I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.
These words were written by Daniel Defoe, in 1719. While maybe ahead of his time, it is alarming to see that in some places in the world, very little advancement has been made in over three centuries.
In the developed world, the education of women has become almost a non-issue, with girls overtaking boys both in achievement and number as education progresses. In fact, there are numerous articles discussing potential ways to redress the imbalance between the two. This has led to a sense of false complacency, as gender discrimination no longer really impacts a woman’s access to education.
In many parts of the world, however, the quality of a life can still be made or broken by the presence of absence of an X chromosome. According to a study done by Valerie Hudson, in the Middle East, parts of central and southern Africa and parts of southern Asia still see significant gender-based discrepancies in education and legal or cultural restrictions which propagate them:
The education of women is not important solely on the principle of equality (though that is ample enough reason), as it has been shown that the effect of an educated female population has a ripple effect throughout the communities in which they live. Mothers have smaller, healthier families, are able to make better economic and personal choices. Such is the effect of the simple implantation of education that closing the gender gap in education was one of the Millennium Development Goals established by the UNFPA.
In a global community which is facing health and population crisis, it seems that empowering the central figure within families – still, centrally, the women – would not only greatly improve individual qualities of life but aid in the alleviation of larger issues. One only has to realize the untapped potential of the educated woman. In terms of sexual health, enforced usage of condoms would slow the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Economically, women could learn to support themselves and their families through simple trade. Family planning, a higher-skilled workforce, a population able to make discerning political choices – it is fair to say that by changing the status of women worldwide, the state of the world itself would alter dramatically.
Defoe’s essay does not entirely fulfil his ideological potential; while starting promisingly enough, it falls short in that it nonetheless concludes by relegating women to the household sphere and as less important than men. However, it would indeed be heartening if we, as an international community, could prove to Mr. Defoe that we have taken a step further and realized not only the moral importance of educating women, but the obvious benefits. Thus we would accurately be able to claim we have advanced somewhat since the sixteenth century.
By Farahnaz Mohammed