This paper presents the findings of some recent research on the social and the economic benefits of female education and considers the pathways through which women's schooling leads to social gains. These findings may provide insights as to why Bahá'u'lláh stressed the importance of women's education.
The principle of sexual equality in education - one facet of the general principle of the equality of the sexes - was revolutionary when given by Bahá'u'lláh in the mid 1800s.(2) It was set forth more than half a century before western thought added sexual equality to its list of rationally-based moral principles of relevance to political life, such as democracy, secularism, and the rights of the individual, and long before it became enshrined in numerous national and international documents as a politically correct, universal value.
The signs of the rapid convergence between the ideas of the secular world and the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith are abundant. In the political and economic spheres, for example, this is conspicuous presently in the enthusiasm for global governance among thinkers, academics, and international institutions.(3) It can also be seen in the acceptance, among many influential opinion-makers, of the need for a world currency and for international economic policy coordination.(4) Many other ideas and institutions prescribed by Bahá'u'lláh in the last century have been embraced by the world in the past few decades. The recognition of the wisdom of the Bahá'í emphasis on women's education is a recent addition to the list of areas of convergence.
Women account for roughly half the world's population, perform two-thirds of the hours worked, receive one-tenth of the world's income, and have less than one hundredth of the world's property registered in their names.(5) Female deprivation is particularly acute in the developing countries with high levels of poverty, though in affluent nations women also suffer low status due to conservative attitudes.
The most dramatic and telling statistic of women's status is the sex-ratio in the population, that is, the number of females per 100 males. It is a well-known fact that life-expectancy at birth favours females. This appears to be a biological constant. Yet, the proportion of females to males varies greatly across different regions of the world. For example, the proportion of females is 52.5% in the industrialised world but in sub-Saharan Africa women account for only 51% of the population. The figures are 48% of the population in East Asia and less than 47% in South Asia. From figures such as these, economist Amartya Sen(6) has estimated that there are 100 million women "missing" in the world. Sen describes the fate of these women as "one of the more momentous problems facing the contemporary world." This is a moral as well as a development-related problem.
The overwhelming reason why 100 million women are missing in the world is excess female mortality. In the developed world, women outlive men by an average of six years; by contrast, in large parts of South Asia, men can expect to live longer than women.
Differential mortality is only the most dramatic manifestation of systematic discrimination against females. Women and girls are more likely to be impoverished than men and boys. Also, studies have found that girls are fed less than their brothers and that their illnesses are less likely to be treated. It should come as no surprise then that, in most regions of the world, female literacy and education fall far short of male literacy and education, as shown in Table 1. While poverty and cultural factors must surely influence the extent of female deprivation, they do not explain it entirely. For example, sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest regions of the world but the problem of excess mortality of females is much less severe there than in South Asia.
|Table 1: Male-Female Gaps in education, 1990 (Index: Males = 100)|
|All Developing Countries||73||88||78||70|
|Least Developed Countries||57||84||67||44|
|Latin America and Caribbean||97||98||98||70|
|SE Asia and the Pacific||90||97||95||73|
Source: Human Development Report 1995, Annex table A2.6, page 68.
Notes: The figures relate to women's education in relation to men's, the index for men being 100. Thus, for example, in least developed countries, the adult literacy rate for women was only 57% that of men, while in Latin America and in the Caribbean, it was 97% that of men.
The economic and social gains from female education
Equality of the sexes - in terms of men and women's command over resources, their access to education and health, and in terms of freedom to develop their potential - has an intrinsic value in its own right. The equal treatment of the sexes for intrinsic reasons is, in the parlance of welfare economics, the equity reason for reducing gender-imbalances. A second important reason in favour of reducing gender-imbalances is what might be termed the instrumental reason, that is, the gains to be had from granting equality. For example, if with equal education, women's contribution to economic development (or to other desirable goals) is comparable to men's, then reducing gender-imbalances in education will enhance women's capacity to contribute to economic progress. This is the efficiency reason for reducing gender inequality in areas where women are currently deprived. Both the intrinsic (equity) and instrumental (efficiency) based reasons for gender equality are emphasised in the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh.(7)
Human capital theory suggests that just as physical capital (machines) augments people's economic productivity, so human capital acquired through education improves the productivity of individuals. Studies of the sources of economic growth demonstrate persuasively that education plays a major role as a factor in the rise of output per worker. The new growth theories in economics place education and human resource development at the centre of their explanation for long-term economic growth.(8) Confidence has grown in the belief that education affects economic growth because many studies have shown the positive correlation between a country's educational effort and its economic status, and causality has been attributed to education. Prominent examples of this are the so-called "miracle" economies of East Asia.
