The Taliban banned girls from attending school in Afghanistan in 1996. Though the group was ousted in 2001, its legacy remains a powerful force. Today, approximately 2 million Afghan girls are out of school. Girls who resist insurgent pressure and pursue education face real threats of violence. Some become targets in acid attacks, which can permanently disfigure their faces. The Mirwais School for Girls in Kandahar experienced one such attack in which 15 girls were burned. A 17-year-old girl named Shamsia suffered burns so severe she had to go abroad for treatment. She now suffers from vision problems and unsightly scars on her eyelids and left cheek. “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.”
Girls with no education are typically married off young—usually to much older men. Among Afghan women ages 20-24, 43 percent were married by age 18. With little opportunity in life outside of marriage and motherhood, the fertility rate in Afghanistan is 6.2 children per woman, by far the highest in the region (South Central Asia has a fertility rate of 2.6).
Millennium Development Goals
When multilateral agencies like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank fund development projects, they are guided by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adopted in 2000, the MDGs set ambitious targets for eradicating poverty, achieving gender equity, improving health, and protecting the environment. Millennium Development Goal 3 is to promote gender equality and empower women. The specific target of that goal is to eliminate gender disparity in all levels of education. Large disparities in the past have left generations of women uneducated and, perhaps worse, illiterate. Of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, two-thirds are women living in West and South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. In 21 countries, fewer than 40 percent of women can read.
The 2012 MDG Report announced the achievement of the education target for the developing world—in 2010 there were 97 girls enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys (within the acceptable 3 percent range for parity), compared to just 91 girls in 1999. However, strong regional disparities persist. In sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, only 93 girls attend primary school for every 100 boys, while in East Asia, girls outnumber boys in primary school, 103 to 100.
Secondary school is more expensive than primary school, which often forces parents to choose which of their children to send (they usually choose the boys). Early marriage, teen pregnancy, and safety concerns (long walks to school during which they may be harassed) can also keep girls out of secondary school. Still, the MDG target has nearly been met, at 96 girls for every 100 boys. Again, the average masks a range of 82 in sub-Saharan Africa to 108 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The target for tertiary education has been met with the most success, with 98 girls for every 100 boys pursuing college and university degrees. Again, this ranges by region, from 63 in sub-Saharan Africa to 108 in Latin America and the Caribbean. (In the developed world, girls outnumber boys in tertiary education 130 to 100.)
During the last 40 years, the average years of schooling for women of reproductive age in the developing world increased from 2.2 to 7.2 years. Educated women tend to want fewer children than their uneducated peers and are better equipped to understand their family planning options. Joel Cohen, professor of Population Studies at The Rockefeller University, writes, “Education promotes a shift from the quantity of children in favor of the quality of children.”
When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. In Nicaragua, 45 percent of girls with no schooling are married before age 18 versus only 16 percent of their educated counterparts. In Mozambique, the figures are 60 percent versus 10 percent; in Senegal, 41 percent versus 6 percent. Victims of early marriage are less likely to achieve equality in their marriages. For example, girls in India who marry before age 18 are twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped, or threatened by their husbands as are girls who marry later.
Educated women participate in wage employment at a higher rate and earn higher salaries than women who are not educated. In fact, an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school boosts future wages by 15 to 25 percent. Women earning their own money have more say in household matters and are less likely to be victims of domestic abuse. Empowering women to work extends benefits to entire families, as mothers use their earnings to invest in the health and education of their children. In fact, women reinvest 90 percent of their incomes in their families, compared with only 30-40 percent for men.
But employment in the formal sector remains elusive for many of the world’s women. In Southern Asia, only 20 percent of non-agricultural waged employees are women. In Western Asia and North Africa, the figure is only 19 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa does better, at 33 percent, but falls short of the developed world figure, which is 48 percent. Additionally, the wage labor that women perform is often of lower caliber (and thus lower pay) than that of men. In fact, women occupy only 25 percent of senior management positions globally. Typically, when women work outside the home in the developing world it’s either in agriculture or in the informal sector, where they are not afforded the same job security or benefits that the formal sector offers. According to the UN Development Programme, “75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. This is one reason why women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population but own only one percent of the world’s wealth.”
Women’s issues are more apt to be addressed when there are women in positions of political leadership. Indeed, most of the champions of reproductive health in the U.S. Congress are women. However, women are currently outnumbered fourto- one in legislatures around the world. Women hold only 19 percent of parliament seats and 16 percent of ministerial positions. A mere 5 percent of heads of state are women.
One obstacle to women seeking political office is fundraising. Women typically get less help from their parties raising campaign funds and are also less connected than men to business and professional networks.
To address these inequities, about 50 countries have adopted legislation to ensure that a certain proportion of candidates are women. Hundreds of political parties in another 30 countries have adopted similar quotas. The quotas have facilitated much progress; in Nicaragua, more than half of the seats won by a political party with a 30 percent quota were won by women.
Even with these quotas, however, not a single region in the world is on track to achieve the UN target of 30 percent women in decision-making positions.
Although not identified as a target of MDG 3, a key factor in women’s empowerment is affordable access to voluntary family planning education and services. When women have the resources to make informed, voluntary decisions about the number and spacing of their births, they tend to have fewer, healthier children. Family planning allows sexually active teenage girls to delay childbearing in order to finish their schooling and begin their careers unencumbered by the demands of motherhood. Smaller families allow for greater investment in each child, including educational investment—especially for girls—and give mothers more time to devote to wage employment. According to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of UNFPA, making voluntary family planning resources available “will not only save and improve the lives of women and children; it will empower women, reduce poverty and ultimately build stronger nations.”
Unfortunately, millions of women lack access to contraceptive information, services, and supplies. Approximately 222 million women in the developing world have an unmet need for family planning— they would like to delay or end childbearing, but are not using modern contraception.
Men’s attitudes toward family size can carry significant weight. When men want more children, their wives often face pressure to become pregnant, especially in abusive relationships. Men and women must work together as equal partners to make informed decisions about family size. According to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, for both sexes to recognize the importance of women’s rights is “the best way to ensure a better life for everybody, not just for women.”
Women’s Empowerment for Population Stabilization
The connection between women’s empowerment and population is clear. When women are empowered to make decisions about their own lives—when they’re educated and employed and their contributions to family and society are recognized—they tend to have fewer children, which slows population growth. Robert Engelman, president of the Worldwatch Institute, affirms, “If all women could use their right of choice and only have children when they wanted to, the population rate would stabilize.”