Oprah's academy: Why educating girls pays off more
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
At the end of each school year, when she says goodbye and wishes her students success in high school, Martha Mohulo can't help but worry. A veteran primary school teacher in Soweto, she knows the dangers lurking in this sprawling, struggling township – perils such as violence, AIDS, and teenage pregnancy.Skip to next paragraph
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So when Oprah Winfrey picked eight of Ms. Mahulo's students to attend her lavish new girls' academy south of Johannesburg, the teacher was thrilled.
"Those girls who went to Oprah, they are going to be safe," Mohulo says. "They are much better off."
Ms. Winfrey's school, a $40 million project that opened Tuesday, is one of the most recent and high-profile projects in a growing worldwide campaign to improve girls' education. Such female-focused aid yields perhaps the highest dividends for developing nations, say experts, though they are quick to point out that boys face challenges as well.
"I think it's very important for people to recognize that the lack of education for both boys and girls is a crisis in Africa," says Gene Sperling, director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the benefits of girls' education, in terms of improving health, women's empowerment, and family well-being, probably does make girls' education the highest-returning social investment in the world."
The World Bank has found that when a country improves education for girls, its overall per capita income increases and its fertility rate drops. Other studies show that improved female education is linked to higher crop yields, lower HIV infection rates, and reduced infant mortality. UNICEF's annual "State of the World's Children Report" calls gender equity – particularly in education – a "double dividend" for developing countries.
"With education, the girl child will grow up and be a better mother – she will be better able to understand the importance of her own children being educated, and will be better able to provide for her children," says Sarah Crowe, a spokesperson for UNICEF in Johannesburg. "Men and boys are often out of the home," she notes, so that fathers are less able to teach their children what they have learned.
Less than half of southern Africa's girls complete primary school (46 percent, compared with 56 percent for boys), while 26 percent enroll in secondary school (33 percent for boys). Though the statistics for boys are hardly uplifting – 44 million aged six to 11 are denied an education, compared with 60 million girls – girls have long faced more barriers to education than boys.
The reasons are myriad. In urban areas, pregnancy and poverty limit educational access. In rural regions, poor families need girls to help in the fields. When a financially strapped family must chose between sending a son or daughter to school, cultural norms favor the boy. And across southern Africa, when relatives fall ill from AIDS, girls are the ones who stay home to give care.