How Equal Access to Education Impacts Women’s Rights on “Blog for International Women’s Day”

Happy International Women’s Day (and the 2nd Annual Feminist Coming Out Day!)!!!  Today marks the 100th Anniversary of honoring women’s rights globally.  First celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland in 1911, “over 1 million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination.”  Numerous events around the globe were held.  Women for Women International asked people around the world to “Join Women on the Bridge” today for women to come together in support of peace and to end violence against women.  The amazing global feminist blog Gender Across Borders asked bloggers to celebrate IWD by writing about women’s rights, posing the question:

“What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?”

In my daytime job, when I’m not blogging my fingers off, I work at a women’s center at a university.  My center hosted a celebratory breakfast commemorating IWD.  I listened to female faculty members share their research on gender.  One professor declared that one way to measure whether a country is going to erupt in civil unrest/revolutions is poverty.  The second way?  The status of women.

For the first time in U.S. history, women attend and graduate college in higher numbers than men. Yet in many other parts of the world, women are lucky to even go to school.  These collegiate stats provide people a false sense of security, allowing people to think we’ve attained equality…what’s left to fight for?  But just because there are more female graduates (which don’t get me wrong is awesome), doesn’t negate the douchiness of a glass ceiling (yep, one sadly still exists).  Women STILL only make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, 68 cents for African-American women and 58 cents for Latinas. Also, just because things are more equitable in some countries, doesn’t mean women elsewhere fare as well.

Young women in many countries, if they have the opportunity to attend school, might not be able to afford the tuition and cost of books, deal with a lack of nutrition, have unreliable menstrual products (using rags that leak) or travel miles across dangerous terrain facing the threat of rape and assault.  Or some young women live in societies where a value isn’t placed on their education but rather on their brothers.  Or families facing poverty can only afford to send one child to school.  We need to invest in women’s education.  According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn,

“…Of the 115 million children who’ve dropped out of elementary school, 57% are girls.  In South and West Asia, two thirds of the children who are out of school are girls.”

I recently attended an event where Joyce Banda, Vice-President of Malawi spoke about education and women’s empowerment in Africa.  She told her own story about escaping an abusive marriage with her 3 small children, building a successful garment business and finally becoming the first female vice president in her country.  VP Banda shared a story of her close friend, Chrissy.  Chrissy was smart and a hard worker.  They both headed off to school.  But Chrissy dropped out after 1 term because her family couldn’t afford the tuition of $30 (yep folks, $30).  Luckily, VP Banda could continue to go to school and eventually graduate since her father earned a good wage as a cop.  Chrissy got married at 15 to an abusive husband.  She recently called the Vice President to tell her that her son is dying of AIDS.  VP Banda wearily said, “But why should I stand here before you as vice president and not Chrissy?”  That moment crystallized for me how it’s not a matter of a lack of desire or drive; it’s a matter of education and opportunity.

Women in many countries must contend with a lack of education commingled with misogyny and a lack of power.  In Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s bestselling book Half the Sky, they champion for solutions to alleviating gender inequities.  They believe that unleashing the power of women proves vital, not only for the sake of equity, but also for stimulating global economies.  Kristof and WuDunn, along with many other NGOs, researchers and activists, purport the “girl effect;” increasing education for women leads to them getting jobs, delaying marriage and reducing the number of children, all the while infusing the economy with additional funds and labor.

Just as in education, we need to eliminate the gendered stigma in science and technology; the myth that women can’t and don’t excel at math and science, that they’re better suited to literature, languages and social sciences.  So what about the argument that women just aren’t interested or that they’re not biologically built for it?  I call bullshit.  Gender is a social construct; we’re socialized into believing what’s feminine and masculine.  Women and men are both capable of competency in science and technological fields.  Yet many female students, even at an early age, are discouraged from showing an interest in math and science.  In corporations as well as in academia, mentors (oftentimes men) often reach out to male employees or research students, allowing them to network in order to further their career.  But women need mentors to garner support and make those crucial connections too.  Gender discrimination doesn’t merely affect women but rather all of society.

Education helps women not only in skill-building and in getting better jobs/careers but also in finding their voice.  Education builds confidence, bolstering women’s belief in themselves.  When women ask questions and analyze the world around them, they are more poised to speak up for their rights, demanding equity.  At the IWD breakfast this morning, a professor declared, “Women must grab the microphone, find their voice and seize the room.”  Education might not be the answer to all of society’s problems, but it is one of the most potent solutions.  We need to believe in and support women’s potential, for all our sakes.  I think it’s about time we all seized the room.

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