— Marcella Mizzi
ROME — As a girl, I used to be hungry for knowledge. I would wake up at night to finish up a book or read encyclopedias from cover to cover. My summer afternoons were spent listening to my grandmother’s childhood stories, which very often reminded me of how lucky I had been. She pictured a different world, which I could not relate to: a rural Italy in which a girl had no choice but to abandon school at the age of 8 to take care of her younger brother. Back then I simply couldn’t understand how this could ever happen. ‘My parents would never do such a thing to me’ I kept thinking. But now I understand and acknowledge the greatest gift my parents gave me: education. I completed 12 years of compulsory education, before ending up in law school.
Many girls in developing countries are not as privileged as I have been. Worldwide, women are twice as likely as men to be illiterate. Uneducated girls suffer more hunger, violence and disease. Child marriage, slavery, human trafficking, and sexual violence are only a few of the human rights violations that these girls are likely to be subjected to.
Why are girls and women still kept uneducated in the 21st century?
Education is the surest way to empower individuals to enjoy all of their human rights. Education paves the way out of poverty and disempowerment, and opens up access to participation in society and in political decision-making. Education is a forma mentis. It teaches you to analyse the world and be part of it. It forms your brain to think for yourself. Ignorance instead, is like walking through darkness, needing someone to depend on. Entrenched patriarchy and harmful gender stereotypes on women’s role in society want to keep them in the dark. That way, they are easier to control and be kept in the kitchen where they supposedly belong. Patriarchy claims women are creatures to be protected at best, lesser beings at worst. Women who fight back often experience a tremendous backlash.
Malala Yousafazi, the brave Pakistani girl who stood up against the Taliban is now the symbol of girls’ right to education. In January 2009, as the school was closing for winter holiday she wrote in her famous diary: “The girls were not too excited about vacations because they knew if the Taliban implemented their edict [banning girls’ education] they would not be able to come to school again. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.” On 9 October 2012, a Taliban militant shot Malala on the head as she rode home on a bus after taking an exam.
Appalled by the incident, the CEDAW Committee released a Statement reminding us that illiteracy continues to be a feminized phenomenon, due to patriarchy that perpetuates male privilege in the field of education and workforce. Yet, it is an internationally recognized human right, enshrined in Arts. 2 and 10 of the CEDAW, Art. 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art.28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and many other international instruments. As such, it is guaranteed legally, without discrimination and States have the obligation to protect it.
The realization of the right to education is essential for women to be able to enjoy the full range of human rights. As I have briefly stated above, women’s exclusion from education and participation causes a number of problems. Moreover, it causes discriminatory patterns in ownership and exploitation of land, inheritance and maternal mortality and the feminization of poverty. This must stop. Making education a universal right is paramount. Not to mention that educating girls, mothers, sisters, wives is educating a family. The education of a child starts from the family and a mother is his/her first teacher. Still have doubts on the saying ‘Educating a girl is educating a nation’?
- Investing in All the People: Educating Women in Developing Countries. EDI Seminar Paper No 45. Washington, D.C.: World Bank
- Educate Girls Globally, http://www.educategirls.org/
- BBC Profile: Malala Yousafazi, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23241937
- CEDAW Statement on Protection of Girls’ Right to Education, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/CEDAW/Statements/CEDAWstatementGirlsEducationAsAdopted.pdf
- Right to Education Project, http://www.right-to-education.org/page/understanding-education-right
- UNHCHR info note, Women and the Right to Education, http://www.un.org/en/events/womensday/2011/pdfs/Infonote_Women_and_the_right_to_education.pdf