Female empowerment in Africa: the critical role of education

Baroness Amos and Toyin Saraki on why Soas is using its centenary to highlight the importance of leveraging female education to improve development

April 29, 2017
Africa map globe
Source: iStock

This week, we hosted a series of events in Lagos to mark the centenary of Soas, University of London. We are using the centenary celebrations to promote the critical role of education in contributing to female empowerment in Africa, including a panel discussion on closing the education gap on that continent, and leveraging female education to improve development. 

Educating girls at primary, secondary and tertiary level is key to achieving the United Nations’ global Sustainable Development Goals; from improved health outcomes, to economic growth. Research suggests that girls’ education could be the single biggest determinant of development in lower-income countries. Now is the time to push to close the gender education gap entirely. 

Some progress has been made. About 76 per cent of the global female adult population is now literate, with 86 per cent of the world’s girls getting a primary education. There is still a lot to do, but these figures are testament to how far the world has come in ensuring that girls receive the education that they need. 

Educating girls at primary level has been shown to positively impact on maternal care, family planning and child spacing, all issues that Wellbeing Foundation Africa is dedicated to addressing. There are also other connections that cannot be ignored. Girls who remain in school are significantly less likely to be married as a child, and have fewer children at a later stage in life. Additionally, improvements in girls’ education are linked to better child nutrition and other positive infant health outcomes.

Shockingly, child malnutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths of children under five and is widespread in both Africa and Asia. Investing in girls’ primary education is an opportunity to reverse this trend and is a step towards ensuring that no child goes hungry or is malnourished. That should not be happening in 2017. School is not only an education provider; it is also a quasi-welfare provider as we have seen in the UK. 

Investing in higher education for girls is also of economic benefit, as increasing the numbers of women in higher education is a significant stepping stone in developing the prosperity of a nation. Across the world, women are an under-utilised resource. Although women now constitute nearly 50 per cent of the global labour force, they are typically paid less than men and spend on average twice as many hours in unpaid labour.

With a heightened emphasis on female tertiary education, there is hope that women will now have greater access to well-paid jobs, closing the gender wage divide, and increasing the economic resources available to women. Closing the gender wage gap is not just a question of women’s emancipation, but could contribute an estimated $12 trillion (£9 trillion) to the world’s economy, according to a recent McKinsey and Company report. The economic loss of gender wage inequality should not be ignored. 

As many developing economies graduate to middle-income status, the focus will shift to the importance of enhancing tertiary education, once access to universal primary and secondary education is achieved. But it’s not a question of supporting one level or another. We need to look at all levels because they complement and reinforce each other.

This week’s centenary reminds us of the enormous potential of universities such as Soas, and the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, to work together to provide girls and women with the best opportunities in life. Through investments in primary, secondary and higher education these opportunities can be realised.

Baroness Amos is director of Soas, University of London. Toyin Saraki is founder and president of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa.

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