Lissa Kryska: Why investing in womens' education helps all

By Lissa Kryska, Columnist
Published October 20, 2013

Last week, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai got some Facebook fame as the video of her interview with Jon Stewart circulated. For those of you who missed it, Malala is a 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has become a key activist promoting education, especially for women and girls. She's from the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, where the Taliban come in and out of power and have, at times, banned girls from school. In response to her outspoken support for girls' education, Taliban members shot her in the head in a 2012 assassination attempt. Luckily, she survived.

After the government shutdown and run-up to the debt ceiling, I thought it would be nice to write about a cause that everyone can get behind — education, especially for girls. The benefits when girls are educated are vast and improve conditions not only for women, but for everyone. That’s why women's education around the world is a priority not just for non-governmental organizations, but for the World Bank as well.

Girls and women around the world are disproportionately more likely to be uneducated. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “almost two-thirds of the world’s 972 million illiterate adults are women.” And according to She’s The First, a nonprofit that sponsors girls’ educations internationally, only 20 percent of girls in developing countries finish primary school.

Women who are educated tend to have fewer children with lower mortality rates. The women themselves are more likely to survive childbirth, as they tend to get married and have children at an older age than their uneducated counterparts. They are more successful in protecting themselves and their children against HIV and AIDS, and they are also more likely to make sure that their children receive an education.

In addition to the health benefits for women and their children, women who go to school are more likely to be able to work. When more women enter the labor force, the economy is rewarded. Educated women earn higher wages: Forbes estimates that “an extra year of primary school increases girls’ wages by 10 percent to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school increases them by 15 percent to 25 percent.” This allows them to better support themselves and their families and is especially important for single mothers. Educating women increases economic growth for the whole country: According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “a study of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa found that from 1960 to 1992, more equal education between men and women could have led to nearly 1 percent higher annual per capita GDP growth.” This means that educating girls is a strong strategy for promoting national economic development.

But while there seems to be broad consent that, as former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and chief economist for the World Bank Lawrence Summers once said, “investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world,” it’s estimated that not even two cents of every dollar spent on development goes toward girls’ education. The United States spends around $37 billion on foreign assistance each year — about 1 percent of the federal budget. Much of that money is spent on military aid to other countries, especially in the Middle East. And while security is definitely important, I think that a higher investment in education, especially for girls, is the best tool that we have to fight extremism over the long-term. Malala, who goes to school and who received an education in politics and activism from her father, has brought the issue of the Taliban in Pakistan into the international spotlight far more effectively than any UN official ever could.

What it comes down to is that when more girls are educated, we all win. And that’s why it’s important to support girls like Malala in attaining an education as well as advocating for a universal right to education.

It’s a stressful time of year, with midterms and projects piling up. I’m glad that there are people like Malala out there to remind me that the education I’m receiving is a huge privilege, and while that doesn’t make studying for midterms any more fun, it does put things into perspective.

Lissa Kryska can be reached at lkkryska@umich.edu.