The Greatness Which Might Be Theirs: Educating Girls—An Investment in the Future
Without doubt education will establish her equality with men. -- 'Abdu'l-Bahá
For twenty five years, the span of a generation, the data have been available to document the correlation between a variety of crucial development indicators and the education of girls. From reductions in infant mortality, fertility, and the incidence of AIDS to improvements in the environment, it has been amply demonstrated that it is the mother's education that makes the difference 1 and that the positive effects increase with every additional year a girl stays in school. When all the benefits are taken into account, educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment that can be made in the developing world. 2 Thus the decision by the 39th session of the Commission to include under the priority theme of development a focus on educating girls and women sounds a responsive chord with Baha'is, whose teachings call for full and equal partnership between women and men.
The Baha'i Writings speak to three kinds of education: material, human and spiritual. Material education concerns itself with the progress and development of the body, that is to say, teaching people how to improve physical well-being including better nutrition and hygiene, better family health and greater capacity to earn and provide food, shelter and clothing. Human education concerns civilization and progress in those activities which are essential to mankind as distinct from the animal world, such as knowledge of commerce, the sciences and arts, and the understanding of institutions and policy. Spiritual or moral education addresses values and shapes character; it largely determines to what end an individual will use whatever knowledge he or she acquires.
The international community set ambitious goals for material or basic education in the Jomtien Declaration, issued by the 1990 World Conference on Education for All (EFA). Those goals included universal access to high quality primary education, which would provide every child such basic learning tools as literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. A recent UNESCO report on progress toward EFA in 121 countries shows that, while 90% have completed EFA Plans, only 10% have budgeted the resources necessary to meet EFA goals. 3 Commitment to providing this most basic level of material education has yet to be fulfilled by the leaders of the world.
Scientific, technical and civic education, which Baha'is include under the heading of human education, is increasingly available through secondary and tertiary education in developed countries. In some countries and in certain fields of study, women's access to tertiary education has made them even better educated than men. But modernization has eluded the grasp of the majority of women, and the twentieth century may come and go leaving large numbers of women almost untouched.
Spiritual or moral education is almost never seen outside of parochial schools or religious institutions, is shunned in most developed countries as irrelevant or intrusive to modern education, and is rarely funded by international donors. It is the one kind of education which asserts the dignity of the human spirit in all its diversity, and formalizes its relationship to the Divine. Such universal human values as trustworthiness, honesty, courtesy, generosity, respect and kindness are rapidly disappearing from our increasingly belligerent and fractured world. Through moral or character education, whether formalized in religious or secular programs or provided informally by wise and caring family or community members, that which is valued by society and gives meaning to life is transmitted to succeeding generations.
Baha'is see all three kinds of education as important. Women are encouraged in the Baha'i Writings to study all branches of human knowledge and to participate as equal partners with men in every field of human endeavor. "It is... clear," the Baha'i Writings assert, "that the education of girls is of far greater consequence than that of boys. This fact is extremely important, and the matter must be seen to with the greatest energy and dedication."4
Among the consequences of providing girls with basic education are improvements in material circumstances. Research has shown that whatever the content of the curriculum, girls benefit from going to school, from problem-solving, from expanding their world and from sharing the knowledge base generally afforded to boys and men. Contributions of women to the sciences and the arts, albeit fledgling, provide evidence that, given opportunity, girls and women have the intellectual capacity to improve substantively the human condition. However, with regard to spiritual education, there are no charts, no progress reports, no quantifying studies that can prove to the world how important it is to equip future generations with the virtues conducive to promoting the establishment of unity and cooperation as the basis for functioning in an interdependent world community. In this respect, the Baha'i Writings stress the unique advantages that educated girls bring to their roles as mothers and first educators of the next generation, not only as the most effective diffusers of knowledge throughout society, but as transmitters of core cultural and social values. 5 It is time that the women of the world, at least, add a plea for education of the human spirit to the call for educational reform.
The failure to educate the human spirit and the neglect of character development have contributed to a number of seemingly intractable social problems. Given the obvious rightness of educating both girls and boys and the documented advantages educated women bring to their families, communities and nations, the continuing failure to ensure the education of girls suggests a lack of will. Indeed, the half-hearted commitment to education in general, and to girls' and women's education specifically, can be attributed to the lack of both a vision for the future and the inspiration to achieve it.
The Report of the Secretary-General points out a number of formidable obstacles to girls' education and suggests measures to overcome these obstacles. We note, however, the lack of any reference to principles or human values which might inspire the transformation of individual and collective attitudes and behavior. Baha'is find in the principles of the oneness of humanity and the equality of men and women inspiration for the abandonment of all prejudices, including those based on gender, nationality, creed, degree of material civilization, class and color. The principle of the oneness of humanity, with its implied recognition of the worth of every member of the human family, needs to be taught in all the schools, universally proclaimed, and "asserted by every nation as preparation for the organic change in the structure of society which it implies." 6
Indeed, profound changes will be wrought as women move to take their place on decision making bodies in every sphere around the world. This organic shift need not cause conflict. In the Baha'i view, the material and spiritual progress of society depends on women's full participation in every arena of human activity. Thus the Baha'i approach seeks a full and dynamic partnership with men for the advancement of civilization as a whole. Indeed, an important part of a larger program to educate girls must be the re-socialization of males for partnership. Boys and men must be given the opportunity to grasp, on the one hand, the harmful effects of attitudes and values which condone and even encourage violence, oppression, and war; and to see, on the other hand, the advantages to society, families and the girls themselves when girls are educated.
As we approach the Millennium, it almost seems that we need a year of reflection to allow the peoples of the world time to consider how best to respond to the rapid and dramatic changes transforming life on the planet. Women might usher in the year by hosting an international conference on world peace and prosperity. Such a conference could seek ways to accelerate the pace of demilitarization, to reduce prejudice, and to create a vision for global well-being which is defined not simply in economic terms, but in terms of quality of life.
A year of reflection might catalyze the process of creating a shared vision for the future and could provide local, national and regional communities an opportunity to examine their traditional values and identify those that will assist humanity to realize a vision of global prosperity. From such conferences could emerge values and principles that could be embraced universally and translated into pragmatic actions.
The Baha'i International Community can testify, based on its own experience, that examining and reshaping traditional beliefs and values to adjust to a new vision can be accomplished in a peaceful, harmonious, and participatory manner. We urge the world community to set the agenda for reflection, and we pledge our support for this noble initiative.
1. "Making the Case for the Gender Variable: Women and the Wealth and Well-being of Nations", Technical Reports in Gender and Development, Office of Women in Development, US Agency for International Development, 1989.
2. Summers, Lawrence H., Vice President & Chief Economist for the World Bank, "Investing in All the People," 1992.
3.Nat Coletta, "Education for All: What Next?" an article for World Bank, 1994.
4. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "Education" #635, The Compilation of Compilations, p. 286.
5. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, #95, pp. 124-125.
6. Universal House of Justice, "To the Peoples of the World", section III, paragraph 3.