Why Girls' Education is Highest Returning Social Investment
Kaisone is eighteen and lives in Salavan Province in southern Laos, a country where more than three-quarters of the population still survives on less than $2 per day. Just a few months before her sixth birthday, her mother passed away: "It was such a futile death . . . . on the long drive to the hospital after giving birth to my younger sister. I vowed then that I would study hard to become a doctor, so that the people in my village would not have to die because of poor access to medical aid."
Sriramya, fifteen, from Central Province in Sri Lanka, has also grown up without a mother: hers is working in Dubai as a domestic servant and she is raised by her grandmother, rising at 4 a.m. each day to clean the house before commencing her homework, leaving at 6.30am to walk to school. Her goal, likewise, is to become a doctor.
Suma, from Bardiya in Nepal, was sent away by her parents at the age of six to live her life as a Kamlari, an indentured servant. "I worked in another family’s home and was abused most days. When I was retrieved six years later, I could not even communicate with my own family." Suma’s dream is to become a health educator to help empower more girls in her community. In March 2012 she was chosen to go to New York and participate in the Women of the World 2012 Summit hosted by Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and attended by Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie, sharing her story and performing a song she wrote about her years as a Kamlari.
These three girls are some of the lucky ones, representing the thousands of girls and young women in eight countries in Asia and Africa who have been fortunate enough to win places on the girls’ education program developed and managed by Room to Read, one of a growing number of NGOs which is working and achieving notable successes in the critically important area of girls’ education.
The economic and social benefits of educating girls are at last attracting universal attention and yet it is almost twenty years since Lawrence Summers, Chief Economist at the World Bank, wrote a paper in which he argued: "Hard statistical evaluations fairly consistently find that female education is the variable most highly correlated with improvements in social indicators. The benefits of education have a multiplier effect because they empower women to bring about other necessary changes.’"
Five years later, in 1999, Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time, described girls’ education as the "single highest returning social investment in the world today". And yet it wasn’t until 2011 that former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was appointed to establish and lead UN Women, an organisation charged with the "superhuman challenge of redressing gender inequality", prioritising five key areas – expanding women’s leadership, enhancing women’s economic empowerment, ending violence against women and girls, bringing women to the centre of the peace and security agenda, and focusing national plans and budgets on gender equality.
In Australia, in September 2011, Penny Williams was appointed as the first Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, a role designed to ensure the needs of women and girls are properly represented in Australia’s overseas development program.
According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of Half the Sky, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a seminal work about the plight of women and girls, "The most effective change agents aren’t foreigners but local women . . . Aid workers function in the context of an aid bureaucracy, while social entrepreneurs create their own context by starting a new organisation, company, or movement to address a social problem in a creative way."
Half the Sky is an astonishing achievement, at one and the same time a horrifying catalogue of the injustices and abuses suffered by girls and women in the developing world and a triumphant account of the successes of some of those who have risked their lives to challenge the status quo in their communities and lay the foundations for a fairer future. Having first been alerted to abuses against girls and women in WuDunn’s native China, where "as many infant girls die unnecessarily every week . . . as protesters died in the one incident in Tiananmen", their research takes them from Asia to Africa to South America to investigate the reasons why between 60 and 100 million women are ‘missing’, the helpless victims of abortion, trafficking, sexual violence, honour killings and maternal mortality, more females being "killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century".
Half the Sky started as a book but has become part of a movement to redress the wrongs of centuries of oppression and abuse against girls and women.
Bill Clinton, through his annual Global Initiative, is another individual who is leading the movement for systemic change, challenging corporate and philanthropic foundations to provide the funding which is so desperately needed for health and education for girls and women. Delegates attending the