With so many recent books and articles documenting the rapid and unyielding rise in female educational attainment in the U.S., and the simultaneous fall in male education (The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin being the most prominent example), it is easy to forget about gaps in educational access and attainment in the developing world.

While educational equality in the U.S. and other western nations is sometimes an illusion since societal discrimination steers women to lower-paying and less prestigious careers, the inflammatory  wage differential pales in comparison to the issues that face girls and women in many areas of the developing world. Gender equality should be a goal in every aspect of development and public policy, but educational equity is doubly important because it is successful women more than gender legislation that is effective in changing social norms and perceptions. If women continue to be subjugated in the educational system, they will continue to be subjugated in their professional and personal lives as well, because for better or worse the economic value of women is tied to how valued they are as a member of their community and family.

Despite its centrality to success later in life, being a woman is a distinct disadvantage in the developing world. Although gender equity in education is a development goal that has been in vogue the last couple of decades, women still make up the majority of children who don’t go to primary school. In fact, of the 137 million young people that are illiterate in the world, two thirds are women (Kat Banyard, 2010), it is not coincidental then, that 70 percent of those living in extreme poverty (less than $1 per day) are women (Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2007 Report; Plan UK).

There are myriad reasons why women are educationally underachieving as compared to their male counterparts in the developing world; in many countries school is not publicly provided, and in the places that it is, the costs of school supplies preclude the possibility of attendance; parents are often forced to choose between educating their sons and educating their daughters, and in patriarchal cultures, that isn’t a tough choice; and familial caring obligations are also a key reason. None of these reasons are to be discounted in their magnitude, but perhaps the most insidious of all obstacles women face when pursuing an education is sexual harassment. The many challenges to intellectual betterment do not explain the gap in female education completely, and while poverty and family obligations are not gender-exclusive obstacles, sexual and physical harassment is.

According to the World Health Organization, school is the most common place where sexual harassment against women occurs. In Zimbabwe, an Amnesty International survey found that 92% of school-aged girls had been sexually propositioned by men or boys at or on the way to school. For women who have the opportunity to go to school, where is the incentive when they are faced with such rampant and overt sexual harassment. This obstacle to education is so unique and devastating because when women leave school because of the harassment that they face (usually with no consequences, because “boys will be boys” is still a shockingly accepted rationalization), it seems like it is a personal choice, when it’s not really.

This false choice brings us full circle, and connects educational equality in the Global North to that in the Global South; the largest barrier to equality is the current inequality. In the Western world women are steered into low paying jobs, and then gender gaps are explained away by saying that they are personal choices. While this is a significantly better problem to have than those facing many in the developing world, the root problem is often the same: women opt out of the highest quality education which will lead them to the most lucrative and prestigious careers, but they do so not out of personal agency, but because society conditions them to. Gender inequality should never be tolerated, but it is most pernicious when it precludes women from accessing the one good that has the power to change cultural perceptions: education.

– Karis McGill