Tackling World Problems through Women’s Education

By Lykke Friis, Denmark’s former Minister for Gender Equality

School girls from the Annie Walsh secondary school on their way home in downtown Freetown. MAGNUM/Tim Hetherington
Lykke Friis

Back in the early 1980s, my class of brace-toothed teenagers went on a trip to visit our “friendship school” in Braunschweig, West Germany. Upon arrival, we were astonished by the diligence with which our German host teachers instructed us to seek shelter in case of nuclear war. So the risk was real after all? I guess I was not the only teen in the Cold War generation who would lie in bed late at night and ponder whether or not the big bomb would really mean MADness — Mutually Assured Destruction.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, and the 1990s gave us an aura of perpetual peace — with the fall of Yugoslavia as one horrifying exception. Today, teenagers must be clutching their pillows even more anxiously, considering the complexity of the threats looming over their bedrooms.

Yogi Berra, the late American baseball celebrity, once made a quite accurate prediction: “The future just ain’t what it used to be.” Berra’s logic recalls our mentality during the Cold War, which in hindsight was almost as simple as the mediaeval theater of war: two armies confronting each other face to face on the battlefield, standing upright in shiny uniforms. Of course, the battlefields were often outsourced to the Third World and wars fought by proxy. And of course, there were differences in strategy. Hawks believed in deterrence; doves wanted to make peace by disarmament, and some applied both strategies through détente. But still, the conflict was fairly easy to grasp, USA against USSR, capitalist or communist, like the film starring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky fighting Ivan, the Soviet boxing giant.

In today’s world, battlefields, armies and weaponry are blurred, and political leaders have gone from unitasking to multitasking.

Just take a look at some of the recent publications of the International Crisis Group — covering everything from “The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis” to “What the War on Islamic State Means for Syria”. The underlying message is that we live in a confusing and dangerous world where problems have no passports.

According to UN projections, if population and consumption trends continue, we will need the equivalent of two Earths by 2030. We already have two maps of Europe, one where Crimea belongs to Ukraine and one where it has been annexed by Russia. And we have two images of Rue Voltaire in Paris, one showing the November terrorist attacks and one where we honor the idea that gives the philosopher his “street cred”: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

What makes the calculus of threats really complicated is when you multiply them; say the Iraqi quagmire and civil war in Syria and climate change and water scarcity and religious extremism and millions of refugees and a hesitant Europe. The results are disconcerting, to say the least.

Ideally, complex problems call for complex solutions. But they are hard to sell on major news outlets and social media platforms like Facebook, with audiences suffering from a short attention span and “compassion fatigue”.

So, what we should do is to find simple ways of multitasking in chaos. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Investments in gender equality yield the highest returns on all development investments.” If girls are educated, everyone benefits.

The statistics are overwhelming: When women generate their own income, the level of education and health in the whole family rises.

If women in developing countries had the same access as men to land and resources, yields would increase by as much as 30 percent, and the number of people suffering from starvation would be reduced by more than 100 million. The children of educated women have twice as high a chance of surviving to the age of 5. For every year a woman continues in school after fourth grade, she reduces the risk of her children dying by 10 percent — and increases her income by 20 percent. Girls’ education may also mitigate overpopulation, as people tend to have fewer kids when child mortality rates fall.

Young girls at school in Kabul, Afghanistan. MAGNUM/Steve McCurry

The good news is that considerable headway has been made. For the first time in history, nearly as many girls as boys go to primary school. Progress toward fulfilment of the UN Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary school education is indeed a light in the dark. However, securing women’s rights is still a work in progress. “Women hold up half the sky”, a Chinese saying reminds us, but that’s still mostly a lofty aspiration, especially in underprivileged parts of the world.

Women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor. Two out of three illiterate adults are women. They schlepp more labour hours than men but only earn $1 out of every $10. One in four women is assaulted during pregnancy. And every minute, 27 girls are subjected to forced marriage.

In May 2016, Copenhagen will host the world´s largest global conference on the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women. What should we hope to accomplish in Copenhagen? Well, it’s never too late to state the obvious: follow the advice of almost any UN agency or NGO in the field and make women’s education a basic principle for development assistance. Furthermore, while boys and girls have almost achieved parity in primary education, significant gender gaps remain in secondary education.

As proposed by Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize-winning champion of girls’ education who risked her own life for the cause: World leaders should commit themselves to providing 12 years of free, safe, quality education for every girl by 2030. According to Malala, it is just a matter of priorities. One way of funding this investment could be to “choose books, not bullets”, considering that eight days of global military spending would cost the same as one year of universal secondary education.

Essentially, I hope that the conference in Copenhagen will live up to its motto, which should give us some peace of mind in this chaotic world: “Women Deliver”.

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This article represents the view of the individual writer, not that of International Crisis Group or of its Board.