Obama’s Call for Educating Women

David Gartner
David Gartner Former Brookings Expert

June 5, 2009

As part of his historic Cairo address, President Barack Obama raised the hopes of millions of women around the world by highlighting how educating women can change the economic future of nations and promote equality. “I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality . . . countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous” proclaimed President Obama. The president has a unique opportunity to fulfill these hopes by delivering on earlier promises to create a new Global Fund for Education and contribute $2 billion so that all girls can go to school.

Education, especially for girls and women, is the most highly leveraged investment now available for developing countries. Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, has found that “educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world.” Women’s education is a key driver for the economic growth of countries around the world. A 100 country study by the World Bank found that every 1 percent increase in the level of women’s education generates .3 percent in additional economic growth. Educating women increases their wages by as much as 20 percent for every additional year of schooling. Women’s education is a key driver for the economic growth of countries around the world.

Educating women is also essential for ensuring food security and protecting recent gains in global health during the current economic crisis. Educated women use their expanded knowledge and improved financial situation to provide for their children. One study of 63 countries found that women’s education accounted for 43 percent of all progress in reducing child malnutrition. In Africa, the children of mothers who received five years of primary education are 40 percent more likely to live beyond the age of five. Education is a “social vaccine” against AIDS, dramatically reducing the risks of infection, especially for girls.

Despite all the incredible returns that come from educating girls and the world’s commitment to the U.N. Millennium Development Goal that all girls should have equal access to education as boys, more than half the countries in the Arab world, in South and West Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa have yet to achieve gender parity in education. In Afghanistan, for example, fewer than 70 girls enter school for every 100 boys. Overall, 75 million primary school age children are still out of school and most of them are girls.

Reducing the cost of education, employing an adequate number of teachers and creating safe environments for girls to learn are essential strategies for expanding access to education for girls. A number of countries have eliminated school fees in recent years, catalyzing dramatic expansions in enrollment and achieving gender parity in primary education. Bangladesh closed the education gap for girls by providing stipends for attending secondary school to cover the costs of supplies, textbooks and uniforms and more than tripled the number of girls enrolled.

Creating safe environments in which girls can effectively learn is also vital to promoting educated women. Training more female teachers is especially important in countries, like Pakistan, where many parents are reluctant to send their girls to schools with male teachers. Burkina Faso recently made substantial gains in the enrollment and performance for girls by building schools in rural areas that included separate bathroom facilities for girls and provided lunch for students.

In an earlier speech, President Obama promised to create a Global Fund for Education and pledged to invest $2 billion in order to “erase the global primary education gap by 2015” and ensure that every child can go to school. By fulfilling these commitments, Obama could leverage investments from the rest of the world and actually achieve the Millennium Development Goal of education for all by 2015. Obama’s words in Cairo have raised the sights of millions of girls around the world, and creating a Global Fund for Education holds the promise that they will finally get the chance to learn.

Originally submitted to the The Huffington Post by David Gartner on June 5, 2009.