The state of education of young Arab girls

Cultural aversion to education is only one of the factors affecting girls’ education in the Middle East

Yara al-Wazir
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Al Arabiya News is marking International Women’s Day, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality. Here, we take a broader look at the state of girls’ education in the Arab world.

The percentage of girls over the age of 15 who are illiterate in the Middle East sits at 42 percent, compared to an international average of 12 percent. Not all countries in the Middle East suffer from an illiteracy epidemic, however. To some extent, countries that have experienced a series of on-going wars over the past four decades exacerbate the issue. This is evident with Iraq and Yemen, skewing the statistics with the rates sitting at 77 percent and 75 percent respectively.

Education is one of the dividends of peace in the Middle East due to the socio-political aspects that come with young girls attending school. This includes but is not limited to their personal safety during the journey to school, as well as the interaction of girls’ education on cultural and tribal “agendas” set for women with respect to the age of marriage and the age of motherhood.

Cultural aversion to learning

Cultural aversion to education is only one of the factors affecting girls’ education in the Middle East, with political stability and economic welfare being strong factors as well. When it comes to cultural norms, governments can only provide so much help and support. In certain countries, this comes in the form of gender-segregated schools. In other countries, this comes in the form of ensuring young children, regardless of gender, are enrolled in schools. Ultimately, however the cultural shift is likely to continue and support educational development increasingly, especially once the links with economic development and welfare are further strengthened.

The cultural aversion to learning is one of the key factors that impedes the development of young girls’ education. When given the choice of sending either one daughter or one son to university (due to economic constraints), 53 percent of participants in Egypt voiced that the son should be the child chosen to go to university. The participants were women.

Access to education has become greater, with governments providing free education. An increase in the ratio of dual-income households has forced many working parents to send their children to school.

In countries with a rapidly increasing GDP, such as Bahrain and the UAE, the gender gap has actually been reversed, with more illiterate men than women (13 percent of male compared to 6 percent of females aged 15-24 in the UAE). However, countries with struggling economies, such as Morocco, have struggled to bring the gender gap closer. With a 36 versus 18 percentage point difference between the total illiterate percentage of the population over the age of 15, and the percentage of the population between the ages of 15-24.

In a report by the BBC, cultural sensitivities with girls being taught by male teachers and mixed-sex education was considered one of the factors behind the low education enrolment rate of young girls in Yemen.

The age gap

Although the statistics are bleak, the future isn’t. In Libya, although 32 percent of women over the age of 15 are illiterate, the number is reduced to 7 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 24.

Generation-Y, or those born 1990s onwards, are statistically more educated and have had greater access to education. This is a result of an on-going peace process and a shift in cultural paradigm that is slowly moving to a more educated society. Oman, a country where only 10 percent of women were literate in 1970, has reversed the numbers completely; in the year 2000, the illiteracy rate amongst women aged 15-24 was reduced to 4 percent.

A picture getting brighter annually

The overall percentage increase in literacy rates of women since the peak of the first wave of the feminist movement in 1970 has been very much linear in many countries, including Algeria and Egypt, whose rates in the year 2000 were 43 percent and 56 percent respectively. Comparatively, thirty years ago, the rates were in the range of 25 percent for both countries. Considering the growth rate of the population, these numbers reflect a growing reality that more and more girls are receiving access to education.

Literacy isn’t the only measure of education. Ultimately, although literacy offers the ground foundation to education statistics in the Middle East, it is not the only measure. Female enrolment in tertiary education exceeds that of male enrolment in Middle Eastern universities in numerous countries, including Jordan, Qatar and even Algeria, where the illiteracy rate of women who are between the ages of 15-24, i.e. enrolling or thinking about enrolling in university, is 16 percent.

It does seem that when given access to meaningful opportunities, Arab women hold onto them.

Women's Day
Women's Day

This article is part of Al Arabiya News' Special Coverage on International Women's Day.

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