Girls' Education: a Foundation for Development

Editor(s) Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene
Publisher Commonwealth Foundation
Published 2008
Pages 48
Price £10.00
ISBN 9780903850278
Reviewed by Dr Stephen Bigger
University of Worcester
Review published 20 October 2008

This is an official Commonwealth Foundation report by Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene. It opens with the statistic that 75 million children are “denied their right to an education” and that most of these are girls, using a World Bank report to emphasise the importance of girls’ education. The Millennium Development Goals include one (no.3) to establish equity between girls and boys in primary and secondary education by 2005. This report features four commonwealth countries which are off-target – Cameroon, India, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea. The report is based on questionnaires to significant players in these places. These have identified factors which are contributing to the lack of success.

Systemic issues include better access to education (especially having more reachable girls’ schools); the need for more gender-sensitive qualities throughout education; the need for free or affordable education; better infrastructure; more suitable and suitably trained teachers; and the need for a degree of compulsion. Societal issues include parental perceptions; socio-cultural demands for girls to do housework and childcare; security of travel to school; and poverty. A final issue was defined as “the misinterpretation of religion” (p.41), that is keeping girls from school on misplaced religious grounds. Each country is then assessed in depth through the questionnaire returns. Two central issues throughout are poverty and socio-cultural norms. In other words long term solutions need to involve economic and educational components, taking people out of material deprivation and ignorance.

These international issues have implications for schooling in Britain – and for secondary schooling in particular. When girls from some ethnic and religious backgrounds reach secondary age, domestic help and childcare are deemed by some families to be more practically useful than schoolwork, so these counter pressures affect progress at school and in qualifications. Early marriage may be encouraged, so girls could be married and pregnant while still at school – which again runs counter to school progress. The knowledge that they will be married at 16 upsets concentration and motivation – the girl barely thinks of the necessity of a career and therefore the relevance of qualifications. The local presence of a girls’ comprehensive can encourage these girls to progress to age 11 and beyond, but the lack or loss of such schools can throw these girls into an educational black-hole if parents do not allow them to attend mixed education. Legal pressures can be averted by sending the girl abroad to family. They simply go missing from social and educational records. This is an unknown and unrecorded failure to comply with the Millenium Development Goal within the UK itself.

Rectifying this situation is partly the responsibility of local authorities to consider adequate provision, and partly the responsibility of the family and community to give a high priority to girls’ education. The World Bank affirms benefits to health, nutrition, mortality figures and family education as immediate social benefits likely to stimulate change. This is apart from issues of general equity between people. Religion can impede progress and so there is a responsibility of religious leaders to represent their faith without prejudice, and the role of the whole community to monitor what is being said and done in the name of the religion. There is thus a need both for the education of children and of their parents and community. Perversely, and under-reported in western news, education for girls in the contested Pakistani hills is viewed by extremists as western influence so girls’ schools are burnt down regularly, the resulting fear denying children the education that has been provided.

There is a fundamental need for educational quality. The world does not need compulsory inappropriate schooling at great expense. Children deserve appropriate enriching education. Where alternative education is provided by the community, this needs to be appropriate to educational needs rather than being relegated to an instruction into a particular point of view – so even these schools should be inspected as delivering a broad curriculum. The enhancement of education and schooling worldwide, both in terms of spread and quality, is one of today’s greatest development issues. British education is by no means exempt from the lessons to be learnt.