If female schooling raises human capital, productivity, and economic growth as much as male schooling does, then women's disadvantage in education is economically inefficient. Research world-wide shows that, in general, the economic benefits from women's education - calculated as the economic rate of return to education - are comparable to those from men's education.(9) Thus, from the point of view of economic efficiency, the gender gap in education is undesirable.
While the economic benefits of educating girls are similar in size to the economic benefits of educating boys, recent findings suggest that the social benefits from investing in female education are far greater than those from investing in male education. Specifically, female education has powerful effects on the total fertility rate (and hence on population growth), the infant mortality rate,(10) the female disadvantage in child survival, and on child health and nutrition. By contrast, statistical analyses show that male schooling has relatively much smaller effects on these important social outcomes.(11)
For example, a recent study by Subbarao and Raney (1995)(12) using national aggregate data from 72 countries regressed the total fertility rate of 1985 on the male and female secondary school enrolment rates lagged by 10 years, i.e. on the enrolment rates of 1975. The objective was to examine the effect of education on fertility, controlling for a number of other factors such as family planning service provision and per capita income. The results show that female secondary school enrolment (lagged by 10 years) is inversely correlated with the total fertility rate but that male secondary school enrolment shows no strong correlation. Similarly, a regression of the 1985 infant mortality rate on 10 year lagged male and female secondary school enrolment rates shows that while female education is associated with lower infant mortality, male education has no statistically significant effect.
A similar exercise by Murthi, Guio, and Drèze(13) for India using district level aggregated data shows that whereas the district female literacy rate had a strong inverse correlation on the district average total fertility rate, on under-five child mortality rate, and on the female disadvantage in child survival, the district male literacy rate had no significant effect on each of these outcomes. Moreover, district per capita income, urbanisation, and the spread of medical facilities were not statistically significant determinants of total fertility rate. While these latter three variables do have positive effects on child survival levels, their effects were relatively small compared with the powerful effect of female literacy.
Numerous studies have been carried out using household-level data that confirm the findings from studies using aggregate data. To cite one example, an examination of the determinants of fertility in fourteen countries of sub-Saharan Africa by Ainsworth, Beegle, and Nyamete (1996)(14) using household survey data shows an inverse correlation between female schooling and fertility in virtually all of the countries, though the relationship is non-linear: female primary schooling has an inverse relation with fertility in about half of the countries only but female secondary schooling is universally associated with lower fertility, and the strength of the correlation increases with increasing years of schooling. Among ever-married women, husband's schooling has no significant relation with fertility in about one-third of the countries. Moreover, in cases where both women's and men's schooling matter, women's schooling exerts a much larger negative effect on fertility than men's schooling.
Simulations show that the benefits from expanding female education are far greater than the benefits from other public interventions such as improving family planning service provision or increasing the number of physicians in the population. For example, Subbarao and Raney (footnote 12) found that a doubling of the 1975 average secondary school enrolment ratio in the 72 sample countries from 19% to 38% would have reduced the average number of births in 1985 by 29% compared to the actual number in 1985, whereas a doubling of the family planning provision would have reduced the number of births by only 3.5%.
The gains in terms of deaths averted are also striking. Simulations predict that doubling the female secondary school enrolment ratio from 19% to 38% in 1975 reduces infant deaths in 1985 by 64% while doubling the number of physicians reduces the number of infant deaths by a mere 2.5%. Doubling per capita income (or GDP) from the average of $650 in the 72 sample countries to $1300 would have no effect on the number of infant deaths!
Subbarao and Raney also reported data on desired family size from the World Fertility Survey for 37 countries. Econometric analysis of this data suggested that after controlling for per capita income, female secondary school enrolment was a highly significant determinant of desired family size (and therefore of the total fertility rate and population growth rate). Male school enrolment ratio, however, had no impact on desired family size.
