United Nations

Educating girls is the best way to make an impact worldwide

Shashi Tharoor says educating girls and women is the single best thing governments can do to have a real impact on societies, and the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2012, 3:37am

One of the more difficult questions I was asked when I was a UN undersecretary general was: "What is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world?"

It's the kind of question that tends to bring out the bureaucrat in even the most direct of communicators, as one feels obliged to explain the complexity of the challenges confronting humanity - how no imperative can be singled out over other goals; how the struggle for peace, the fight against poverty and the battle to eradicate disease must all be waged side by side; and so on, mind-numbingly.

Then I learned to cast caution to the wind and venture an answer to this most impossible of questions. If I had to pick the one thing, I now offer a two-word mantra: "educate girls".

It really is that simple. No action has been proven to do more for the human race. Studies and research projects have established what common sense might already have told us: if you educate a boy, you educate a person; if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.

The evidence is striking. Increased schooling of mothers has a measureable impact on their children's health, education and adult productivity. Children of educated mothers consistently outperform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. A girl who has had more than six years of education is better equipped to seek and use medical advice, to immunise her children and to be aware of the importance of sanitary practices. A World Health Organisation study established that "in Africa, children of mothers who have received five years of education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five".

The health advantages of education extend beyond childbirth and infant health. Aids spreads twice as fast, a Zambian study shows, among uneducated girls than among those who have been to school. Educated girls marry later and are less susceptible to abuse by older men. And educated women tend to have fewer children and space them more wisely, facilitating a higher level of care.

Moreover, women learn from other women, so uneducated women often emulate educated women's success. And women spend more of their income on their families, which men do not necessarily do. Also, when educated girls work in the fields, as so many in the developing world must, their schooling translates into increased agricultural productivity and a decline in malnutrition. Educate a girl, and you benefit a community.

Sadly, the world is not yet rushing to sign up to the challenge of educating girls, who consistently lag behind boys in access to schooling throughout the developing world. An estimated 65 million girls worldwide never see the inside of a classroom. Yet not educating them costs the world more than putting them through school.

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan put it simply: "No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health, including the prevention of HIV/Aids, and increase the chances of education for the next generation. Let us invest in women and girls."

Shashi Tharoor is India's minister of state for human resource development. Copyright: Project Syndicate