Women bear brunt of inadequate schooling
FUNCTIONAL illiteracy rates among South Africans over 20 are on the decline. This means that more adult men and women can read and write today than 15 years ago. But, this doesn’t point to either a satisfactory education system or an equitable employment environment, and nowhere is this more evident than among women.
Between 2002 and last year, according to Statistics SA’s most recent general household survey, the percentage of men over the age of 20 who had either received no schooling or who had not completed Grade 7 dropped from 25.8% to 13.3%.
Among women, the figure decreased from 28.6% to 15.9%. The positive trends, however, don’t necessarily equate to a more educated and capable workforce. A Grade 7 literacy level qualifies someone for menial labour at best, and gaps remain between the literate and the employable, and between the employable and the professionally successful.
Bridging the gaps are organisations that specialise in adult education and training (AET), organisations that have seen shifts over the past 15 to 20 years. Where the profile of the average learner in the wake of apartheid was an illiterate man in his forties, today’s learners typically hold a high school qualification and are younger.
The number of women enrolled has also increased. While this might seem encouraging – it indicates that more young people are raising their levels of education – it also points to the ways in which the basic education system continues to fail them. Illiteracy might be on the decline, but as long as AET is necessary, primary and secondary education remains inadequate.
Women continue to bear the brunt of these inadequacies. More women than men are likely to be functionally illiterate across all age groups, and uneducated, underprivileged women are often vulnerable, and at the risk of unwanted pregnancies, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. These factors remove them prematurely from the education system and limit their professional development and economic independence.
Improved levels of education among women have been linked to the alleviation of economic, social and health issues. Education enables women to participate meaningfully in the formal economy, so reducing their dependence on others – their partners especially – and improving their sense of self-determination.
UN Women reports that increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth, and international evidence shows that if women control a portion of the household income, spending changes in ways that benefit children. Extensive research over several decades and across 219 countries also indicates that for every additional year of education girls and women of reproductive age receive, child mortality decreases by 9.5%.
The government has a significant role to play. These efforts involve putting measures in place that aim to keep girls in school and pushing a curriculum that promotes equal rights and a culture of respect. Emphasising the education of women is about educating boys and men as much as girls and women, and breaking cultural preconceptions that keep women insufficiently educated and occupied in unpaid or informal work.
These efforts go hand in hand with making employment opportunities available to women that are comparable to those available to men.
Any solution has to be multipronged. It’s about combating patriarchy, poverty and unemployment that leaves women disadvantaged and vulnerable. It’s about women banding together to promote chain reactions of support and empowerment.
It’s about co-ordinating efforts, among women and between men and women, that emphasise the multiple social and economic benefits of educating women.
Without persistent and co-ordinated work, these self-perpetuating cycles are unlikely to be broken. Co-founder of Media Works, a leading provider of adult education and training for more than 21 years.
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LIMITATIONS: Improved levels of education among women have been linked to the alleviation of numerous economic, social and health issues, says the writer.