THE United Nations International Conference on Population and Development finished its deliberations in Cairo recently, and if you think the conference had little to do with life in the United States, think again!
The meeting of delegates from more than 170 nations was about the women and girls of Lesotho, Yemen, and Mexico. But it was also about the women and girls of Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Indeed, women in any community in the US should be helped by the work done in Cairo.
Much has been written saying that the Cairo conference was pushing abortion and contraception on an unwilling developing world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lost in the debate about reproductive issues was the Cairo conference's goal to improve the overall status of women, most particularly through education. Striving to achieve equity in schooling for girls at the primary and secondary levels has relevance to the health, fertility, and economic well-being of women in both the first and third worlds.
While gender differences in school enrollments are greatest in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, the key to real progress for all women - whether they live in Cairo, Egypt, or Cairo, Ill. -
lies in improving their educational status. This remains true regardless of a woman's religious beliefs. Schooling is the single-most-important step a woman can take toward a promising future. In the long term, according to ``The Progress of Nations,'' published this year by UNICEF, ``almost every other aspect of progress, from nutrition to family planning, from child health to women's rights, is profoundly affected by whether or not a nation educates its girls.''
Today, in the developing world, there are 42 million more boys than girls in primary school and 34 million more boys in secondary school. We know the level of education attained by women has a direct connection to the mortality rates among their children. Like family planning, access to education is a crucial factor in family size. The Cairo conference helped ensure that girls will have educational opportunities in the developing world and in the industrial world.
Makawize Mandela of the African Academy of Science, writing in the 1993 annual report of the Rockefeller Foundation, puts it succinctly: ``Research shows that when females are educated, the socioeconomic returns multiply rapidly and cumulatively, and tangible returns accrue to the individual; she rationalizes her household economy and learns more effective ways to manage natural resources - which help to preserve the global environment. When she applies her knowledge to agriculture, food production improves. As she improves hygiene and nutrition practices and uses health services more effectively, fertility and child mortality decrease, while life expectancy and overall living standards increase.''
Is this not also true here at home in the United States? Of course. Yet we do too little to keep our at-risk children in school and on the road to a productive life. We know too many American teenage girls are becoming mothers. (The US Department of Education recently released statistics that indicate more than 25 percent of girls who leave high school leave because of pregnancy.) We know the future for these girls and their babies is often as bleak and as hopeless as it is for their counterparts in the third world. Three out of 10 children born to these mothers - children themselves - live in poverty, and this poverty leads to many other problems: joblessness, homelessness, crime, drug abuse, and violence.
Preventing teenage pregnancy and devising programs that keep girls in school must be made a national priority in our homes and in our schools (in government funding for schools and a rethinking of our educational priorities).
According to UNICEF, the US ranks 21st in a list of 27 industrialized nations in providing basic education up to the fifth grade for girls - right behind Romania. Whether we are talking about girls on the Indian subcontinent and in sub-Saharan Africa or girls in South-Central Los Angeles or in the Bronx, N.Y., education is the fundamental step toward opportunity, self-fulfillment, and achievement. By shortchanging girls in schools, we shortchange them and ourselves by denying our society their valuable talents, skills, and energy.