Heroines: A celebration of women and the power of education

Education has the power to transform the lives of women around the world Photo: Malala Addresses Youth Assembly. Image credit: UN Photo Rick Bajornas

UNITED KINGDOM, October 10, 2013 — A year ago this week, on October 9, 2012, 15 year old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban because she spoke out for the right of girls in Pakistan to gain an education, something most of us take for granted.

Nine months later on her 16th birthday Malala addressed a specially convened youth assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York. “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world,” was the message of her speech in which she called on politicians around the world to ensure that every child can go to school. There is now talk that this brave young woman could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In attempting to silence her defiant voice, her attackers have only made her call louder. In her words “I think they may be regretting that they shot Malala,” she says. “Now she is heard in every corner of the world.”

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According to statistics from the Global Poverty Project women make up half the world’s population yet represent 70 percent of the world’s poor. Women living in poverty face inequalities and injustice for all their lives, from poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment. 99 percent of the 500,000 women who die in childbirth every year live in developing countries. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half the world’s food, yet they earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.

Equal access to education is one of the key goals set out by the U.N. Millennium Project which recognizes that the educational achievements of women can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty.

Education is fundamental to empower girls and young women living in poverty to make informed choices about their own lives as well as those of their communities. It allows them to have more control over their life choices such as marriage, birth control and healthcare, employment and household decision-making and ability to speak out against abuse.

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Here in the developed world, throughout the history of scientific endeavour women have made their mark. Here is a video listing 29 women scientists and the contributions they have made to society.

Unfortunately equal opportunity does not always guarantee equal recognition. Most famously in the case of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray diffraction images, and her accurate interpretation of the data, cconfirmed the double helix structure of DNA, yet it was Francis Crick and James Watson who got all the glory.

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Here another scientist, astrophysicist, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered the first radio pulsars, talks about women in science, drawing from her own experiences, which will strike a chord with women in many walks of life.

Even in my own generation there are girls who were discouraged at school from taking science in general, and physics in particular, because it was a ‘boys subject’. Jocelyn’s reference to the Good Wife’s Guide 1955 recalls this comedy sketch from Harry Enfield. Luckily we have all moved on and can look back now and laugh at such outdated thinking.

There are now females role models for our daughters beyond the ever present singers, actresses and stick thin super models. My own daughter at age 6 declared her ambition to “be the head of NASA” after seeing a talk on Saturn by Dr Carolyn Porco. Since 1978, NASA has been accepting women for astronaut training. Judy Resnik, Shannon Lucid, Margaret Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher and Sally Ride, were the original 6 American women astronauts admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program. This year NASA’s intake of eight new trainees was equally split, four men and four women. Between these two events lies the story of NASA’s Women Astronauts.

Women have taken their place in most areas of society, still not enough of them, still too often treated unequally and facing sexism on a daily basis. There is still much work to be done, not least in the fight to end violence against women that too many face throughout the world. We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. Education is the key and we are at least Shaking The Tree.

“The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.” - Aung San Suu Kyi

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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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