Words by Hemanshi Galaiya, Cohort 4 fellow
Education is considered as the critical software for development as it shapes the destiny for every society. As a fundamental human right, every child is entitled to an education. This is critical, not only for the development of individuals but of societies. Today, 796 million people in the world are illiterate. Staggering isn’t it? Yet, there is an even scarier truth that over two-thirds of these 796 million illiterate people are women. Despite females accounting for over 50% of the global population, only about 39% of rural girls attend secondary school, and data from 42 countries show that rural girls are twice as likely as urban girls to be out of school. Hence, we are forced to reflect upon our ideologies and promises of gender equality and the accessibility of quality education for all.
When this grim reality set in, I felt an innate obligation to inquire about the reasons for such a disparity. What I uncovered was not only shocking, to say the least, but also overwhelmingly depressing. Today, in Kenya alone, young girls are faced with not only barriers to accessibility but also socio-cultural biases that have prevented them from seeking their right to education.
In the empathize phase of my METIS journey, I had the opportunity to interview 6 students in high school and university to understand their views about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and gender disparity in these fields. Not surprising at all, most male participants felt that the biggest barrier in their STEM journey was access to more materials and better facilities. On the other hand, female participants highlighted deep-rooted socio-cultural issues that were walls they had to break through even before they could get to the barriers of access to school and other challenges described by their male counterparts.
As a child, I enjoyed playing cooking as much as I did pretending to be a mechanic with my brother and opening up random appliances to investigate their internal contents. Unfortunately, however, over 90% of girls across the world, and unsurprisingly even in Kenya, are conditioned from an early age towards activities and hobbies that reinforce gender biases. They are encouraged to pretend their dolls are their children whom they have to look after. They are groomed to be responsible for the welfare and upbringing of not only younger but sometimes even older male siblings, and time and again they are conditioned to believe that they're greater and often the only obligation is to build a family and look after a household. In this manner, the only science young women are exposed to becomes the so-called home science.
Despite free primary education for all children in Kenya, additional costs like uniforms alone force families to prioritize educating male children over female ones. If and when these young girls do get to school, their struggle only builds up; widespread period poverty and over 30.5% of girls getting married below the age of 18 results in unwarranted withdrawal from schooling. Yet, that is the least of the story. For the less than 39% of girls that do make it into high school, they are fed malicious biases that prevent them from pursuing careers in STEM. In my own journey, despite being an academically inclined high achieving student, from a household where gender biases were not a norm and despite attending a private school in the city, the biases of a single male teacher did convince me that ‘Physics was not for girls.’ Fortunately, I came out at the end of that situation as a proud engineer, years down the line, with the support of other empowering teachers. However, this is not something we see often in the real world. A lack of role models, poor crediting of achievements of women in STEM, and working policies that hinder the progression of women in academia and industry have, for a very long time, convinced girls that they do not fit into the prestigious STEM narrative.
I know several readers might be questioning this with comments like, ‘Surely, this isn’t true, we are in the 21st Century now’, ‘A girl child can be anything she wants no one can stop her’ and ‘These are tales of the past’. Yet, these words are far from the reality on the ground. And so, we must ask ‘What can I do to change this narrative?’
At the turn of 2015, 193 nations, both developing and developed countries, agreed to a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future; with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of this framework. Wherein, Goal 5 is aimed at ‘Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls’. A Ghanaian educator once said, ‘The surest way to keep a people down is to educate men and neglect the women.’ We have heard many that ‘If you educate a man you simply educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family’. So, when we ensure that every child has access to a rights-based, quality education that is rooted in gender equality, we also create a ripple effect of opportunity that impacts generations to come. Hence, as individuals, as members of society, and more importantly as human beings, it is our obligation to practice, preach, and promote this goal in our day to day life. Collectively supporting organizations and initiatives that tackle any barrier in the journey of a girl child’s education is a contribution. A simple gesture like donating a pad, fundraising for school fees, or even educating a single person in your family or circle is a step towards solving one piece of this complex puzzle problem.
With that in mind, I want every reader to be bold and unstoppable in this fight against inequality.