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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Two-word mantra

The single most important thing that can be done to improve the world, is perhaps this — educate girls.

S.R. RAGUNATHAN

ONE of the more difficult questions I find myself being asked as a United Nations official, especially when I have been addressing a generalist audience, is: "what is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world?" It's the kind of question that tends to bring out the bureaucrat in the most direct of communicators, as one feels obliged to explain how complex are the challenges confronting humanity; how no one task alone can be singled out over other goals; how the struggle for peace, the fight against poverty, the battle to eradicate disease, must all be waged side-by-side — and so mind-numbingly on. But of late I have cast my caution to the winds and ventured an answer to this most impossible of questions. If I had to pick the one thing we must do above all else, I now offer a two-word mantra: "educate girls".

It really is that simple. There is no action proven to do more for the human race than the education of the female child. Scholarly studies and research projects have established what common sense might already have told us: that if you educate a boy, you educate a person, but if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.

The evidence is striking. Increased schooling of mothers has a measureable impact on the health of their children, on the future schooling of the child, and on the child's adult productivity. The children of educated mothers consistently out-perform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. Given that they spend most of their time with their mothers, this is hardly surprising.

A girl who has had more than six years of education is better equipped to seek and use medical and health care advice, to immunise her children, to be aware of sanitary practices from boiling water to the importance of washing hands. A World Bank project in Africa established that the children of women with just five years of school had a 40 per cent better survival rate than the children of women who had less than five years in class. A Yale University study showed that the heights and weights for newborn children of women with a basic education were consistently higher than those of babies born to uneducated women. A UNESCO project demonstrated that giving women just a primary school education decreases child mortality by five per cent to 10 per cent.

The health advantages of education extend beyond childbirth. The dreaded disease AIDS spreads twice as fast, a Zambian study shows, among uneducated girls than among those who have been to school. Educated girls marry later, and are less susceptible to abuse by older men. And educated women tend to have fewer children, space them more wisely and so look after them better; women with seven years' education, according to one study, had two or three fewer childen than women with no schooling. The World Bank, with the mathematical precision for which they are so famous, has estimated that for every four years of education, fertility is reduced by about one birth per mother. The reason Kerala's fertility rate is 1.7 per couple while Bihar's is over four is that Kerala's women are educated and most of Bihar's are not.

The more girls go to secondary school, the Bank adds, the higher the country's per capita income growth. And when girls work in the fields, as so many have to do across the developing world, their schooling translates directly to increased agricultural productivity. One marvellous thing about women is that they like to learn from other women, so the success of educated women is usually quickly emulated by their uneducated sisters. And women spend increased income on their families, which men do not necessarily do (rural toddy shops in India, after all, thrive on the self-indulgent spending habits of men). In many studies, the education of girls has been shown to lead to more productive farming and in turn to a decline in malnutrition. Educate a girl, and you benefit a community: QED.

I learned many of these details from my colleague Catherine Bertini, this year's World Food Prize laureate for her tireless and effective work as head of the United Nations' World Food Programme. As she put it in her acceptance speech for that prestigious prize: "If someone told you that, with just 12 years of investment of about $1 billion a year, you could, across the developing world, increase economic growth, decrease infant mortality, increase agricultural yields, improve maternal health, improve children's health and nutrition, increase the numbers of children — girls and boys — in school, slow down population growth, increase the number of men and women who can read and write, decrease the spread of AIDS, add new people to the work force and be able to improve their wages without pushing others out of the work force — what would you say? Such a deal! What is it? How can I sign up?"

Sadly, the world is not yet rushing to "sign up" to the challenge of educating girls, who lag consistently behind boys in access to education throughout the developing world. Some 65 million girls around the world never see the inside of a classroom. And yet not educating them costs the world more than putting them through school.

UNICEF's energetic head Carol Bellamy, releasing her flagship State of the World's Children report, said bluntly: "the failure to invest in girls' education puts in jeopardy more development goals than any other single action." In our own country, we have a long way to go. And we boast one State, Bihar, which has enthroned an illiterate woman as Chief Minister — as if to showcase its abysmal figure of a 23 per cent female literacy rate, one of the worst on the planet. But her seven daughters did indeed receive an education — so perhaps, after all, there are grounds for hope.

Certainly, there is no better answer. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it simply: "No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition, promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and increase the chances of education for the next generation. Let us invest in women and girls."

The author is the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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