Finally, a large body of microeconomic evidence shows that increases in women's education generally lead to increases in their labour force participation as well as in their earnings.(15) Educated women's greater participation in labour market work and their higher earnings are thought to be good for their own status (economic models say "bargaining power") within the household, and are good for their children because it appears that a greater proportion of women's income than men's is spent on child goods.(16) On the down side, it may be thought that educated women's greater labour force participation takes them away from their children for longer periods of time (than is the case for uneducated or less educated women) and this may disadvantage educated women's children through neglect. At present this is a relatively unresearched issue. However, limited evidence suggests that children whose mothers work have just as good or better educational outcomes than children whose mothers do not work.
The findings in the studies cited above are corroborated by international as well as national studies, and they demonstrate the powerful role of women's agency and women's educational empowerment in reducing desired family size, fertility, population growth, child morbidity, child mortality, and gender-bias in child mortality, while at the same time showing that men's education mattered comparatively less to these important social outcomes.
Pathways through which education affects social outcomes
Why should education of females significantly reduce the fertility and mortality rates and improve child health? What are the pathways through which girls' education leads to these social gains? Bahá'ís have tended to focus importantly, though not exclusively, on the value of an educated woman for the upbringing and education of her offspring. This benefit is now prominently recognised outside the religion.
Economists tend to focus on the role of incentives as a way of understanding phenomena. They reason that female education lowers the fertility rate by reducing desired family size and that this, in turn, is because education raises the value of women's economic activities by raising the labour market rewards from going out of the home for work. In other words, the opportunity-cost of staying at home for child bearing and rearing increases as women become more educated and, so, educated women desire smaller families. Education may also change women's preferences about the quantity versus the quality of children, with educated women choosing fewer children but of better "quality". Moreover, as mentioned earlier, recent research suggests that a greater proportion of women's cash income than men's is spent on child goods,(17) so that women's education and the consequent increase in women's income would appear to have particular benefits for child quality.
Education of women improves child health because of educated mothers' greater knowledge of the importance of hygiene and of simple remedies. All this lowers infant mortality, which in turn means that a family does not need to have a large number of children in order to hedge against the possibility of premature death of some children. Further, it appears that education of females increases the age at marriage (or at cohabitation) and through this delay, lowers the total fertility rate, i.e. number of children ever born to a woman.(18)
Finally, some studies find that mother's education has a greater impact on the educational attainment and school achievement of children than father's education. This is plausible given the greater interaction between mother and children in most families since, in most countries, fathers are usually the main earners in the household. In this way, education of females contributes more significantly (than the education of males) to increases in human capital, productivity, and economic growth not only in their own generation but also in the next generation.
Gender equality in education: a universal value?
It appears that there is an increasing challenge to the principle of gender equality not only from religious fundamentalists but also from a broader current, particularly in Asia, that questions the universality of the principle, contesting it as a "western value". For example, when a recent study found that Pakistan had forgone much economic growth between 1970 and 1985 because of its large scale failure to invest in the education of its females,(19) a large group of angry Pakistani economics academics called education of females a "western value" and argued that education of females had led to increased incidence of divorce, family breakdown and social problems in western countries. As Fred Halliday, professor of International Relations at London School of Economics, says, perhaps the most pervasive and difficult of all the moral issues confronting the world at the moment is that of universal versus particular values.(20)
Indeed, the Pakistani detractors who questioned the usefulness of women's education and claimed that it had wrought family breakdown in western countries might have a valid argument. Access to education per se is not sufficient; the content of education is also important, as emphasised in the Bahá'í writings. Could recognition that content of education is fundamentally important be the next stage in the convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking?
The way forward
In order to see how more girls can be educated, it is essential to ask what holds them back from gaining education currently. There are many reasons why women's education seriously lags behind men's education, particularly in developing countries as seen in Table 1. The most commonly cited is that in certain societies many parents continue to envisage a strict gender division of labour. If for most of her adult life a daughter will be a housewife, it seems pointless to educate her. The immense contribution that education can make to women's efficiency in child rearing and in domestic tasks is insufficiently recognised. In some countries, societal norms such as early age marriage or the dowry system militate against girls' education. But, most importantly, when people live on low incomes - as in rural areas of all developing countries - it is the mismatch between the costs and benefits of girls' schooling that causes the gender gap in education to persist. In most developing countries, where typically there is no social security or state pension, male children still provide old age support to their parents but female children do not, any benefits of a daughter's education being reaped by her in-laws. Thus the expenditure on boys' schooling results in benefits for the parents but not expenditure on girls' schooling. In other words, there is an asymmetry in parental incentives to educate sons and daughters.
