Only two years before the 2015 UN Millennium Goals deadlines, education and gender equality continue to be a huge challenge to the international community. The schooling rate is especially low among girls, which reduces the possibilities of effecting a social change with regards to gender equality. The improvement of access to school together with the quality of education and the reduction of the early marriage rate remain in the agenda of world leaders.
Nowadays 39 million women between 15 and 19 years old do not attend school. Though this number has improved over the past several years, they still reflect the unequal distribution of wealth. In countries such as Ethiopia or Mozambique, 40% of upper class teenagers can finish their secondary education, meanwhile this rate falls drastically to 1% of lower class students. These numbers are especially worrying because adolescence is one of the most important periods in the development process of a human being, where the social roles of a girl will greatly affect her future.
Why does secondary education fail?
Though primary education is free in most countries, secondary education often costs too much for families. In Ghana, 46% of children interviewed by Plan agreed that they cannot afford schooling taxes, much less the uniform and school material expenses.
The lack of nutrition many of these teenagers suffer from and the need to work (often long hours and under hazardous circumstances) in addition to their going to school prevents them from performing well and can often encourage them to drop out. This could affect girls especially, who in many occasions practice prostitution in order to earn money to study, which happens a lot in Mozambique.
"My maths teacher asked me to have a relationship but I did not want. Going to school turned on a hell for me because I was always punished by him, so this is one of the reasons why I decided to leave school", explains a young girl from Sierra Leona. Sexual abuse committed by teachers is much more common than it seems. In Ghana the only 75% of children that go to school mention their own teachers are responsible for the early pregnancies that happen in the centre. In Liberia, 61% of the students that Plan interviewed said they knew at least one such case in the last two years. This is one of the main reasons that they discourage parents from sending their siblings to school for secondary education, especially their daughters.
In many ways, early marriage is the only possible alternative for these girls to help their families economically. Social practices must be kept in mind when assessing the causes that provoke someone to drop out and to get married before 18 years old. Many parents see the marriage as a way to protect their own daughters from suffering sexual abuses.
Early marriage: a step back in the equality process
Early marriage is in fact a global problem. In southern Asia one of every two girls gets married before her 18th birthday. In Western Africa this rate only falls to 27% and in Latin America and Central America, 29%. In 2012 11% of teenagers in EU countries got married before reaching adulthood.
Yet this is not just a gender issue. Girls are disproportionately affected by these marriages since they are usually forced to get married with people that double their age. "I got married with 16 years old and after 8 months I gave birth to my first son. I was very sick during the pregnancy and y baby was born with many health problems", tells Sabita, from Nepal. It is estimated that between 25 to 50% of teenagers that get married give birth to their first child before turning 18. Child birth is one of the main causes of mortality in teenagers between 15 to 18 years old.
The UN program, "Education is first", describes early marriage as the main obstacle to girls education due to the impact that it has to their personal and social development. In this respect, the lack of education and early marriage undermine society at large.
UNICEF considers that early marriage among girls and the lack of professional training across a wide sector of the population slows down the economic growth of a country because their competitiveness skills in foreign countries drop.
The State incomes could be reduced by the lack of competitiveness, whose funds are also affected by the absence of tax collection to help the growth of the country. This situation would radically change if women could participate more in the labour market. Investing in education is investing in equality
Without a doubt, education is the most important way to move a society towards respecting citizen's rights. Creating awareness to parents, teachers and political leaders is very important if you want to build an education system based on gender equality.
Plan's EU Office estimates that a quality education could reduce the early marriage cases that happen nowadays; infant and maternal mortality; and reduce the possibility of teenagers contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Gender violence cases would also be reduced. In Kenya 61% of women that do not attend school consider the violence against women during arguments justified, while only 27% of these women who justify domestic violence have finished secondary education.
EU must assume its leadership in the battle for equality
The EU, under the UN umbrella, must continue working to reach this objective: to offer quality education thereby helping to transform the unfortunate gender roles that have come to be accepted in so many countries
According to Plan, what is very important is that the European Commission encourages the leaders of developing countries to offer a primary education, but above all, a secondary education system based on quality standards. Plan also urges the European Commission to push these countries to implement programs aimed to reduce sexual violence at schools. This is already one of the main priorities of the European Service of Exterior Action, which in 2012 helped to keep more than 23.000 children in school over the world and is active in more than 60 countries advocating these causes.
Awareness and training for parents, teachers and national police is absolutely necessary for EU delegations abroad. As an example, this Institution has cooperated with Save the Children in Afghanistan, where police get a specific training course to learn how to protect children's rights.
Plan has urged the EU to invest in programs that force developing countries to implement their own legislations on the legal marriage age. Furthermore, offering alternatives to early marriage is something very important to prevent girls from electing to do it in the first place. If teenagers could work part-time in a job compatible with their studies, they and their families will be more flexible to delay the moment they get married. But what it is also essential is to do not forget those younger girls who are already married and to continue investing in education programs for them.
Improving civil registries is a necessary before any major change can be made. In many countries where early marriage is common, they are forbidden by legislation, but since the civil registries are so poor and the data so incomplete, these marriages are almost always allow to happen.
Humanitarian organizations urge the EU, despite their on-going economic crisis, to keep investing in those programs aimed at young women. These issues will be a huge concern for the generations to come, yet we can do something now. And though it may seem like a huge investment now, it will be much more expensive in the future and the return exponentially larger
Ana Santamaria Justo is lawyer and journalist. She is currently a stagiaire in DG Communications at the European Parliament.