Shashi Tharoor: One solution to many problems: Educate girls

ONE of the more difficult questions I found myself being asked when I was a United Nations under-secretary-general, especially when addressing a general audience, was: “What is the single most important thing that can be done to improve the world?”

One feels obliged to explain the complexity of the challenges confronting humanity; how the struggle for peace, the fight against poverty and the battle to eradicate disease must all be waged side by side; and so on.

Then I learned to cast caution to the wind. If I had to pick the one thing that we must do above all else, I would now offer two words: “Educate girls.”

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It really is that simple. No action has been proven to do more for the human race than the education of female children. Scholarly studies and research projects have confirmed it: if you educate a boy, you educate a person; if you educate a girl, you educate a family and benefit an entire community.

And children of educated mothers consistently out-perform children with educated fathers and illiterate mothers. (Given that, in general, children spend most of their time with their mothers, this is hardly surprising.)

A girl with more than six years of education is better equipped to seek and use medical advice, to immunise her children, and be aware of the importance of sanitary practices, from boiling water to washing hands. A World Health Organisation study found that, in Africa, “children of mothers who have received five years of education are 40 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five”.

The health advantages of education extend beyond childbirth and infant health. A Zambian study shows that Aids spreads twice as fast 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 and space them more wisely, facilitating a higher level of care.

The World Bank, with its typical mathematical precision, has estimated that for every four years of education, fertility is reduced by about one birth per mother. The reason why the Indian state of Kerala’s fertility rate is 1.7 per couple, whereas Bihar’s is more than four, is that Kerala’s women are educated but half of Bihar’s are not.

The Bank adds that, the greater the number of girls who go to secondary school, the higher the country’s per capita income growth.

I learned many of these details from my former colleague Catherine Bertini, a 2003 World Food Prize laureate for her work as head of the UN World Food Programme.

In her acceptance speech she said: “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 workforce, and be able to improve their wages without pushing others out of the workforce, what would you say? ‘Such a deal! How can I sign up?’”

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

• Shashi Tharoor is India’s minister of state for human resource development