These explanations of the gender disadvantage in schooling have important policy implications. First, they suggest the need for public education about the intrinsic and instrumental value of women's education. Such a policy step would aim to change conservative attitudes towards girls' schooling. Secondly, they suggest that public policy should compensate for the asymmetry in parental incentives to educate girls and boys by giving extra subsidies for girls' schooling. This makes sense because many of the benefits of girls' education are public benefits, i.e. they accrue not only to the educated individual and her family but also to society in general - for example, lower infant mortality and fertility rates. One further policy suggestion is that governments should improve the economic incentives for women's education by attempting to reduce job and wage discrimination against women in the labour market, for example, through stricter labour legislation. This would raise the economic returns to women's education. Evidence suggests that cultural inhibitions can be overcome if the labour market (i.e. economic) incentives for acquiring education are strong enough.
Summary and conclusions
In this paper I have summarised the findings of recent research showing that the social gains from female schooling are generally far greater than those from male schooling. These findings have led, in recent years, to a widespread recognition of the importance of women's education, though the principle still faces challenges from certain quarters. International agencies that provide development assistance to economically less developed countries have come to realise the momentous advantages of expanding girls' access to schooling and are now enthusiastically championing the cause.(21) This convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking on a key issue like education is welcome indeed.
The main policy prescriptions of this paper are that governments and other organisations should attempt to educate people about the equity and efficiency benefits of female education and that public policy should encourage girls' access to schooling by extra subsidies in order to compensate for the asymmetry in parental incentives to educate sons and daughters in poor societies. I have also argued that education per se is not sufficient. It is clear that societies which have achieved universal education are currently extremely deficient socially despite their economic prosperity. The next step in the evolution of secular thinking will, it is hoped, be in the important area of the content of education.
"Education of women and socio-economic development" by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon is a welcome and valuable contribution to the emergent Bahá'í analysis of female education. Kingdon draws on her extensive research in the field to support her central thesis: that the promotion of female education should be a priority concern of governments and organisations worldwide. Following introductory remarks which draw attention to the prominence given to female education in the Bahá'í teachings, she sketches an overview of the appalling status of women in the developing world.(16) The discussion then shifts to the substantial social and economic gains that female education can yield. Citing important studies undertaken in developing countries, she highlights its profound implications for, inter alia,reduced fertility and mortality rates. The second section of her paper examines some of the obstacles which often mitigate against the advancement of women: a narrowly defined gender division of labour, which prescribes a domestic role for women, and fiscal incentives to parents of educating sons - the traditional source of social security in old age. What is needed, Kingdon rightly asserts, is public education about the benefits of female education, government subsidies for girls' schooling, and a more equitable treatment of women in the labour market to improve economic returns to female education. Furthermore, she underscores the importance of the content of education.
While this paper provides a useful overview of the literature on female education, it has a few omissions. The first section of this commentary will discuss the World Declaration on Education for All. The second section will comment and elaborate on Kingdon's reference to the content of education.
The World Declaration on Education for All
Unfortunately, Kingdon makes no reference to the World Declaration on Education for All. This landmark declaration was adopted at the World Conference on Education for All, which took place in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990. The conference, which was attended by representatives from 155 governments, 20 intergovernmental bodies, and 150 non-governmental organizations has been hailed by Angela Little as "probably...the most important international educational event held in recent decades."(17) The Declaration expresses a worldwide consensus on the importance of universal access to education and as such is an unequivocal endorsement of the cardinal Bahá'í principle of universal education, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá affirms is a "universal law."(18)
Article (3) 1 of the Declaration pertains specifically to female education:
The most urgent priority is to ensure access to, and improve the quality of, education for girls and women, and to remove every obstacle that hampers their active participation. All gender stereotyping in education should be eliminated.(19)
Since the adoption of the Declaration in 1990, governments around the world have responded by implementing a range of initiatives, with varying degrees of success.(20) The mid-decade review of progress towards Education for All has reported an increase in female enrolment from 226 million in 1990 to approximately 254 million in 1995. Literacy rates among women have increased marginally from 69 per cent in 1990 to 71 per cent in 1995.(21) While these improvements are less than spectacular (the number of female out-of-school children is almost three times that of boys),(22) they render the 1990 literacy and enrolment figures cited by Kingdon in Table 1 (41) out of date. The 1990 figures were extracted from the Human Development Report 1995. It is regretted that Kingdon did not consult a more recent edition of the Report (or another source).
