Girls education: Even Boris Johnson can see equal access to schools will create 'most fantastic benefits for humanity' – Susan Dalgety

Lindy Misomali is a typical university student. Immersed in her studies, she still finds time to enjoy socialising with her friends and large, extended family.

Former Australian premier Julia Gillard with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Boris Johnson during a London-based summit to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education. It fell short of the amount sought (Picture: Tolga Akmen/PA Wire)

Her third-hand smart phone, passed down from a family friend, is always running out of data, and she loves nothing better than rummaging in second-hand stalls for a new, to her, dress or jacket.

When she graduates in two years’ time, she hopes to become a chartered accountant. Perhaps not the most glamourous of professions, but one that her country, Malawi, is short of, and one that will guarantee that her life will be much more comfortable than her mother’s.

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But her modest ambition was almost destroyed earlier this month, when her mother told her that she had been unable to scrape together the £650 required for her next term’s tuition fees.

When Lindy first signed up for her business administration degree at St John the Baptist University, her uncle made a commitment to pay her fees. This is not unusual in Malawi, where grants are scarce and over-subscribed. Family members, particularly those lucky enough to have a well-paid, steady job, are expected to fund the education of the next generation.

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But her uncle lost his job with an international organisation because of Covid and now can barely meet his rent, let alone his obligation to his niece. Lindy was distraught. Her mother even more so.

This story has a happy ending. Lindy’s mother is a friend of mine, and thanks to the generosity of my friends and family, we have been able to pay her fees, and are working on a plan to support her until she graduates.

But Lindy is one of the lucky few. Unicef calculates that, around the world, there are 129 million girls missing school, with more than half – 67 million – out of upper-secondary school. I could not find an estimate for how many girls miss out on higher education, but it doesn’t take a chartered accountant to work out that it is tens of millions.

That is tens of millions of teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers, accountants, software experts, all the professions needed if the world is to flourish and countries like Malawi, one of the poorest in the world, are to develop. All missing because education is not seen as being as important for a girl as it is for a boy.

This is the reality of sex inequality. Girls are denied the most basic human right – an education – because of their sex. In many communities, poor families will prioritise their son’s schooling, forcing their daughters to marry young, or work in the home and fields.

Many schools do not meet the safety needs of girls. If there are no single sex toilets, for example, it is impossible for teenage girls to manage menstruation properly. And much learning material is still riddled with gender stereotypes that characterises girls and women in “caring” roles, as mother, wife, daughter – never virologist, politician or computer scientist.

The world knows all this. Report after report sets out the challenge. Girls’ education is a strategic development priority, declares the World Bank on its website.

“Better educated women tend to be more informed about nutrition and healthcare, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier, should they choose to become mothers,” it says. “They are more likely to participate in the formal labour market and earn higher incomes. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and countries out of poverty.”

Even Boris Johnson whose government recently cut international aid by £4 billion a year, has said that girls’ education is the "simplest and most transformative thing we can do" to tackle poverty.

Earlier this year, he announced MP Helen Hunt as his special envoy on girls’ education and promised action, specifically to raise $5 billion (£3.6 billion) at a global education summit in London this week.

But like many of Johnson’s promises, his fine words came to naught. The UK’s contribution to the global fund should have been around £600 million, but instead was £430 million, and other rich countries followed suit. The summit closed yesterday $1 billion short of its target

Speaking in the Independent newspaper, Save the Children’s head of education, Emma Wagner, said the failure showed the UK's “diminishing leadership on the world stage following its devastating aid cuts”.

Johnson blustered his way through his keynote speech at the summit, spraying a word salad at the audience. Education is “the silver bullet”, “the magic potion”, “the panacea”, “the universal cure”, “ the Swiss army knife, complete with Allen key and screwdriver and everything else”, he shouted.

Education “can solve virtually every problem that inflicts humanity,” he added. And he’s right. Yet he was not prepared to invest enough money to show the rest of the world a lead.

Last year, his government gave £255m of Covid-related contracts to companies that had only been set up for weeks, yet this week he could not find an extra £170m to educate girls like Lindy.

Like every other promise Johnson makes, his new-found zeal for girls’ education is a chimera. A sound bite to get him through the next news cycle. A cynical ploy to burnish his tarnished reputation.

If we have learned anything these past 18 months or so, it is that our world is inter-connected. When a bat in China sneezed, the world caught Covid.

Of course our national priority should be educating our own children. But the UK is a rich country. A very rich country. It is our duty to invest some of that wealth in educating girls in countries where governments can barely feed their people.

To quote Boris Johnson from Thursday, “If you educate the world properly, fairly, then of course you end a great natural injustice but you also... perform the most fantastic benefits for humanity.” So what stopped you, Prime Minister?

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