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On This International Women's Day, Equal Access to Education = Empowered Workforce

“Equal Access to Education.”

That’s the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, a global day designated by the United Nations to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

It might seem like a simple concept to honor, but the fact still remains that in the developing world, many women and girls lack the resources and support necessary to complete their education and access any opportunities at all.

According to UNICEF, women do 67 percent of the world’s work, yet earn 10 percent of the world’s income and own only one percent of the world’s property.

Woman who is suffering from extreme poverty sits in her home in Andrha Pradesh, India August 19, 2005.
Ami Vitale | Getty Images
Woman who is suffering from extreme poverty sits in her home in Andrha Pradesh, India August 19, 2005.

That means the majority of the world’s labor force is female, uneducated, underpaid and therefore will never be able to lift themselves or their families out of poverty.

It gets even harder to imagine those statistics improving when two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population of 796 million people are women—98 percent of whom live in the developing world. In short, the world’s most at-risk population is impacted the greatest by illiteracy.

But there is reason to be hopeful.

If you think of any problem in the world whether economic prosperity, better healthcare, solutions to our environmental challenges, or political participation and empowerment, there is one approach to improving the state of women that is universal: education.

Without education, women in developing countries, in particular, are destined to marry and have children at a young age, live in poverty and often ill-health, and ultimately never realize their full potential.

"The majority of the world’s labor force is female, uneducated, underpaid and therefore will never be able to lift themselves or their families out of poverty."" -Co-founder, CEO, Room to Read, Erin Ganju

Yet, with an education, the opportunities and the positive outcomes are limitless. Moreover, for every year a girl is educated beyond the average, her wages increase by 15 percent—which in turn benefits her family, community and society-at-large.

As the leader of a global nonprofit organizationfocused on improving gender equality in education across Asia and Africa, I have witnessed first-hand how empowering women with a high-quality education enables them to become productive members of society and, most importantly, contributors to a skilled workforce.

2011 marks the global centenary of International Women’s Day and the celebration of the contributions and achievements of women.

The United Nations Development Fund for Womendefines it as the foremost occasion, “for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.”

It makes me think of Nga, a student in Vietnam that my organization, Room to Read, supported through her graduation from high school. She was the first person in her family to do so. Today, Nga is studying law at university and her goal is to become a lawyer so she can help fight for the rights of agricultural workers in her village.

Nga’s story is one in a million in a poor rural community in Vietnam, and when compared to the entire scope of the uneducated female population of millions, it might seem like a tiny drop in a huge bucket. But that drop will quickly create a ripple that will multiply across generations and across genders.

On this 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, there is much progress to celebrate and optimism to be had over the potential yet to be unlocked. But as we head into the next century of women’s empowerment, I wish for more stories like Nga’s—someone who exemplifies how the transformative power of education enables young women to take the next step forward, away from a life of poverty and into a world of possibility.

Erin Ganju is co-founder and CEO of Room to Read, a global organization that seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in the developing world by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Room to Read aims to reach 10 million children with its programs by 2015.