The content of education
On page 47, Kingdon raises a pertinent issue: "Access to education per se is not sufficient; the content of that education is also important, as emphasized in the Bahá'í Writings." She then asks the question, "Could recognition that content of education is fundamentally important be the next stage in the convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking?" It is unfortunate that Kingdon did not include any references to a growing field of literature in international education that addresses this question. Nelly Stromquist argues that traditional attempts to increase female education have focused more on the material needs and contributions of women than on the ideological and sociological forces that operate against them.(23) While the increased educational attainment of women is a positive trend, the full benefits of this education will not be realised until the underlying social and cultural attitudes towards women change. In Latin America, Stromquist's region of specialisation, gender disparities in formal education are quite small, however the social, economic, and political status of women remains marginal relative to men. Clearly, gender equality requires more than equity in the "quantity" of schooling made available to women.
Many studies conclude that schools, through curriculum and teacher attitudes, only reinforce and perpetuate the gender ideologies that are at the core of existing gender inequality. For instance, Cecilia Lopez and Molly Pollack argue that many existing educational programmes serve to reinforce existing power structures and gender stereotypes rather than to challenge them.(24) Education alone will not eliminate the underlying gender ideologies and material inequalities between men and women.(25) Rather, female educational strategies need to take account of these concerns in their design and implementation.
The worldwide Bahá'í community has a critical role to play in the "convergence of secular and Bahá'í thinking." From a Bahá'í perspective, the incorporation of gender equality into the curriculum and structure of education is a compulsory element of the spiritual component of education. Bahá'ís view education as a means to eliminate the underlying ideologies that marginalise women and other disadvantaged groups throughout the world. In sum, Bahá'í education shares important features with the type that Stromquist calls for; it is education that "improves the condition of women in and through education."(26)
Furthermore, the Bahá'í community offers a unique perspective in its advocacy of male participation in the promotion of gender equality.(27) Kingdon hints at this when she describes educating "people about the equity and efficiency benefits of female education" (48). In other words, both men and women must recognise the importance of female education. Hoda Mahmoudi argues that men have an even greater responsibility to promote gender equality than women, "by replacing ideals of dominance and aggression with attitudes of equality and cooperation."(28) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in a talk delivered in Paris, declared that "When men own the equality of women, there will be no need for them [women] to struggle for their rights."(29) That is to say, when men begin to enjoy the benefits of a more gender-balanced world, their hostility towards the advancement of women will diminish. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, by making female equality a male as well as a female issue, shifts the burden of responsibility to a more balanced position. Men must do more than acquiesce to gender equality, rather they must actively promote it. If gender inequality is largely a product of male attitudes, then the transition to a more equitable world is also largely about male attitudes and participation.
In addition to emphasising male participation in promoting gender equality, the Bahá'í writings stress the need to feminise society. Moojan Momen argues that the Bahá'í goal of achieving the equality of men and women cannot be attained solely by the advancement in the status of women.(30) Instead, he advocates an intense and radical change to produce a more "feminine" society; a society described by 'Abdu'l-Bahá as "...an age in which the masculine and feminine elements in civilisation will be more evenly balanced."(31) The need to feminise society has also been recognised in women's studies literature. Elise Boulding argues that feminine values are essential if humanity is to survive.(32) Hence, a reorganisation and reformation of values in society is imperative.
The emphasis on partnership and harmony in the Bahá'í teachings suggests a new approach to gender related development issues throughout the world. Raising the status of women demands more than simply providing greater public provision and access. A fundamental transformation in the ideological forces under which gender relations currently operate is necessary to ensure greater socio-economic development and, ultimately, the establishment of world peace. "When all mankind shall receive the same opportunity of education and the equality of men and women will be realized, the foundations of war will be utterly destroyed."(33) These matters aside, Kingdon has produced a persuasive and eloquently argued paper which is sure to generate further constructive dialogue.