More girls in school means more women in power

Two young girls during an exam at a school in Kerala, India. Although education is a basic human right, not everyone can enjoy this right. Girls are particularly excluded, with all the ensuing consequences.

Discrimination and stereotypes prevent girls from accessing education, and thus have a detrimental effect on women’s leadership, writes Margo Bells, researcher at VUB. This presents a problem because education and women’s leadership are necessary to protect the rights of girls and in general a more equal society. Educated girls are more assertive, resilient and knowledgeable about their rights.

TOn the occasion of the International Day of the Girl on October 11, I was allowed to take on the duties of Minister Miriam Ketter as a Young Activist for Plan International Belgium. I was for one day Minister of Development Cooperation and Urban Policy.

With my academic background in educational sciences, I found this a unique opportunity to stress the importance of quality education. Because it is time for girls to take leadership positions, and education is one of the keys to that.

Education as a bridge to a more equal world

Although education is a basic human right, not everyone can enjoy this right. Girls are particularly excluded, with all the ensuing consequences. The Ebola epidemic and the current Corona crisis show that prolonged school closures make girls especially vulnerable. They have to deal with forced child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and exploitation. Millions of girls around the world will not return to the classroom because of the coronavirus.

If girls and boys can reap the same benefits, education contributes to a more peaceful and sustainable world.

But there are many challenges. In high schools, for example, there is a lack of separate toilets, which means that girls on their period are more likely to stay at home. The lack of flexible learning environments with childcare facilities also makes it impossible for pregnant girls and young mothers to combine their studies with the care of their children. In some countries, pregnant girls are not even allowed to go to school. Money often plays an important role: do girls or only their brothers go to school?

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However, education remains an investment with many benefits. First, schools provide a safe environment for girls that protects them from all kinds of dangers. Second, education provides knowledge, skills and hope for a better future. A future in which girls and young women can make informed decisions about their bodies, lives and environments. Finally, education provides girls with more opportunities to find a good job later, earn a higher income and have their voice heard.

Therefore, education is essential to the rights of girls, but inclusive education is also one of the sustainable development goals. If girls and boys can reap the same benefits, education contributes to a more peaceful and sustainable world. At the same time, inclusive and quality education also has positive effects on other goals: it promotes gender equality, reduces poverty and crime.

Education ensures that there are more girls at the top

Another important pillar in the fight for girls’ rights and an equal world is women’s leadership. In 2021, women were severely underrepresented in leadership positions. For example, only 25% of parliamentarians worldwide are women (and less than 2% are under the age of 30). However, girls and women with a leadership role can change the world, just think of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and Greta Thunberg’s climate action.

Women face different barriers to exercising a leadership position.

Education can also make a big difference here. Education teaches girls leadership skills and technical knowledge, such as learning public speaking and gaining an understanding of entrepreneurship. Therefore, it is necessary to form the leaders of tomorrow. Not only education, but also informal learning through associations and projects gives young people the opportunity to practice leadership skills and discover whether or not they want to take on leadership positions.

However, women face various barriers to exercising leadership positions. In our society, stereotypes mean, for example, that girls do not want or cannot become leaders quickly.

But stereotypical study choices also contribute to female underrepresentation. For example, women often choose social sciences, teacher training or nursing, and these courses provide fewer opportunities for leadership positions. Finally, company culture also greatly influences who becomes a director or CEO.

It is necessary to remove these barriers and bring girls into leadership positions. Women leaders are critical in our society because they influence decision-making at all levels and even change prevailing gender norms. In this way, it has a positive impact on policy and decisions regarding gender equality.

In addition, female leaders are role models who make girls feel that they can achieve their dreams. Minister Ketter has greatly inspired me to realize my ambitions and continue to work for what I believe in, a world where all girls can go to school.

The future is comprehensive

Before we talk about a world where all girls can go to school, we need to invest around the world in girls’ education. Especially now when we know that girls are being hit hard by current crises like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. UN figures show that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women.

Governments, international organizations and NGOs must come together to ensure education for all girls. Plan International and its partners have been doing this for years. Their projects have already given more than 20 million girls and boys access to quality education. As part of a new campaign, Plan International Belgium wants to get 1,000 more girls into school this year with the help of donors.

We must evolve towards a society where girls’ rights are a priority and on the international agenda

It is not only politicians and leaders who are responsible for the transition to more girls in schools and then more women leaders. Everyone can contribute to it and make a difference. This is already possible by supporting the girls in your area, believing in them and encouraging them to realize their ambitions. This way they can become the leaders of tomorrow.

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GA Volb (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I honestly think we all have the same potential, but not always the same opportunities. That must change. We must evolve towards a society in which girls’ rights are a priority and on the international agenda. Hence my plea to continue investing in girls’ education in order to shape the leaders of tomorrow. After all, the future is inclusive, which means that gender equality by definition must have an important place in our society.

Margot Pels is 24 years old and a passionate advocate for girls’ education around the world. Since June, she has graduated with a Master of Educational Sciences at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and is working as a researcher at VUB. She is also active as a youth activist for Plan International Belgium. On 8 December, at the request of the Minister for Development Cooperation, Miriam Kittier, she spoke on behalf of young Belgians at the UNICEF Global Forum for Children and Youth.

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