Attacks on girls’ schools and female students have appeared in the headlines regularly in recent years, from the abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram to the assassination attempt on student and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.
A recently released UN Human Rights Council report notes that in 2012 alone, more than 3,600 attacks occurred against educational institutions, teachers, and students. In the period between 2009 and 2014, school attacks were documented in over seventy different countries, including attacks specifically targeting students, parents, and teachers who have advocated for girls’ right to education.
Threats and attacks on girls’ education have implications beyond even the livelihoods and futures of those girls. For decades, research has demonstrated that girls’ education is a proven method for growing economies, reducing extremism, and creating stability. Improvement in girls’ education is correlated with increased female participation and productivity in the labor market, thus generating economic growth and reducing poverty. Moreover, educated girls are more likely to marry later, have smaller families, and experience reduced incidences of HIV/AIDS. Not only are these benefits for the girls themselves, but also for their children, who are then more likely to be healthy and productive.
Educating girls has the power to mitigate those factors—including oversized youth populations, mass poverty, and limited economic opportunity—that create the environments where extremism tends to thrive. As Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has said, “There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems, it’s just one and it’s education.”
Thus, increasing U.S. investment in education abroad—particularly girls’ education—has the potential to reduce threats to national security before they manifest as full-scale conflicts. Rather than paying U.S. lives and dollars to fight terrorists after they established themselves abroad, the United States should invest in creating stable, prosperous societies, where extremism will have more difficulty taking root.
International education has been discussed as part of the foreign policy agenda in recent years. In fact, one of President Obama’s 2008 campaign promises was to create a global education fund. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also spoken out in favor of investing in education abroad, writing in Foreign Affairs, “Education has immeasurable power to promote growth and stability around the world. Educating girls and integrating them into the labor force is especially critical to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
Yet the promised increases in funding for education abroad have not yet materialized. In both 2011 and 2013, the House of Representatives introduced the Education for All Act, a bill that to increase U.S. aid for education to $3 billion per year. But the bill has never passed, and from 2010 to 2013, education funding to Afghanistan declined steadily. The United States should support education—specifically girls’ education—abroad not only to empower and benefit girls around the world, but also to reduce poverty and improve stability in strategic regions and achieve U.S. national security interests.