Emily Heroy is Executive Editor and co-founder of Gender Across Borders. She is expert in the education of girls education and development pursuing a Master of Arts in the Teaching of History degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was a Youth Development Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and has 10 years of experience working with underprivileged girls around the world. In 2011 Heroy won the New Leader’s Council "Top 40 Under 40" and Women Deliver's "Most Inspiring People Delivering for Girls and Women."
In a family living room in the small town of Tamegroute, Morocco, a 20-year-old woman, Hind, sat beside her 30-year-old sister, Ibtissham. After a day of watching television, my host sisters walked with me to the local youth development center, where I was to start teaching an English class that night. Eager to learn, the two made up the entire female population of the class.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I walked into that classroom in Morocco every day and I wondered why there weren’t more girls present. In an attempt to lure the town’s girls to my English class, I held classes earlier in the day to prevent them from having to walk home in the dark. Still, only my host sisters attended the classes. Reflecting on my continual efforts to attempt to teach more girls, I wonder if the lack of attendance had anything to do with more than just the stigma around young women walking alone at night. On this International Women’s Day (March 8), its theme of “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” challenges us to reflect on ways to bridge that education gap between girls and boys.
While living in Morocco, I came to realize the frightening difference between Hind and Ibtissham’s educational prospects and my own. The day’s television viewing was only interrupted to clean the house and cook meals. Neither sister was married or had a job, the latter having to do with social norms and economic prospects. In fact, the majority of women in Morocco are expected to instead take on the primary role of caretaker for their families.
On occasion, Hind would bring a basic French language book into the living room to practice her French with me. During one of our French language sessions, she told me that she wanted to pass the necessary exams to graduate secondary school in Morocco. As I was unfamiliar with what was required for her to pass the exams, I did not know if her goal was in reach. I wondered why she hadn’t been able to take her exams, and how many other girls like Hind wanted to take the exams but couldn’t.
In addition to the social norms that prevent women from pursuing education, the quality of education in Morocco is poor. About 60 percent of women in Morocco are illiterate (compared to 40 percent of men), and about 90 percent of rural women in Morocco do not know how to read or write. School is compulsory for all Moroccan children until the age of 15, however it is not strictly enforced as many, especially girls, do not enroll or drop out early. The reasons for the low enrollment and high drop out rates of girls are unclear, however child labor is rampant in Morocco.
Since passing a new Family Code eight years ago to address women’s rights and gender disparity and removing all Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reservations, the Moroccan government is attempting to implement programs to reduce the education discrepancy gap between girls and boys.
In my attempts to teach English and practice French with Hind, I came to learn quickly that the educational futures of my host sisters were grim. While it is unclear of their reasons for dropping out of school early, I suspect the education in Morocco wasn’t encouraging them to graduate. Hind and Ibtissham are actually faring better than their female peers in Morocco: according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, almost half of women in Morocco do not have any formal education.
Those who argue that we’ve attained gender equality have little retort to the story of Hind and Ibtissham. Putting aside other major issues that plague girls and women around the world today, the discrepancy in the education between girls and boys is abhorrent. Based on the United Nations’ statistics, it translates into a staggering 103 million illiterate girls as compared to only 63 million illiterate boys.
Gender inequity in education is also happening in the U.S., but in this instance, some girls are systematically and socially barred from even entering school buildings or taking lessons. As the school system at home continues to shortchange underprivileged girls and boys, mostly students of color, the system also reinforces schools as unsafe environments specifically for girls. Girls are more likely than boys to face sexual harassment in school, a report by the American Association of University Women states, and sexual harassment of girls negatively affects their performance in school.
This year's International Women’s Day theme of “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Women” could not have come at a better time. As a global community, we need to tell girls that they are valued, and that they can achieve their highest potential. Finally, we need to give girls educational opportunities to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
In order to close the global education gap between boys and girls, we need to advocate for government and community support of education for girls. The Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni made basic education a major focus and as a result, enrollment of girls skyrocketed and now the country is dealing with overcrowding in the classroom. In addition to government support, parents are a vital part of the community to encourage the education of girls. In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, parents banded together to permit “genderless” schools and as a result, boosted girls’ enrollment by 30 percent. These models of government-based and community-based support systems are exactly what girls need in order to achieve.
The chasm of global gender discrepancy in education is widening and swallowing girls’ lives as we continue to ignore it. The time to change is now, and the time to change is today. Let’s start caring about girls.