Shooting of 14-year-old girl illustrates how oppression of women starts early in developing countries
On Tuesday, Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old schoolgirl and activist was shot in the head and the neck by a Taleban gunman in northwestern Pakistan. According to the New York Times, Malala "is a champion of girl's education and a potent symbol of resistance to militant ideology".
Why was she shot? Said a Taleban spokesman: "She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it."
I am going to leave aside the heart-breaking question of how a society gets to a point where a 14-year-old has to take on the mantle of being a champion of female education and the face of resistance to militancy. I am also going to sidestep the question of what kind of theological movement teaches its followers that it is okay to shoot a 14-year-old girl for demanding nothing other than the right to be educated.
Rather, I will concentrate on why educating women in under-developed countries is important, something that does not seem to be widely understood. Providing education for women is not only a way of ensuring gender equality but has far more profound implications for the economic development of poor countries.
If I am asked to suggest a single policy intervention that will have the maximum impact on poverty across the world it is this: educate the girls.
The unequal treatment of girls starts early. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist calls them the "missing women". In the developing countries of the world, the proportion of women is lower than what would be expected if girls and women throughout the region were born and died at the same rate, relative to boys and men.
The World Development Report 2012 estimates that six million women are missing every year; largely through sex-selective abortions, female infanticide and much higher mortality rates of young girls, explained, at least in part, by the fact that in times of trouble such as droughts it is often the male child that is fed at the expense of the female child.
It is also the case that in times of scarcity the incidence of "witch killings" increases dramatically. The witches are all older women who are no longer able to do much work but still make a claim on scarce food rations.
It is also the case that in the developing world male children receive more or better treatment for diseases resulting in more young girls dying.
Interviews of parents in five states in north India report that as many as 10 per cent believed it was not important for girls to be educated. Only 1 per cent believed the same for boys. Fifty-seven per cent wanted their sons to study "as far as possible"; only 28 per cent wanted the same for their daughters.
Clearly, providing education for girls improves their employment prospects and addresses issues of gender equality. This is important and a worthy goal to achieve.
But there are other positive consequences from educating the women.
Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn points out that education for girls influences all aspects of development, leading to reduced child and maternal mortality rates, increased educational levels of their children and better management of natural resources.
All of these are essential pre-conditions for economic growth.
More education for girls also enables more women to attain positions of leadership, and it has been shown that increased female participation in government leads to reduced corruption.
Other studies have found strong positive correlation between mothers' education and earnings and child health.
Not only does higher education translate into higher income for women, research suggests that in developing countries income or assets in the hands of women is associated with more money being spent on household nutrients, health and housing and less on things like alcohol and tobacco. This is one reason why many micro-finance organisations such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, make their loans exclusively to women.
The bottom-line is incontrovertible: societies that do a better job of educating their girls have better overall economic outcomes than those which fail to do so.
As for me when I go home tonight I am going to hug my two girls, ignoring their embarrassment at such effusive display of fatherly affection and hope that in their lifetime they will be able to live in a world where no teenage girl is shot simply for demanding the right to education and equal treatment.
Ananish Chaudhuri is professor of experimental economics at the University of Auckland Business School.