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Educate the Girl, Empower the Woman

Andrea Lunt

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 28 2011 (IPS) - Picture a mother, hunching over a field with a Medieval-style hoe in hand, spending day after day tilling the soil under a beating hot sun – only to retire home to care for her family without electricity or running water.

This is not a 12th century image, but a typical working day for scores of rural women in today’s developing world, where lack of access to education and technology has forced many to resort to traditional and often painful methods of livelihood.

Abject poverty is, of course, one of the key causes, but there are also tangible and achievable ways of addressing realities such as these, according to African activists at this week’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF), a pan- African network bringing together individuals and organisations from 23 countries, is among the key regional groups tackling this issue head on.

WILDAF believes lack of knowledge about education rights, specifically among young girls, is one of the main reasons forcing rural people to endure lives of agricultural hardship.

Adaeze Agu, a New York-based Nigerian, is using education to empower young people in Ghana and Nigeria, as a volunteer with HIV advocacy group World Mission.

One of the charity’s key projects involves teaching students, most of whom have lost parents to HIV/AIDS, agricultural techniques after school, with lessons involving everything from improving existing farming methods to modern packaging for export.

“The new generation of children learn technology faster, and when they learn they teach their mothers,” Agu told IPS.

“We want to teach them how to develop projects, from tilling the ground to seeding, all the way through to packaging at an international level so the food will be accepted by everybody in other countries,” she said.

Agu cited a project where female farmers of moringa – a nutritious African plant – were able to increase the efficiency and ease of production, through simple modern conveniences.

With help from World Mission, the women were given access to a van to transport their leaves to the city markets to be processed – rather than relying on irregular public buses – which saved time and increased the number of useable harvests.

Agu said the charity was also looking to raise money to invest in a specialised “leaf drying” machine, which would allow a cooperative of female farmers to transition from traditional sun-drying methods.

Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi, executive director of the Women’s Consortium of Nigeria (WOCON) and board member of WILDAF, said educating girls with both formal and practical education was key to addressing the gender imbalances and breaking the cycle of poverty.

“When a women is empowered and she can assert her rights in the community she can rise up to any position and be part of decision making and raise the status of women,” Olateru- Olagbegi said.

Although enrolment levels have risen in many developing countries since 2000, UNICEF estimated there were still more than 100 million children out of school in 2008, 52 percent of them girls and the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, illiteracy is high, mainly in rural areas where five to seven women over 10 years old can neither read nor write.

Olateru-Olagbegi said while some areas were progressing with gender equality, the “traditional and patriarchal practices” in many African regions were proving slow to change.

“[It has been thought] women are not supposed to be seen in public, they’re supposed to be in the kitchen,” she said. “But over the years this has been proved wrong, that it’s not effective because both girls and boys need to be educated for us to have meaningful development.”

Social activists have made great progress in Africa in recent years, fighting for women’s rights to work and education.

Subsequently there has been a measurable increase in girls attending school, a trend that has led to fewer early marriages and teenage pregnancies as well as a reduction in the number of youths who are trafficked and prostituted.

In spite of the gains, however, girls are still largely underrepresented in the science and technology fields.

“Even when girls go to school there is a bias that girls are not supposed to learn science and technology; they’re still doing the social sciences and humanities,” Olateru-Olagbegi said. “They don’t think that the faculties of girls are developed enough and it’s mere discrimination.”

This is not just a problem in Africa. At this week’s CSW, representatives from European nations gathered to discuss the ongoing imbalance of women in the region’s science and technology industries, focusing on opportunities in the emerging green jobs sector.

Kira Appel, Denmark’s minister for gender equality, said correcting the imbalance would not only empower women, but strengthen the economies of progressive nations.

“A recent study in the Nordic countries proved that if you improve the gender balance within companies the innovation rate will double,” Appel said. “We need women, for the sake of gender equality and women’s empowerment, but also for the sake of the global brain race.”

Olateru-Olagbegi told IPS that in Africa, addressing the current inequalities in schooling was a matter of convincing mothers that daughters were worth educating.

“We’re educating the parents, particularly the mothers who are the first educators, to teach them that they should have gender balance in education and training for the children,” she said. “So they don’t allow the boys to go and play football while the girls stay in the kitchen.”

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