Literacy is the ability to read, write and communicate effectively. It gives all individuals, regardless of their gender, community or society, the power to connect and understand the complexities of the world. Women, who comprise half the world population, deserve special attention in enhancing literacy, owing to the historical inequities they have suffered through gender-based discrimination throughout history. UNESCO quantifies this gender gap in global literacy rates by indicating that only 82.7% of women worldwide are literate today, as compared to 86.3% of men. However, this gap widens more in poverty-ridden regions like South Asia and Africa and therefore requires careful assessment.
Historically, social and cultural factors encouraged only men to join the formal workforce and to acquire the knowledge necessary for that purpose, alienating women from what was called ‘book-learning’. In Sri Lanka, temples and monasteries, which were the first educational centers, gave primacy to the education of members of the higher castes and religious leaders. However, with European colonization in the 16th century, Roman Catholic and Christian Missionary Boys’ and Girls’ schools were set up in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese and Dutch while the vernacular education system was relegated to the sidelines.
After Sri Lanka gained Independence in 1948, along with the introduction of a free education system, a number of colonial-era private schools were nationalized and education became more easily accessible and affordable. This was an incentive for women’s education. Further, in 1986, National Colleges of Education and Teacher Centers were founded to provide training for teachers, a profession with a high percentage of women. With these developments, the general sentiment of education as a basic right grew, and girls and boys alike were given the opportunity to be educated, steadily increasing the literacy rate among women in Sri Lanka.
However, as recently as 2014, the labour force participation rate of women in Sri Lanka was 34% which is considerably lower than the 74% contribution from men. This points towards the many changes yet to be made to encourage women to participate in national economic, social and political life.
It is important to note that Sri Lanka’s commendable literacy rate and the achievement of gender equality targets in all levels of education can chiefly be attributed to the Kannangara Education Reforms of 1945 which introduced free primary, secondary and even tertiary education through state-funded government schools and universities, regardless of gender. Additionally, Article 12 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka upholds equal rights of all citizens irrespective of sex as well as enabling affirmative action for the benefit of women.
However, the age-old, well-established free education system is not without fault. Sri Lanka with its developing economy only allocates a meagre amount of national revenue to education. Public spending on education as a percentage of total GDP in Sri Lanka was reported at 3.4 % in 2016. Thus, resource scarcity lead to cut-throat competitive examinations and consequently a majority of students dropping out of the system either at G.C.E. Ordinary or Advanced Level Examination. However, female undergraduate entrants to state universities were at a favourable 62% against male undergraduates in 2014. However, these numbers are only of limited significance when observing rates on employability.
Furthermore, even though government supplies textbooks and uniform material free of charge, other overhead costs like stationery, transportation and permanent housing prevent extremely rural, severely poor sections from effectively supporting their children in their education. Even the 2016 regulations under the Education Ordinance enacted to ensure compulsory school attendance up to 16 years has not been effective in increasing school attendance of girls in such areas. Therefore, such policies should not be merely progressive on paper but must address the root causes of socio-economic hardships of rural and urban shanty populations.
Educating women and girls has far-reaching social benefits with implications on the current as well as the future generations of a nation. As to the benefits of educating women, an educated and literate girl is more likely to participate in the labour force and be a decision maker at home and in her community. She will also be able to participate in decision making processes and governance related matters which will curb the political under-representation of women.
It can be observed that there is a direct relationship between female literacy and poverty. Countries which have very low female literacy rates like Afghanistan (24%), Niger (11%) and Central African Republic (24%) are among world’s poorest countries. Thus, providing secondary education for women, especially in poor countries, has a multiplier effect that builds both wealth and health which ultimately boosts production. A literate woman contributes to the economy with her increased capacity for earning. According to UNESCO, a single year of primary education has shown to increase a girl’s wages later in life by 20%. Accordingly, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country rises by 3% on average when 10% more women attend school and contribute to their families, communities and societies, as earners, informed mothers, and agents of change.
However, the world still has a long way to go in educating women. UNESCO (2015) reports that only three in every four girls complete their secondary education globally. In poorer countries, that proportion is one in three. This lack of secondary education for girls has a price: an estimated loss of global wealth of between US$ 15 trillion and US$ 30 trillion. The social cost of this is that girls deprived of school education are more likely to be victims of child marriages and be encumbered with children at a tender age which, risking their own health and the wellbeing of their families.
UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics has shown that the world has failed to attain the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of Universal Primary Education, as over 58 million children of primary school age are out of school. In this backdrop, it is critical that immediate action be taken in promoting universal primary education in general, and girls’ education in specific. Simply giving increased access to education will not be sufficient to address this concern: it must be ensured that the education of girls really does benefit them in the long run and enhances their employability.
Special attention needs to be paid to girls’ education, as sustainability and progress of all regions depend on the success of women across the globe. However, it is worth mentioning here that Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country that has already achieved the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal for gender equality at all levels of education.
Despite gender differences, women should be given equal opportunities to be educated as men. Women are now increasingly aware of the value of education and nurture dreams and aspirations of being productive citizens, engaging in higher studies and playing major roles in the national workforce. Moreover, many benefits to the nation itself are linked to women being literate, such as eradication of poverty, increased health standards, and a responsible future generation. Even though Sri Lanka can boast of a higher female literacy than other South Asian countries and promises free education to all its citizens, the system should take into account the drawbacks that still exist within it. It must provide improved conditions and equal opportunities of education, along with streamlined skills to enhance employability of the rich and the poor, as well as the boys and the girls.