Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Investing in Girls

In celebration of International Women's Day (commemorated worldwide on March 8th - I know I am a little late), here are some incredible but true facts about girls and women in the developing world:

source: the UN:
- The majority of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day are women (a phenomena known as the "feminization of poverty."
- Worldwide, women earn on average slightly more than 50 per cent of what men earn.

source: the girl effect
- When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
- An extra year of primary school booosts girls eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 20 percent.
- When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.
- Approximately one-quarter of girls in developing countries are not in school.
- One girl in seven in developing countries marries before age 15.
  • 38% marry before age 18.
  • In Nicaragua, 45% of girls with no schooling are married before age 18.

To find more excellent resources on the intersection of gender and education, poverty, and health, check out the resources page at girl effect: http://www.girleffect.org/learn/more-resources

I wish I could find some El Salvador-specific facts on the gender gap between girls and boys and education levels, but what I see around me in very consistent with these facts. Here at Centro Hogar, for example, over 50% of our kids are raised by single mothers. Just three kids out of 122 are raised by single-fathers. While the education level across the board for mothers and father is low, men tend to have at least a few more years of schooling under their belt, and in almost all cases where the child is raised by both a mother and father, the father makes more money than the mother. In almost all cases. I actually questioned this one day and went through the files one by one, and it's true. In general, men are much more likely to have more stable jobs where they make the minimum wage - in cleaning and maintenance, mechnics, bus drivers, taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, construction workers. Women, on the other hand, mostly make their living in the informal sector - selling produce in the central market, selling typical Salvadoran foods on a street food stand, selling beauty products from a catalog, selling used clothes door-to-door. And not only can they not count on a stable salary every month, what they do make is often much less than the Salvadoran minimum wage of about $200. One mother, a seamstress: $160/month. One mother, a domestic maid: $120/moth. One mother, tortilla-maker: $120/month. One grandmother, Avon saleswoman: $90/month.

So what does this mean? How did this happen? From what I see in El Salvador, it has a lot to do with the culture of machismo that is so very ingrained in society. Most girls, from birth, are raised to believe that one day, they will marry a man who will maintain them. The girl spends her childhood and adolecence in preparation for this. She learns the chores of the home: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, so that she may be ready for this moment to come. Her parents never really invested in her education, because why pay money for high school when we are just waiting for the husband to come? She is 16, she is from a poor family, she wants to rise out of her situation. But all she has been taught is that a man must come and rescue her. So, she meets a boy, she gets pregnant. Perhaps she thinks that having his child will mean he will take responsibility for her and their child. In some cases, this is true. More often than not, the boy (often a child himself), leaves, and she is now a single mother, and her opportunities are even fewer. How can she continue to study or find a job if she is the only caretaker for her child? So the cycle continues, and perhaps she looks for another, more responsible, more mature man to help make ends meet.

A machista society, then, blames the woman for her situation. Why did she get pregnant when she couldn't afford a child? I cannot tell you how many families we have at Centro Hogar where little girls are raised by their 17 year old mothers and 32 year old grandmothers. It is easy to blame the girls. It is hard to see how the world we live in creates these girls and puts obstacle after obstacle in their way.

A way out? In my opinion, the key is education. Educate girls, from the very first moment. Send them to pre-school. Send them to primary school, high school, and even university! Educate our world's women, so that they might not have to depend on men to survive. This does not mean that men are bad, or the enemy, it just means that when women have the tools to be independent economically and socially, they will not be forced to make decisions like getting married and having children out of economic or social need. They will make those decisions because they want to, because they are ready. They might marry later, have children later, and their levels of income, health, and overall well-being will increase. There might be less intrafamilial violence. Less femicide.

Can you imagine?

Ariana shows off her new lunchbox on the first day of school, 2012.

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