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The Girl Effect

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The Girl Effect

On October 12 — just a day after the International Day for the Girl Child — we shall move on to other headlines of the day, forgetful of the little girl who will be struggling to pull through the rest of the year

When there’s a ‘day’ reserved for anything — ‘Teachers’ Day’, ‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Yoga Day’, ‘Cancer Day’  — it usually means that the remaining days of the year, we fail to be attentive enough to it. A day for girls, who make for almost 50 per cent of the world human population, is another such instance. On October 11, marking the International Day for the Girl Child, some of us shall celebrate our little girls, others will discuss their struggles, and those like me shall be sceptical enough to write about it.

To start with, if a girl makes it into the world, she has already made a considerable achievement — far more female babies are aborted than males in the world. Thereafter, twice as many girls as boys will never start school. So, girls have lesser chance of being educated than boys. A girl stands at a greater risk of HIV, and girls aged 10 to 14 are more likely than boys to die of aids-related illnesses. Thereafter, unable to bear social pressures, the biggest killer worldwide of girls aged 15 to 19 is suicide, and if not then, maternal death is the second biggest cause of mortality for girls in the same age group. One in four girls in the world are married before they reach age 18.

Then, in case a girl makes it through school, dodges an early marriage, and gets employed, the chances are that she will earn less for doing the same job as her male colleagues. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report suggests that at its current pace, it will take over 170 years to close the economic gap alone. In 2015, the World Economic Forum had projected that the economic gap could be closed within 118 years. So are things worsening? Not entirely, as the education gender gap as measured by the report, has closed 1 per cent over 2015-16 to over 95 per cent, making it, according to the report, one of the two areas where most progress has been made ever since the report began to be compiled in 2006. The other pillar to have made overall progress to date is the gender gap in health and survival.

However, such statistics, when scrupulously collected and measured, can at best only indicate a trend. They add to the discussion points on the topic — which is not such a bad thing as it at least brings the issue in a very tangible format onto the table. Yet they hardly capture the subtleties underlying the causes of these issues. The problem is that when lazy policy makers then largely rely on data to frame their laws, they miss out on vital information.

For example, a few years ago I found in Qatar that the enrolment rate for girls at schools and also at university was rapidly increasing. It appeared to be a positive change. For 2008-2012, the net enrolment ratio at secondary school for boys in Qatar was 87 per cent, whereas for girls it was greater, at 95.7 per cent. There was also a higher dropout rate for boys from high school than there was for girls. So I tried to find out what was going on. Most of the girls I spoke with in Doha told me that they felt that high school and university — depending on where they were — was a safe open space where they could freely interact with their peers until the time they got married off.

The boys couldn’t care less and told me that they could make a living without an education anyway, for example by lending their name to a foreign investor, and so why should they care about an education? And so they said they would rather drop out of school. Did this situation reflect actual improvement in the education of girls? The answer depends on your criteria of assessment. If you just look at the headcount — then it’s an emphatic yes! If you look at what girls and boys do with that education — then the answer is complex and reflective of various socio-economic realities related to gender in the Qatari society.

Here is another example. In India, in the mid-1990s, girls had lower enrolment rates in schools as compared with boys. But the pattern since then has reversed: Everyone is likely to be enrolled, but boys are more likely than girls to be enrolled in private schools and are more likely to have more money, time, and parental efforts spent on their education. So we again have the question — can education gender gap be correctly measured by the standard data points like enrolment and dropout rate alone?

On October 11 every year, I really have enough reasons to be sceptical. Here are some of my top apprehensions: One, we are not doing enough to improve the lives of our little girls in the world; two, data does not capture the entire reality and yet we are becoming increasingly dependent on it for lazy policy-making; three, on October 12, we shall move on to other headlines of the day, forgetful of the little girl who will be struggling to pull through the rest of the year.

The writer is the CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, the world’s first sustainability incubator. She is a Global Leadership Fellow alumna of the World Economic Forum. miniya@labsparis.com




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