The peace dividend of educating women in the Middle East

Girl up front for a better chance at peace. Capt. John Severns, U.S. Air Force

Lasting peace in the Middle East depends on empowering young women through education. By oppressing our young people and women, we don’t have a new generation that is full of ideas and full of change.

According to a recent report by the Brookings Institute’s Center for Universal Education, there are now 3.1m fewer children out of school in the Arab region than there were in 2002, but 8.5 million children still remain excluded. Many are poor girls living in areas of conflict and rural areas.

The report also says there is a mixed or “boomerang” dynamic for girls in the Middle East. Although girls are less likely to start school than boys, when they get there, they are more likely to make the transition from primary to secondary education – 97% make the transition compared to 91% of boys. They also tend to outperform boys in terms of learning.

But there is an urgent need to resume the disturbed balance in the relationship between men and women in the Middle East. At the moment, the future remains largely shaped by men. We need to see more women at the negotiation table, involved in politics and civil society. In Egypt and Syria, few women are talking. If women were a more vocal part of Syrian civil society, I’m sure the country would find another alternative than violence.

There are some very influential women leaders already in the Middle East. In the Palestinian authority, Dr Hanan Ashrawi served as the official spokesperson for the Palestinian delegation in the Middle East peace process, and is now a member of the executive of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In February, she called for an law banning honour killings in the Middle East. But instead of having one Hanan, we need thousands.

Politics, culture, and men’s power over girls and women in many developing countries are the major factors holding back women’s education. To effect change we must develop tools to support women’s educational aspirations. Education systems must also combat the influence of messages received through parents, peers, media and society in general.

A friend of mine’s daughter is currently studying business at the American University at Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. I asked my friend, will she then continue on to do a masters? “No”, her mother said. “I want her to marry.” My friend has a PhD; but her priority for her daughter is stability as a housewife, not a career as a business woman. Priorities in Arab countries still remain stiffly focused around marriage, reproduction and building a family.

It’s time to fix the imbalance. Social injustice through denying girls and women the right opportunities and education adversely affects the status, relationship, stability, and health of individuals and communities.

We need to build education systems that help women and children to develop the skills and competencies to be active members in the community.

We need to work together to prevent wars and conflict in their infancy. Peace is the ultimate prize and women’s education is the key to make this happen.