To curtail extremism, educate girls

By Jennifer Brookland

March 31, 2015

Mitigating and countering extremism may rest on educating girls.

May Rihani—who has championed women’s and girls’ rights for decades—has found that gender and equity conditions are key determinants of this pernicious international threat.

Rihani posited that three of the five conditions that are necessary in order for extremism to flourish are related to girls and education: A lack of secondary education for girls; gaps between girls and boys in secondary school completion rates; and an archaic education system that devalues girls and women.

“Military action is a short-term solution. Only quality, modern education that reaches boys and girls will transform societies,” Rihani said during a speech at Creative Associates International in March where she promoted her book Cultures without Borders: From Beirut to Washington, D.C.

She gave Yemen as an example, where secondary school participation is 48.8 percent for boys—but just 27.1 percent for girls. Or Nigeria, where male youth literacy is 75.6 percent for boys, whereas only 58 percent of girls can read.

In both these countries, a large percentage of the population also lives below the poverty line—a common culprit that, along with high unemployment, rounded out Rihani’s list of necessary conditions for extremism.

“We lose our ability to imagine lasting social solutions when our vision of international development is not inclusive of girls and women,” Rihani said.

Education as a tool, good or bad

DSC_0044-300x199  Rihani suggested countries currently grappling with extremism need to teach modern and marketable skills, and undergird them with curricula that teach independent thinking, problem-solving and inquiry instead of blind followership.

In many of these countries, however, education itself is used as a tool of subjugation and disempowerment.

In Yemen, for example, Rihani came across textbooks for primary school students that say a woman’s main obligation is to obey men. Elsewhere, she saw books that say those who fail to obey their religious leaders are sinning.

Other education systems teach nothing but the Qur’an, omitting even basic literacy and numeracy skills not to mention science, social studies, discovery approaches, appreciation for diversity or respect for others.

“This is education that closes the mind,” Rihani said. “Reform is imperative within education systems where there is no emphasis on human rights, inclusion and respect for both genders.”

A scary backsliding

Rihani has spent 30 years championing the rights of women and girls, designing and implementing cross-cutting gender programs and girls’ education projects in 40 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Besides 14 years with Creative, she also served as the Co-Chair of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative from 2008 to 2010.

After years in the field of gender and education, Rihani said she knows that educated women are far less likely to accept subjugation and oppression. Furthermore, she said, their voices can be transformative in societies where extremists hold sway.

But Rihani brought up a troubling observation. After decades of work and noticeable advances in getting girls’ education on the agenda, some countries are actually backsliding, and donors that have become fatigued or self-congratulatory are slow to take back up the mantle.

“Today we’re in a much better place, however I worry about losing the very precious hard-fought gains that we made,” said Rihani.

When the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power in Egypt, for example, it immediately moved to revoke laws that set the marriage age for women at 18, instead proposing an age minimum of 13.

Clerics within the Brotherhood have suggested girls as young as nine should be marriageable.

Rihani said Pakistan, Niger, Nigeria and Chad have all had similar examples of backsliding on girls’ protection, rights and education.

“This is what extremists like Boko Haram, the Taliban and ISIS seek to end,” Rihani said. “Empowered women…are not part of the extremists’ agendas.”

Donors happy with improvements in primary school education for girls are resting on their laurels, or fatigued, according to Rihani. The real focus, she believes, needs to be on reallocating resources to achieve equal rates of secondary school completion.

“Practical ways to improve their lives—not a vision of social justice—will be effective,” she said. “Until then I’ll never stop.”

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