Why Girls’ Education is Important

By Peter J. Foley, Ed.D.

Muslim extremists are determined to prevent the majority of Muslims to continue to participate in modern life.  The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 symbolized Al Queda’s hatred of Western capitalism and a modern culture that extremists view as moving away from Muslim religious traditions and practice. A decade later the Taliban attack on a Malala Yousafzai, the girl who was shot in the head by Taliban while riding on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat was meant as a warning to all Muslims that it was wrong for girls’ to seek a modern education.

The day to day struggle of whether the future world of 1.6 billion Moslems will continue to be centered on education, particularly girls’ education is being played out in daily violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Extremists such as the Taliban found both in Pakistan and Afghanistan are aware that economic development leading to competition in global market must include girls to be successful.

The struggle between nation states who are determined to enter the global markets to prosper and the Muslim extremists who want to establish a Moslem state governed by sharia law will be determined in the arena of girls’ education.

The Womanity Foundation has developed models of how girls’ education can be delivered successfully—even in areas where the Taliban has influence.

During an assessment of girl’s schools in Afghanistan in March of 2013 sponsored by the Womanity Foundation, I interviewed student councils at all four of the girls schools I visited.  Forming student councils that are given considerable responsibility for making sure the school runs properly is part of a set of components the Humanity Foundation insists must be in place in order for a girls’ school to receive foundation support. At first it was difficult to believe that the student councils had done so much to improve their schools. These girls were empowered to take action and they did.  They formed committees and tackled problems ranging from getting girls who had dropped out of school to come back; making the school green by planning flowers and trees; inviting the local Mullahs to come to discuss girls’ education through the reading of the Hadiths; helping to solve the lack of classroom space, tutoring younger children who were falling behind in their reading and setting up a teacher evaluation system that made sure teachers were qualified in the subjects they were teaching. These girls in rural communities in Afghanistan were empowered and they showed astounding maturity and ability to take on major responsibilities in helping to run their schools.

When I interviewed these girls they were direct in their answers. They were determined to help their communities. They also were determined to go as far as they could in their education. Most wanted to go on to the university in Kabul . For financial reasons that would be impossible for most since the scholarships provided by the Womanity Foundation were necessarily limited due to budget constraints. In each group there were obvious student leaders who spoke when I posed a particularly difficult question. These young women had poise and leadership skill far, far beyond their teenage years.

Most of the female student leaders were 14 to 17 years old.  Most would be married and have children soon. Most were already promised to a boy in their village or a nearby village. As a teenager they would be soon taking on the responsibility of being a mother and running a household. These students spoke of the confidence an education has given them.

Can these young, educated Afghan teenagers in rural areas be the hope of their nation? Is girls’ education that important?

I was surprised at the answer to this question I got from a group of ten men that represented the parent teachers’ Association of a girls school in an area that has a substantial Taliban presence located about a three hour drive from Kabul.

I asked why these parents wanted their sons to be married to educated girls.  Was not the culture in Afghanistan to prefer that girls not be educated so they would devote themselves to housekeeping and motherhood?

“Yes, those are the old ideas.  However, we want our daughters to be educated,” they said vehemently.  “How can we hope to have our society grow when the mothers of our children cannot teach our children properly?  How can we expect our community to prosper when our women remain ignorant, cannot read and cannot help their husbands solve family and life problems? “

“Understand”, one of the leaders of the parent teachers group said by way of summary, “ we are a poor, agricultural community. Our resources are few. I want my boys to marry educated girls. It is the only hope we have of building our community. It is the only way we will have to build a future for other generations in this mountain area. We are running out of land. We need new ideas. “

Modern social research confirms what these bearded, pious Muslim men from the mountains averred to be about the importance of girls’ education. For illustration, the ability of a mother to read makes it 50% more likely that her child will survive past the age of five. Furthermore, women being able to read also strongly correlated with subsequent lower fertility rates and improved child-health outcomes, including reductions in infant mortality rates. 1

There is a false notion that the majority of men in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan are against girls’ education. This is patently false.  The Afghan Taliban when in power did forbid girls to be educated; it is also the notorious position of the Pakistani Taliban. Yet, over and over, I heard men in the Jalozai camp outside Peshawar say that people wanted their daughters to be educated but were intimidated by the Pakistan Taliban in the FATA region. In the FATA region only eight percent of women are literate. There no schools for either boys or girls in many parts of this FATA region of Pakistan lying along the Afghanistan border. Poverty and illiteracy go hand in hand. FATA is one of the least developed areas Pakistan. Few countries have had such a total breakdown in their economy and social structure as Pakistan. A sure sign of the extent of deterioration of this country with nuclear weapons is that it is ranked number two in countries of the world with the most elementary school aged girls out of school.

The UN Millenium goal 2 is “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.”

Holding back the Millenium Goals on universal girls’ education are seemingly intractable areas of poverty and of militant insurgencies. Pakistan and Afghanistan are at the top of the list of countries that are lagging far behind the UN Millenium Education goals

Billions of dollars have spent to send vast armies to fight in these forbidding areas.  Real victory will only come when girls and boys receive an education that equips them to meet the challenges of earning a living and raising a family. If the billions spent on wars are used for girls’ and boys’ education, we will create a peace keeping force that will be the most effective the world has ever seen.