Let them learn: Education for girls is key to end gender violence

by Toyin Saraki | Wellbeing Foundation Africa
Saturday, 25 November 2017 09:00 GMT

A pupil sits inside a classroom ahead of the primary school final national examinations at Kiboro Primary school along Juja road in Nairobi, Kenya October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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Women with a secondary education have significantly greater bargaining power over resources within marriage, and greater choice over the age of marriage

The awful revelations flowing out of Hollywood over recent months have focused minds on the persistence of abuse in varying forms against women – an issue that is pervasive globally, not just in film sets and studios.

More than one in three women have experienced some form of gender violence in their lifetime.

An estimated 120 million girls worldwide have experienced rape; 200 million have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM); and almost 750 million women and girls alive today were married before their 18th birthday.

As we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women we must use this opportunity to publicise the global problem we face, accept it as a reality, and try to find a solution.

 What the Hollywood abuse scandal tells us again, is that if an issue is publicised it can begin to be addressed. And one of the keys to its resolution – as data proves time and again – is education, not least in the developing world. 

The complexity of gender violence makes tackling it an onerous task. But education has been proven to effectively mitigate varying forms of gender violence – be it marital rape, child marriage, or economic violence.

The mantra of the importance of educating girls has been chanted for decades – girls’ education is a key indicator of development and positively impacts individuals, communities and nations. Now we are seeing that education also serves to quell gender violence around the world.

We cannot address gender violence without looking at the patriarchal structure under which it operates: gender inequality. Gender inequality serves as the underlying force that subjugates women to this type of violence, while limiting the scope for accountability of its perpetrators.

Educating girls empowers them, both intellectually and financially, to become their own masters and to throw off the shackles that society has historically bound them. One extra year of education increases an individual’s earning by up to 10 percent,  exemplifying the monumental effect that girls’ education can have on their earning power, reducing the financial dependence that reinforces gender inequality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that women with a secondary education had significantly greater bargaining power over resources within marriage, and greater choice over partners and the age of marriage, buffering them against many forms of violence.

Lower educational attainment increases the vulnerability of girls to child marriage, as well as FGM, and is positively linked to involuntarily high fertility rates. Take the West African nation of Mali as a case in point. In Mali, just 27 percent of girls enroll in secondary school, and only 24 percent of women are literate. It is no coincidence that Mali also has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world at around 55 percent. What’s more, a shocking 89 percent of Malian girls have undergone FGM.

Education at a broader, community-level, has also been proven to bear positive results in reducing gender-based violence. Educating community members on international and national laws, and sensitising the public to the disadvantages of early and forced child marriage are key to addressing the attitudes behind gender violence, and deserve prioritisation at a global scale.

This year the theme of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is “Leave no one behind”, a topic as poignant as ever in the fragile and increasingly polarised world we live in.

The rising number of refugees is impetus for greater protection of women in vulnerable situations, particularly those in displacement camps, who experience heightened vulnerability to violence. We must not leave them behind, and greater action is needed to protect these women and girls.

Education is the gateway to women’s empowerment, and provides leadership skills that can benefit and protect women. Universal female secondary education is an achievable goal but developing countries must go that extra mile to make it happen.

Governments and the international community must dedicate greater resources to the plight of women and girls around the world that suffer at the hand of gender violence and the channel for such resource, the tool by which we can make a difference is education. 

International Days can at times feel arbitrary or redundant. But this year the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women seems more pertinent than ever. Let’s use it to start a conversation about how to end all abuse against women whether it happens in a studio or a refugee camp.

Gender violence is a complex, multifaceted problem encompassing cultural, economic, and political issues but let’s not get lost or daunted by that complexity – let’s start thinking of ways to move the needle, and for me that starts with education. 

By educating girls we are empowering them to defend and fend for themselves. It is my hope that in the future they won’t have to.

Toyin Ojora Saraki is the founder and president of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, a pan-African maternal health and gender rights organisation, headquartered in Nigeria