Education: Privilege or a Human Right?

Story by Elena Crouch

Growing up, I didn’t truly appreciate the opportunity, or the value, of receiving an education.

My parents didn’t have to choose which of their two daughters would be able to attend secondary school. It didn’t matter how much money my family had, it didn’t matter that my sister and I were both female: not only were we able to go to school, we were both supposed to.  In America, access to education is a human right, not a privilege.  

Children around the world aren’t so lucky. Globally, education systems are flawed: especially for young girls. According to UNESCO, there are more than 774 million illiterate adults in our world and a staggering two-thirds of them are female. This disparity has remained consistent for the past twenty years, and given that 76 million of the 123 million illiterate youth today are female, it’s a disparity that isn’t going away anytime soon. With less than 40% of countries providing equal access to primary education for both boys and girls, and less than 39% of countries providing equal opportunities for secondary education, illiteracy and poverty rates around the globe continue to paint a harsh reality.

The reality is, if we want to “fix poverty” and live in a more equal and developed world: we have to educate women. A lack of female education means poorer public health and sanitation, lower standards of living, higher infant mortality rates, and so much more. A child is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five if they’re born to a mother who can read, and each extra year of schooling that their mother receives reduces the likelihood of infant mortality by 5-10%. We can’t deny it—educating women raises people out of poverty.  We’ve acknowledged this dilemma, but what are we doing to solve it?

Earlier last year, I was lucky enough to stumble upon modzi.

modzi (mode·zhē) is a non-profit organization that mentors vulnerable youth in Zambia and facilitates their access to quality education. Through Northeastern University’s Co-Op Program, I had the opportunity to become involved in modzi’s important work, live in Zambia, and work directly with modzi’s founders.

My work as a co-op varied from helping prepare students in modzi’s program for the start of a new school year, to working on media collection for future projects.  However, the initiative that ultimately solidified my decision to join the modzi team in Zambia was the organization’s plans to formally launch a girls education program.

When modzi originated, its programs worked predominantly with young boys in Zambia. This was due, in part, to existing relationships in the community.  However, the reality was it was less expensive, logistically more doable, and ultimately more tangible, than creating opportunities for young girls. 

In many countries, education isn’t free. In Zambia, primary education is funded by the government, but secondary school is not. In addition to the costs of formal education, gender norms and societal stigmas pose challenges in Zambia and many other countries with similar poverty levels. Women are expected to stay home and take care of the house, and their contributions to cooking and cleaning are too valuable to be left undone if they were to attend school. Child marriages and early pregnancy are additional obstacles that plague young girls who should be attending school. These are just a few of the many reasons that boys’ education is often prioritized over girls’ education- but modzi is looking to offset that disparity. Through the launch of our new Girls Education program, which addresses the gender norms and societal stigmas that young girls throughout Zambia confront on a daily basis, we are able to inspire change.

These young girls, who study in bathroom stalls at night to avoid waking up others, cherish their education.  They are strong, they are smart, and they are resilient. Why is their access to education a privilege, and not a human right?