I promised a couple of weeks ago that I would post my thoughts on gender and education. Sorry for the delay, but herewith:
It’s an article of faith in the development world, from Nick Kristof at the New York Times to obscure conferences of professionals, that educating girls is one of the most important things that can be done in working with communities toward sustainable development and growth. The reasons are legion, and they are real. First is the simple matter of gender justice: girls and women deserve equal rights and opportunities with boys and men. But in addition, educating girls is thought to have multiplier effects that help communities as a whole. Women almost everywhere take the lead role in caring for and educating children, and if mothers are educated, this gives their children, both boys and girls, advantages in their own education. Women are more concerned with children’s health, and educated women are more able to take care of their children’s health needs. And since women bear the main burdens of childcare, including not just direct care but the housework that increases with each child, women typically want fewer children than their husbands, and educated women are more likely to be able to achieve ideal, smaller family sizes, which contributes to controlling world population growth.
What’s do dislike about this? Nothing, really, but it’s often easier said than done in many traditional communities. Outsiders like us CMEF folk are committed to working with communities, not against them, and communities like the Nuosu villages we work in are male-dominated and male-centered. Women mostly live with or near their husbands’ families, which often means living far from their own. Women, objectively, do a lot more work than men, as Joanne showed in a paper she wrote in 2005. And almost all traditional community leaders are men. So it was no surprise that when we founded Yangjuan Primary School in 2000, 92% of the school-age boys, but only 74% of the school-age girls attended the school. And we have seen an imbalance in many of the graduating classes, starting with the first class, where girls comprised only 14 of 34 graduates in 2005, only three of the fifteen students who passed the college entrance exam this year.
But the situation has never been completely bleak. In traditional Nuosu culture and folklore, even though most leadership roles were defined as male, exceptional women could take on almost all of these roles, including war leaders. Even the bimo priests, who were exclusively male, had a tradition of a daughter of a famous priest who disguised herself as a man and whose ritual arts surpassed even those of her brothers. The first-ever Nuosu to earn a Ph.D., Bamo Ayi, and the first to earn an American Ph.D., Wu Ga, are both women. Clearly there are openings for capable females in Nuosu culture traditionally and now.
The situation is reflected also in Yangjuan and Pianshui. Pianshui’s first college student, from the Lurlur clan, was a woman. Many of the most capable and best-liked teachers at Yangjuan School, including the indefatigable Ma Ajia and the dynamic Luo Xiaoling, have been women. Ma Vuga and Ma Fagen have been our most capable research collaborators over the years, and now Vuga is a college instructor in Xichang (with her MA from the Southwest Nationalities University) and Fagen is an English teacher at Shuhe Middle School. There are plenty of precedents for female academic success in the communities.
We find that almost all families are willing, up to a point, to keep their girls in school, to sacrifice so that they can attend high school and college, if they show academic promise. Perhaps they are a little quicker to give up on girls if they are not doing well than they are with boys, but the difference is not great. Gender imbalance is less severe in this year’s high-school classes.
Whether we need to do something special to promote girls’ education is a topic we need to discuss further. For now, we know that at least some girls have been able to take advantage of our assistance in order to pursue their own determination to get a an education and make a difference, and that several young women from Pianshui and Yangjuan have done just that.