What Is Girls' Education Without Human Rights?

August 1, 2011

Afghan girls at school
© UNHCR / Lana Slezic /GlobalAware

Education, especially girls’ education, is a no-brainer, right? Evidence shows that even a basic, primary education, has a range of positive impacts:

  • Children of educated mothers are twice as likely to go to school as those raised by mothers with no education. They are also 40% less likely to die in childhood.
  • Girls who go to school are more empowered to seek health care; teach their families about human rights, hygiene, HIV prevention and other things they have learned; and protect themselves from violence and sexual exploitation.
  • Educated girls often wait longer to get married or have kids, and when they do have kids, they usually choose to have fewer than women with no education. They are also less likely to acquire HIV than girls with no schooling.
  • Girls who go to school grow up into women who earn a living. Education is a fundamental building block in the fight against poverty.

Education has the potential to transform power dynamics, leveling the playing field between males and females. Educated girls have higher self-esteem and tools to claim their own rights. But to get there, girls must enroll, learn, stay in school, and keep learning.

In 2000, the world agreed to address gender disparities in education by including targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Eleven years later, progress has indeed been made: more girls are enrolling in school.  On the surface, that’s good news for human rights.

Yet, a new report from the RESULTS Educational Fund and the Global Campaign for Education tells us that, by measuring success only by enrollment, and not by human rights outcomes, we are ignoring the real objective of helping girls succeed and continue their learning into secondary or even tertiary school.

Looking at the MDG target of “bodies-in-schools” through a human rights lens, the report highlights many ways we are failing to protect the right to education:

  • Schools are often too far from home for girls to attend, or are made too expensive by hidden costs.
  • Schools are unsafe for girls, with a lack of private latrines, hygiene, and other critical infrastructure putting them at greater risk.
  • Highly-qualified female teachers are often in short supply, yet they can help female students succeed.
  • Education is commonly designed for boys and lacks gender-sensitive curriculum; it also frequently ignores other challenges that keep girls from school, such as child labor, child marriage, and early pregnancy.

Underlying all of these rights violations is one fundamental issue: gender discrimination.

Gender discrimination means that many women depend on men; do not control resources; do not participate in decision-making at the family, community or political levels; live at risk of sexual violence and other abuse; and are not viewed as needing an education.

Yet, by protecting the right to education for all people, we provide an opportunity for an empowered, informed generation to take on all rights violations, to change gender norms, chip away at poverty, and envision a different world. Those facts and figures above show that education has this power.

The report begins by telling us, “It is 2011, and 1 in 4 women cannot read this sentence.”

Pause for a moment. Wrap your head around that: 1 in 4.

We agreed that education is a no-brainer, right? By committing ourselves to ensuring girls’ rights are protected—that we’re not just counting little-girl heads sitting in schools and calling it a day—we can change that statistic of 1 in 4. In the process, we might just give millions the opportunity to lift their families out of poverty and carry on the fight for women’s rights.

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