in 45 countries.  But secondary school enrollments for girls are much lower than for boys in Sub-Saharan Africa and some parts of South Asia, according to the World Bank.  Secondary school completion rates for girls age 19 in Sub-Saharan Africa range from 42 percent (Ghana) to less than 1 percent (Mozambique).

The rate for Uganda is about 5 percent.

Tertiary (higher) education is still lagging considerably in most developing countries, but it is critical to empowering women as partners in the economic, social, and political realms.  The low economic status of many families is a major barrier to sending a girl to college. Providing tertiary education for girls requires resources from outside the family.


Somewhat unexpectedly, women’s enrollment in higher education is soaring in many parts of the world.  In 60 countries, enrollment of women exceeds that of men.  Although higher education for girls is going up in every region, the smallest gains are in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Nine of the ten countries with the lowest gender parity index for tertiary enrollment are in Africa.


This month’s Dining for Women recipient, Allied Solutions for Sustainable Education and Trust, Inc. (ASSET), operating in Uganda, is working to increase the number of college-educated women there.   ASSET will recruit and support 20 Ugandan women to attend universities through their Women in Higher Education program.  In addition, the program is designed to ensure that the young women have the counseling, mentoring, and supplementary training to be successful in college and to prepare them to be full participants and leaders in their country.

Barriers to Education


The barriers to education at the primary level ensure that many girls will never have the opportunity to reach the secondary level, many of those who do will never finish secondary school, and very few of that group will reach the tertiary level.  Many of those barriers are embodied in the diminished legal status of women in most developing countries, which reflects customary views of the inferiority of females.  The ways in which girls and women have been considered more as property than as human beings vary. In some countries and cultures, one or more of the following examples continue to exist:


  • Only males can inherit property.
  •   Women cannot purchase or own property in their own name.
  •   A woman cannot work or obtain a business license without the permission of the husband.
  •   Girls have no control over when, or to whom, they are married.
  •   Widows lose their homes and property, and may themselves be inherited by their brothers-in-law.
  •   Rape within marriage is not a crime.
  •   Domestic violence against women and girls is not addressed by law or laws are not enforced.
  •   Violence against women and girls is pervasive and perpetrators are seldom prosecuted.
  •   Women and girls suffer profound social consequences and shaming for having been raped.
  •   Women and girls may not be able to go outside the home without permission from the male head of the family.
  •   Men have the final say on the distribution and use of all family assets.
  •   Women cannot hold the legal position of head of household.
  •   Girls and women eat only what is left after boys and men have eaten.

Child marriage is widespread to obtain a bride price, reduce the number of mouths to feed, settle a dispute, or ensure that a girl is married before she loses her virginity (and therefore much of her value).


The good news is that more and more countries are abolishing many restrictions, particularly in the area of women’s legal capacity, right to work, and property rights.  More than half the restrictions in place in 1960 had been removed by 2010.  Sub-Saharan Africa had the most restrictions and has implemented the most reforms.  Most economies in Latin America and the Caribbean have removed legal gender differences.  The Middle East and South Asia have changed the least, and in some places legal barriers have been introduced. Almost 90 percent of the 143 economies studied by the World Bank have reported at least one legal restriction on women’s economic opportunities.


Gender Equality and Development


Countries have much to gain by promoting education at all levels for girls.  Purely in terms of economic development, leaving a significant portion of the population behind results in a less educated workforce, lost productivity, lost creativity, and diminished economic development.  Education for girls provides progressively greater advantages as they reach higher levels of achievement – the widely publicized girl effect:


  •   A single year of primary school for a girl correlates with a 10 to 20 percent increase in wages later in life.
  •   Each year of secondary school completion yields an increase in wages in the 15 to 25 percent range.
  •   Educated women marry later and have fewer, healthier, and better-educated children.
  •   Women’s education has a strong positive correlation with child survival.
  •   Women and girls reinvest an average of 90 percent of their income in their families versus 30 to 40 percent for men.


In 2008, Goldman Sachs published Global Economics Paper No. 164, Women Hold Up Half the Sky.  The report notes that globalization raises the demand for educated workers, and therefore, higher education is likely to become even more important.  One of their key takeaways:  At the macroeconomic level, female education is a key source of support for long-term economic growth. It has been linked to higher productivity; higher returns to investment; higher agricultural yields; and a more favorable demographic structure. The economic growth that results from higher education feeds a virtuous cycle, supporting continued investments in education and extending the gains to human capital and productivity.  The report further notes that tertiary and vocational degrees have great impact.  At this level, women’s labor-force participation rates are on a par with men’s, especially in cities. A 2007 report from the World Bank on growing African agriculture identified as a key issue the need to boost women’s tertiary education in agriculture.


