There’s a popular Chinese proverb that goes, “Women hold up half the sky.” Ironically, it was Mao Zedong who first said this, but the phrase has caught on in the West after Sheryl WuDunn and her partner Nick Kristof published Half the Sky, a book about empowering women around the world.
At APF, we also believe that amplifying the voices of women is of paramount importance — not just because it brings economic value to society, but because it’s just the right thing to do.
So in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a closer look at some of the social issues still facing women globally, and then spotlighting organizations doing transformative work in those areas all through March.
The first issue we’re looking at is education. We can all concur that education is a powerful tool for uplifting the poor and empowering the marginalized. That’s why, 14 years ago, the UN tried to help realize the dream of universal education and gender equality when it came up with the second and third objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
How far along are we on those objectives? Far, but not far enough. On a positive note, the 2013 progress report on the MDGs found that:
The literacy rate among young women is growing at a faster pace than that of young on men: In North Africa, the literacy rate rose 28 percentage points from 1990 to 2011, compared to 16 percentage points for young men over the same period. In Southern Asia, the literacy rate for young women and young men grew by 26 and 17 percentage points, respectively, over the same period. All regions are moving closer to the point at which male and female literacy rates are equal.
But for every hint of progress, there’s a qualification. In that same progress report, the UN also noted that women still represent two out of three illiterate adults in the world. This may suggest that new initiatives to help younger generations of girls are making a substantial impact, but the generations of women who were previously shut out from education are still being left behind.
Additionally, gender parity in educational achievement is still a far off goal:
Only two out of 130 countries with available data have reached the target of gender parity in all levels of education. An analysis of gender disparities in school participation at the country level shows that girls are not always at a disadvantage. But in general, disparities affecting girls are more extreme than those affecting boys. Girls in many countries are still being denied their right to education, especially at the primary and secondary level.
Things start to change at the tertiary level though. The rate of women enrolling into colleges and university has grown almost twice as fast as male enrollment, so that there are more women enrolled in higher education than men in most countries: “In nearly two thirds of countries (62 per cent), enrolment of women at the highest levels of education exceeds that of men.”
If anything, this proves that there is no shortage of intelligence, grit, and determination among young women and girls to expand their thinking and build their human capital. Once they’re in, they can excel. It’s systemic exclusion and social misconceptions that are keeping women from reaching the top of their game in the first place. So remember, as Nobel Laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi once said, “The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.”
Tomorrow, we’ll look at one of the organizations working on women’s and girls’ education (and a whole host of other issues), READ Global.