While almost every girl in a first world country is able to enjoy a full education, the girls in African countries are not as fortunate. Out of 796 million illiterate people worldwide, more than two thirds are women, and this statistic only increases in sub-Saharan Africa – where one out of every two women is illiterate. Sierra Leone in west Africa sees an illiteracy rate of 70 percent, one of the highest worldwide, of which most are women and girls.
Girls in rural places are most at risk of not receiving an education, compared to girls in urban regions. Global statistics show that only 39 percent of rural girls attend secondary school, compared to 45 percent of rural boys, 59 percent of urban girls and 60 percent of urban boys. We can see that the disparity by gender is larger in rural places than it is in urban places.
An African proverb says, “Educate a man, and you educate an individual. Educate a woman, and you educate a nation”. Apart from having become something of a cliché, this saying seems grounded in truth. In fact, the United Nations found from a study of 68 countries that the more educated a woman is, the more likely her children will survive. Sadly, the children of mothers with no education are thrice as likely to die than the children of mothers with a secondary or tertiary education.
Fewer Jobs, Longer Hours, Lower Wages
When the income disparity between women and men is already shocking in first world countries, one can only imagine how it must be in the African region, where gender equality still has a long way to go. It is no surprise that women tend to earn less than their male counterparts for the same jobs. Additionally, women in African countries are also more likely to work harder and for longer hours than men. Since many women have a low education level, it is usually the men who are the breadwinners while women have to shoulder the burdens of caring for a family. For instance, each woman in Guinea spends an average of 5.7 hours a week collecting water, compared to 2.3 hours for men. This number is worse in Sierra Leone with 7.3 hours for women compared to 4.5 hours for men, while it is 9.1 hours for women compared to 1.1 hours for men in Malawi. The more time women have to spend doing menial labor, the fewer job opportunities they will have.
Most women in rural areas tend to hold seasonal or part time jobs compared to men. Despite that, they actually work for longer hours than a full time job while earning less than men do. This can partly be attributed to the illiteracy rate. Without the basic skills of reading and writing, a woman’s employment opportunities are limited and she is unable to apply for many jobs on her own. As a result, she will also be more likely to settle down early with a husband who can support her, leading to the next problem.
Adolescent Marriage and Large Families
With a generally low education rate in these countries, women are commonly seen as nothing more than properties to be traded away. Of the top ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage, six are located in West and Central Africa. 41 percent of all girls in this region marry before they reach the age of 18. These girls are often taken out of school to be married, or do not even receive an education at all. Moreover, the marriages are usually arranged to older men and the girls do not have a say in it.
In these patriarchal societies, tradition dictates that the sole purpose of women is to bear children and nurture them. For these girls sent off to be married, they may as well have given up hope in continuing their education, as they will be expected to fulfil their domestic duties of being a wife and mother.
Unfortunately, life is usually not easy for these girls after marriage. With a low education level, they may be particularly vulnerable to violence, sometimes even from their own husband. They may have less of a say in household matters than educated women and can be easily taken advantage of if they are unable to read or write. They are also more likely than educated women to suffer from poverty and infant mortality. Additionally, they may not understand family planning, leading to large families that put more weight on the mother’s shoulders.
The education level of parents also play a key role in improving the chances of their children receiving an education. If the mother is illiterate, she is less likely to support the education of her daughters, leading to another generation of female illiteracy. Since illiteracy and poverty have a correlation, the household may also be unable to afford an education for all the children, thus prioritizing educating the sons over the daughters.
Unfortunately, the African countries with high rates of illiteracy are also the ones more likely to practice old-fashioned and harmful rituals such as female genital mutilation. With genital mutilation, it would be clearly visible whether a woman was a virgin or not, as intercourse would require the rupturing of a wall of skin. This practice, deeply rooted in traditional beliefs of women subservience, is mainly done to preserve the virginity of a young girl – proving to her family and husband that her honor is untainted. According to UNICEF, 30 million African girls face the threat of this brutal practice, many of whom are under the age of five.
The extent of this rite mainly occurs due to a lack of education in those countries. Female mutilation is associated with purity and chastity, with the value of a girl before marriage being measured by her virginity. It is also done to maximize the pleasure of the man during intercourse, but at the expense of making it much more painful for the woman since her skin must be torn through. In fact, the practice has no health benefits at all. It is not only painful for a lifetime but also highly dangerous to girls, with one in three girls dying from fatal bleeding. Sadly, the practice still continues today, with one girl being mutilated every 11 seconds.
An organization, the Desert Flower Foundation, was founded by Waris Dirie, an activist for the education of young girls and the prevention of female genital mutilation. Herself a victim of illiteracy and mutilation, she believes that educating young girls and the public is the key to breaking Africa out of this vicious cycle. With the right funding, girls would not be subject to this torturous practice or child marriage, but would instead be able to receive an education and go on to secure a bright career.