Take Africa, for example, where only a mere 14% of women in the low-income category graduate from secondary school. Even in the upper- to middle-income category, numbers peak at 57%. Overall, 122 million African people do not finish secondary school — and more than half of them are female.
What many of us don’t realize is that aside from improving women’s general welfare, access to education is also important for our increasingly global economy. Women leaders — active players in both the economy and the business of being female — have a special responsibility to address women's education around the globe.
You don't need to be a woman to realize why women's education is important. From infant mortality to the spread of disease, women are facing a variety of challenges — challenges that education can help fight. When women are educated about these health issues, they have a better chance of avoiding them.
Education also strengthens economies. When female citizens are better educated, they have a greater chance of becoming gainfully employed, which then raises the income of the entire household. For proof, look no further than a 2003 study by UNESCO, which showed that for every year that a country's average years of schooling increases, its long-term economic growth increases by 3.7%.
Just as we support women in business, we need to support women who lack access to education — which prevents them from starting their own businesses or joining the workforce. And this support needs to start early.
I am lucky that my daughter is already learning about these issues. Through an organization called Girl Up, she has become educated on the plight of young girls who lack the privileges she may sometimes take for granted. She knows about the impact Malala Yousafzai has had on this issue, as extremism threatens many young women’s access to opportunity. And she has even been able to raise money for girls’ education by screening the movie “Girl Rising.” It’s been heartwarming to see.
Ready to take action yourself? The first step is to better educate ourselves about the obstacles girls are facing around the world.
1) Lack of education affects mental health.
Women’s mental health suffers when they are not given access to education. Although women might take on important tasks of raising children and managing a home, many still aren't allowed to own property, work for themselves, or even choose who to marry. While living a life centered around the home isn't necessarily a bad thing, when women don't have a choice about it, it can be deeply isolating.
This social isolation can lead to higher levels of depression in women, as well as other mental health issues. Conversely, when women are allowed an education, they experience a richer life that often leads to professional opportunity within the public sphere — allowing them to join other communities and make choices that are truly their own.
2) Lack of education affects reproductive health.
A lack of education can often lead to poor reproductive health outcomes, including unintended pregnancy and higher infant mortality rates. And that doesn't just affect women — it also affects future generations. For children born into these circumstances, it’s more difficult to break the cycle, obtain an education themselves, and get out of poverty.
Young girls with more education, however, have fewer children and healthier pregnancies. As a result of their education, they're also more aware of the ins and outs of their reproductive health and can practice family planning methods or spot worrisome symptoms before they become life-threatening. Then, when they do choose to have children, those babies are healthier and off to a better start in life.
3) Education and literacy correlate with higher salaries.
According to the World Bank, just one year of secondary education for a young girl can equate to a wage increase of 25% later in life. This breaks the cycle of poverty in more than one generation; that same woman could go on to have a female child of her own, who then grows up in a wealthier household and obtains an even higher level of schooling. She will likely then have children, continuing the trend of upward mobility in that family. Society is a ladder and the rungs are education — every time a woman completes another year of education, she takes a step up the ladder.
Literacy, specifically, can also impact a woman’s earnings. As shown by the 2013-14 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, working women in Pakistan with higher levels of literacy skills earned a whopping 95% more than women with weak or no literacy skills. Again, this higher income is often invested back into the family, elevating the household as a whole.
It's about time that we begin to look outside our own communities and consider women’s access to education on a global scale. As both women and business leaders, we are deeply invested in both arenas, and if we want to see the economy continue to grow, we must advocate for the future of those with less opportunity. When we help them, we truly help everyone.