Thursday, November 22, 2012

A thought about girls education

People around the world were shocked by the attempted assassination of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai, as was I. We wondered what kind of people could try to kill a girl for advocating education for girls. Since World War II, people around the world have increasingly believed that education was a fundamental human right. But we should not have been surprised, since there have been many girls schools closed by the Taliban.

Al Arabia: The Afghan Ministry of Education says 550 schools in 11 provinces where the Taliban enjoy popular support have been shut recently.
Part of the problem may be that we too often confound the concept of "education" with that of "schooling". We should not. It is not only the Taliban that dislike the idea of schooling. There is a "home schooling" movement in the United States, with leaders such as Michele Bachman.

I am not an expert on Pakistan, only having been there a few times. I have met women scientists there who are both well educated and long schooled. I have also been in a city in Pakistan where women were not even allowed to work in shops, where one only saw a few women, and I say that I saw women only because I inferred that the moving beings wrapped head to foot in black cloth were female humans. My point is that Pakistan and Afghanistan seem very complex to me, with many cultural groups that have different views on how their girls and women should be educated.

Most people in these countries are poor. Poor women must contribute to their families if the families are to survive. I can not believe that even in cultures in which the schooling of women is opposed are also opposed to girls and women learning important things.

  • Where the traditional role for women includes raising children, who would be against a mother knowing how to properly nourish her children and guard the children's health?
  • Where that role includes preparing the family's food, who would be against the cook learning to prepare food well?
  • Where that role includes home crafts such as making and conserving clothing, who would be against the craft person learning the crafts?
  • Where the role includes some aspects of farming such as care of a kitchen garden or care of micro-livestock, who would be against the woman having learned to carry out those tasks well?
Perhaps those from outside the culture should consider what people within the culture want girls and women to learn. Schools that prepare girls to work outside the home, perhaps in a distant city, may not be what people within a culture want. Foreigners who seek to transplant models of girls schools from rich countries, where such goals are taken for granted, may find considerable opposition in some cultural contexts.

If indeed, one wants women to learn skills and understanding useful within their own cultural contexts, perhaps schools are not the best alternative. Would it not be better to help women to learn things that they want to learn about raising children when they are mothers and motivated, rather than when they are young girls with decades to forget those lessons before they are used. Would it be better to provide learning opportunities in mothering in homes rather than in schools, and are the right sources of the information "teachers" or "other mothers".

Perhaps the mind sets of "lifelong learning" and "just in time learning" might be combined with ideas of community development and the use of a variety of media (adult groups, radio, television, theater, etc.) to do a better job of facilitating learning. Perhaps cultural approaches learned from anthropology and community development could be used to discover what knowledge, skills and understanding are most valued for girls and women by the community.

All this of course, in the context that the world is changing quickly, even for poor girls and women in South Asia. Learning to learn may well be the most important lesson for us all.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no role for schools for girls in these countries. Many, many people want schools for their girl children as well as for their boy children. In many places it is safe to school girls. I simply mean to suggest that education planners should explicitly consider the culture and cultural precedents and consider alternatives to achieve desired ends. This seems obvious for foreigners working in aid programs, but I have found that often the bureaucrats in developing country governments can also benefit from formal cultural investigation since the subcultures of those who get the education to become bureaucrats may be quite different than those of most people in the country.

My friend Laura also points out that there are many ways to use schools to promote learning besides formal classroom instruction for children. The school building can be a very useful site for community meetings, and schools often have media connectivity that can be used by adults when  not being used by classes.

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