The economic arguments for gender equality are indisputable.  Harvard Business Review notes that if women were employed at the same rate as men in the U.S., Japan, and Egypt, the GDPs of those economies would be higher by five percent, nine percent, and 34 percent respectively.  And a Booz & Company study on women in the world of work concluded:  Our findings give compelling numerical evidence of a correlation between women’s economic participation and a country’s general economic growth and well-being. They strongly suggest that the economic advancement of women doesn’t just empower women but also leads to greater overall prosperity.


The Digital Divide


In the western world, the ëdigital divide’ is the gap between access to, and use of, digital technology by the haves and the have-nots. In the developing world, it also represents the gap in access and use between the genders.  Shelly Esque, president of the Intel Foundation, noted, “We know that many women who use the internet derive profound benefits through it, including economic and educational opportunities, a community of support, and career prospects.

According to Melanne Verveer, Ambasssador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State, “…we find that the gender gap in women’s access to the internet is even greater than that of mobile phones. And, in Africa, men are almost twice as likely to have access to the internet as women.  With the powerful capabilities the internet enables—to connect, to learn, to engage, to increase productivity, and to find opportunities—women’s lack of access is giving rise to a second digital divide, one where women and girls risk being left further and further behind.”  Above all, access to the internet gives girls and women a voice in the broader world. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the recent Social Good Summit, suggested that access to technology for both men and women should no longer be considered a luxury, but rather a fundamental tool for development.

An estimated 200 million fewer women than men are online, and come online later than men.  There are strong cultural barriers for millions of girls and women.  Traditional families are concerned about the type of content girls might access.  In deeply conservative societies, the strictures against any modern means of communication are harsh.  In July 2013, a tribal court in Pakistan sentenced a young mother of 2 to be stoned to death for having a cell phone.  The sentence was carried out by her family.  Panchayats in several states in India have issued decrees that girls are not allowed to have cell phones, although they do not have the legal authority to do so.

A major rationale is that unmarried girls will communicate inappropriately with men.


The International Telecommunications Union and UNESCO have teamed in an effort to enhance the inclusion of women and girls in our information society, both in terms of ensuring that more girls and women have access to information technology on equal footing and on employing women in the information technology sector.   Their report, Doubling Digital Opportunities:  Enhancing the Inclusion of Women and Girls in the Information Society, is based on the premise that access to jobs and education that include computer and technology skills can have a major socio-economic impact on our information society.   Another ITU publication, Measuring the Information Society, stated that an increase in secondary and tertiary school enrollment, especially for girls, would help drive countries’ information societies.


Political Power


In addition to setting the stage for a better and more autonomous life and a rewarding career, tertiary education is almost always the best route to political participation and power.   The developing world needs educated women who can take their rightful and equal place in the political processes that shape their society and determine its future.   A study found that educated women in Bangladesh were three times more likely to participate in political meetings than uneducated women.


While many women who are, or have been, heads of state came from wealthy and powerful families like Indira Gandhi and Benazir Butto — they would have made little progress had they not also been well-educated.  The two current female heads of state in Africa — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and Joyce Banda in Malawi — did not come from well-connected or powerful families, but both are from families that put a premium on education.  Education is the foundation for successful participation in the political process.  And many well-educated women have been major change agents in their countries and regions outside of public office.  Some examples would be winners of the Nobel Peace Prize:  Wangari Mutha Maathai from Kenya for her work in environmental sustainability, and Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson (President of Liberia) along with Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their work in the struggle for women’s human rights and peace-building.


The UN Millennium Project Task Force on Education and Gender Equality lists three reasons that women’s increased political representation is a priority:

  •   Equality of opportunity is a human right.
  •   Equality of political participation is important to ensure that women’s interests are fairly represented in decision-making.
  •   Evidence suggests that women’s participation in political decision-making improves the quality of governance.


Political leadership doesn’t have to be at a national level.  The opportunity to exercise power is greater at the local level.  There are more opportunities for leadership, and some countries have introduced regulations that ensure the representation of women at the local level.  Probably the most widely known and successful program is the legal requirement in India that 33 percent of the seats in the local governing councils — the panchayats — be reserved for women.  Not all such opportunities require a college-level education, of course.  But higher education prepares a woman to hold her own at any level in the power structure.


Higher education for women has a major role in building healthy families and educating children, encouraging active and equal participation in the workforce, producing economic growth, and in enabling the creation of a just and compassionate world.




“Women are the most underutilized economic asset in the world’s economy.”


Angel Gurria, Secretary-General
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)




Compiled by Donna Shaver


Food for Thought can be downloaded as a PDF that includes all references and citations.