In Western countries, the importance of education is always made clear and is valued to a large extent. The Scottish government’s decision in maintaining free higher education in spite of the recent recession proves how much we treasure education and believe that it should be accessible to all.
The quality of education ranges between outstanding and extremely poor, depending on your wealth, and this still is a great problem within the United Kingdom (UK) and many other countries in the world. However, in the UK we can pride ourselves on offering equal education to girls and boys, which was not the case for a very long time.
The role and rights of women in society have undergone many changes that women less than a century ago might not have deemed possible. Women have become full-fledged members of society by gaining rights that make them legally equal to men. For example, in 1918 women gained the right to vote in the UK. There was also the introduction of maternity leave — as well as paternity leave — which allows women to strive for a career whilst raising a family.
In theory, women are treated equally and have the same opportunities as men. In reality, however, many inequalities still exist and are a cause of great concern amongst many people. The UK and many other Western countries have achieved a lot in promoting gender equality, but this is sadly not something that many can claim due to their political and economical situations, which forces them to concentrate on other issues such as hunger and conflict.
The focus of the Global Citizen Corps (GCC) Global Action Calendar in February and March was "Education and Gender," so I interviewed the Mercy Corps' Program Officer Carrie Beaumont, who is in charge of programs in West and Central Africa, Latin America and Haiti.
In these areas of the world, women struggle to find a voice in their communities and are traditionally dominated by men, which often leaves them in a vulnerable position. Mercy Corps tries to support women and help them speak up for themselves, thus gaining more confidence and becoming a more influential part of their communities.
In West and Central Africa, there are various Mercy Corps programs that aim to help raise awareness of the importance of women and especially show men that women are equally capable of working the same way men do. In the Central African Republic (CAR), Mercy Corps supports women in running local businesses to prove that they are pro-active and can play a vital role in society. The main obstacle faced when trying to prove that women are equal to men, is actually convincing the local male population. They are accustomed to their traditional views on women and are not willing to easily let go of this, thus it is a tough job to make them see women in a different light.
Sadly, many women not only face prejudice, but often are also victims of domestic violence and have no outlet to talk about the things they have experienced. Mercy Corps has started a radio program in CAR that allows women to talk to other women who have faced violence and overcome their fears in this therapeutic manner.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women face a lot of dangers when leaving their villages to collect wood for cooking, including rebel forces and local disputes between villages. In order to reduce the risks women face, Mercy Corps has introduced fuel-efficient stoves, which saves the time that women must spend collecting wood. Fuel-efficient stoves are economically and environmentally more friendly, which helps all the people in the village in the long term.
In Colombia, the main problem is the amount of refugees who face many dangers and violence within the slums of the cities. These refugees are mostly women and children, who often do not have that much hope for a brighter future. To give children an opportunity to relax and escape their harsh environment, Mercy Corps has created an after-school club that not only keeps the children off the street from danger, but also offers programs that help them build useful skills, such as how to avoid being in bad situations. In the south of Colombia, this kind of program is vital, as it keeps children from being dragged into conflicts and war.
Another Latin American country that has benefited from education programs conducted by Mercy Corps is Guatemala. Guatemala's major problems include disputes between the indigenous population and companies over land laws. To resolve these differences, Mercy Corps tries to help facilitate healthy discussions between the two parties and stop any outbreaks of violence by setting up mediation centers where the conflicting parties can meet.
Education is not only learning about mathematics, reading and writing, but also how to deal with certain situations in a rational, calm manner.
Education and supporting local youth is especially a problem in Haiti, where there is a very large youth population lives in very deprived areas and are often not engaged in any education or work programs. Unemployment is extremely high and affects the youth’s future prospects and their sense of being productive, which can make them turn to crime.
To make them feel more productive and able to feel a sense of achievement, Mercy Corps has organised fun activities such as "Haiti’s Got Talent," where youth could prove what skills they have and just have a good time. Being encouraged to exceed your own expectations of your abilities can make people feel more confident about themselves and give them a feeling of having achieved something, which is an important thing so that they have a sense of self-worth.
This is not only a problem in countries such as Haiti, but can also be found in classrooms in the UK, where children are often under-challenged and thus struggle to strive to do better and thus become complacent. The gap between good education with inspiring teachers and less effective education where teachers struggle to fulfill their basic job description — due to lack of resources or even promotion of discipline — is often caused by the wealth gap.
Deprived children do not have the choice of going to private education, which can make it very difficult for them to obtain the same opportunities as those received by children in the private sector. Of course there are some fantastic teachers in the state sector and there are also great state-funded schools in the UK, but exam results — which can greatly determine a child's future prospects — seem to be better in the private sector. This makes education in the UK highly unfair, as wealth determines a child's future at such an early age and makes it so much more difficult for young people to achieve their goals in life in an already highly competitive society.
Education and gender are highly contentious issues that are often not seen as the most crucial problems governments need to deal with. The contentiousness of this issue can be demonstrated by the numerous debates over university fees in England and the protests against the government’s decision of raising the fees. Gender inequality is still heavily protested and more legislation to promote this is demanded by many people.
These issues are truly global, as major European powers, such as the UK, still struggle with them. However, in the UK the government can afford to deal with these issues, while in more deprived countries all the money they can get is often used to meet the most basic of needs, such as food and shelter. Thus, we can lend them some of our expertise in order to help them tackle education and gender problems.