“If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a family.”
An African proverb
Women empowerment is the process of enabling and developing ability or potential in women so that they can think and act freely, exercise their choices and control their lives, thereby reducing discrimination and exploitation towards them. It is the process of elevating women in social, economic and political environments so that they can play a role equal to that of men in society. However, women who in many nations constitute half of the entire population, if not more, have often suffered for centuries from fewer rights and lower social status than men. The only way to put an end to the widespread discrimination and exploitation of women is through empowering them.
My grandmother learnt how to read and write at an early age of her life. At her time and with the limited means available, my grandmother is considered privileged to be a woman who could read and write. As young widow and mother of five children, she refused to remarry and decided that her call in life was to invest in her own children and their education. My grandmother’s love for knowledge and education urged her to seek the Italian nuns in the Catholic missionary they ran just a few blocks from her home. They taught her how to read and write in English and one of the first things she did and enjoyed every morning was to read the newspaper in English. She learnt how to paint with acrylics on canvas and made my mother, her daughter-in-law, one of the prettiest hand-sewn and painted set of table runners and cloths that I have ever seen with my own eyes. She could not pursue a formal education for herself but somehow managed to put her five children into some of the finest universities in both Europe and the Middle East at the time. She changed their destiny through her own vision of the importance of education and therefore changed my own fate consequently.
My mother, who obtained a basic education in computing, succeeded in having a short career in the primary school I went to. However, her education played a key role in mine and honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine that I would have gone that far with my own education without the aid and assistance I received from her – especially in my basic educational stages. Whether it was a mathematic homework, a calligraphy task or an art project, my mother was always there to guide me through and encourage me to invest more time in my studies and on developing habits and hobbies that would enrich my life in general and my learning in specific. I might be lucky to have had a lot of help and support, and growing up in a country like Oman was a surplus. Oman perhaps is the only country I heard of that applied a male quota system to encourage more males to matriculate in its higher education institutions because females dominate them. In fact, the year I joined the university in Oman to receive my undergraduate education, females counted for 98% of the total students’ population on campus and seeing a male student within the university surroundings was like seeing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
When I think of the opportunities and empowerment I gained out of my education, I think of the millions of girls around the world who deserve a similar chance. I am not here to undermine the importance of equally educating both genders, but educating girls and women plays a key role in the development of nations because the benefit of educating them influences their entire communities. It is well established that an educated woman will be more likely to educate her own children and provide them with higher chances in receiving a school education. It is also observed that a family of an educated woman tends to be healthier with a reduced risk of infant mortality coupled with better maternal nutrition during pregnancy and nursing. The income of an educated woman leads to the prosperity of her household provided that just one extra year of secondary schooling can increase a woman’s income by 25% a year. But the impact does not stop with private households, an educated woman contributes to economic productivity, leading to an increase in her community’s wealth as a whole.
For the reasons stated above, the equation is clear: invest in the education of girls and women and the benefits will not be limited to them alone, but will flow to everyone around them. Prohibit them from their basic right to an education and not only they will suffer, but their entire community as a whole will. At this point, more than sixty million girls are denied access to education globally. In addition, girls are often deprived from educational essentials like literacy and numeracy even in places where a significant progress has been made to get them into school. This makes it harder for them to proceed further beyond the primary school level, regardless of the availability of opportunities.
Educating girls is a key factor in empowering them. Their sound education will contribute to their households and national economies. Furthermore, educated women will be less likely to fall victim to the scourge of human trafficking, forced child marriages, and will be able to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.
On the International Day of Women, here is a reminder of the importance of education in breaking the walls of gender inequality. It is the right time to increase our initiatives to enroll more girls into primary schools and to make sure they will continue until they finish their secondary education.
Marwa Shumo is a Falling Walls Lab Finalist 2016, a junior researcher at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Bonn and a Fellow at the International Center for Insect Physiology & Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi. Her research focuses on the utilisation of insects in organic waste decomposition and livestock feed production.