At a time when Australian universities are facing devastating budget cuts, taking a closer look at the long-term consequences of directing funding away from education is essential. Investing in education secures the future economic health of a country. Although slashing university finances may seem a tempting option to save money now, the cost of making education inaccessible, particularly to women, will likely be detrimental for decades to come. Australia may not immediately incur the worst consequences of limiting access to education, but the sobering realities currently playing out elsewhere around the world should serve as a stark reminder of how much we stand to lose.
October 11 marked International Day of the Girl Child. This year, it was a day of especially solemn reflection. The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will push an additional ~100 million people into extreme poverty in 2020, causing concern that global poverty will increase for the first time since 1998. Consequently, girls from poverty-stricken families are being forced out of school and into marriage or work—to the extent that 25 years of progress towards ending child marriage threatens to be undone by COVID-19. The United Nations expects an additional 13 million child marriages to take place over the next decade as a result of the pandemic. Indeed, this ramification of COVID-19 is one of the most dire and severe.
Worldwide, more than 130 million girls are out of school and two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. Educating girls not only changes the lives of those girls—it also uplifts their families, communities, and countries. Prioritising girls’ education has a ‘multiplier effect’, ensuring women are able to lead safer, more autonomous lives, increase their earning potential, and invest in their children and communities by encouraging the cycle of education to continue. It is widely acknowledged that educating women is the most powerful way to address poverty, but ironically, poverty remains the most critical factor in determining whether a girl will have access to education.
For every extra year of education that a girl receives, her earning potential increases by 10-25%, and an educated woman invests nearly all (90%) of her income into her family and community. Increasing the proportion of educated women has shown to encourage economic growth through increased incomes. Having millions more educated women means having a stronger workforce, with the potential to add up to $12 trillion USD to the global economy. Furthermore, educated girls are healthier citizens who raise healthier families. As such, educating girls contributes to reduced rates of maternal and infant mortality as well as reduced incidence of malaria and HIV/AIDS.
It may interest Australians that supporting girls’ education in developing countries is of global benefit. The consequences of unequal access to education are not issues only affecting far-away, low-income nations. Educating women has a positive impact on agricultural production, thereby increasing global food security. That the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme is evidence that combating hunger is currently one of the most pressing international concerns. Conveniently, it is yet another issue that can be mitigated through educating girls. When women are included in a country’s policy-making process, decisions in the interest of mitigating climate change are more likely to be made. Unsurprisingly, the Brookings Institution has identified high school education for girls as the most cost-effective strategy to combat climate change.
Educating girls has also been suggested to increase a country’s resilience against natural disasters and public health emergencies. This year we’ve seen that countries with female leaders (e.g. Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany) have been significantly more successful in addressing the challenges presented by the current global pandemic. Certainly, this is an excellent demonstration of what happens when women are given equal opportunity to learn and to lead.
Nevertheless, in many countries, particularly in South Asian and African countries, biases against girls are rife in schooling systems. This is largely a consequence of deep-seated cultural perspectives on gender roles. In many societies plagued by poverty, traditional values emphasise a woman as the homemaker solely responsible for caring for her children. Again, there is irony in the fact that these cultural norms making women the bedrock of society—and therefore, causing a woman’s level of education to more strongly influence the prosperity of the next generation than a man’s—actively discourage girls from attending school. An educated mother is more than twice as likely to send her children to school than a woman who was denied an education. Other factors hindering girls’ access to education are period stigma and lack of information about menstrual hygiene. Even when girls are educated about their periods, sanitary products are often unaffordable, forcing girls to skip school while menstruating.
As students at ANU, most of us acknowledge how lucky we are to have access to the exceptional opportunities and the world-class education we enjoy—even if 2020 has brought significant challenges and endless Zoom meetings. Nevertheless, we can simultaneously be angry and concerned about the wide-reaching damage that reduced funding to universities will cause, particularly given that the students who will suffer most are those who are already significantly disadvantaged.
With the end of semester drawing closer, bringing with it the stress of final exams and consecutive deadlines, we should still take the time to remember how many girls are denied even the chance to finish high school simply because they were born female. I encourage everyone to channel the frustration this should stir in you into action that advances the education of those denied the opportunities we enjoy as students in Australia, while also advocating for the protection of our own education system. Indeed, education should be a right, not a privilege.
If you want to learn about what Australian charities are doing to prevent girls from being locked out of education and how you can help, have a look at the work being done by some of the below organisations:
One Girl Australia: https://www.onegirl.org.au/
School for Life Foundation: https://www.schoolforlife.org.au/
Share the Dignity: https://www.sharethedignity.org.au/
Room to Read: https://www.roomtoread.org/
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