It’s Time for Large-Scale Investment in Girls’ Education Across Asia

By Jane Sloane

Educating girls is one of the most effective ways for countries to achieve their economic potential, improve health, reduce conflict, and save lives. Education is also a basic human right. At a time when growing inequality in a number of Asian countries is profoundly affecting girls’ access to education, it is critical that donors investing in girls’ education include Asia in their geographic focus. In a number of Asian countries, girls cannot complete their schooling due to early marriage, poverty, gender norms, and other sociocultural factors. This has a downstream effect of limiting young women’s participation in fields such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and applied sciences (STEM), thus narrowing the scope of job opportunities for them.

“The issues around girls’ education in Vietnam are related to poverty and inequality,” says Dr. Michael DiGregorio, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. “Girls from poor families need money for school fees, books, and transport. One or both parents of many of the girls we support are ill and, in nearly all cases, poorly educated themselves. They want a better life for their daughters, but without the funding we are able to provide, many would need to ask their daughters to find work to support their families instead.”

“Girls face many challenges such as financial hardship and the social norms around girls’ education, including the perception in many families and communities that girls don’t need an education, just a rich husband,” Nhung says.

“Compounding this is the poor teaching in many areas and the special challenges facing girls from ethnic minorities, who are more likely to be married between the ages of 14 and 18. It’s not legal, but it happens. Therefore, we prioritize our scholarships for ethnic minorities,” says Nhung.

“We also engage parents in a discussion of the importance of education. At our scholarship ceremony, we invite parents to honor their role in their daughters’ education, and we ask them to create favorable conditions for their daughters to focus on their studies.”

“We need more funds to educate parents and community leaders about the value of girls’ education. With soft-skills training at the secondary level, we could also provide girls with the skills and mentoring support they need to position themselves for work or additional study. Right now, we provide soft-skills training to university students; however, we need more such training for secondary students,” Nhung said.

While I was in Vietnam last month, we held a discussion with some of the Foundation’s STEM scholars, and they shared some of the skills they had developed to succeed in their studies and prepare to enter the workforce. These included public speaking and openness to others, listening and problem-solving skills, and positive affirmations such as “I can change myself (from being shy),” “challenge bias and be strong, even in an all-male situation,” and “don’t be afraid to raise your voice and viewpoint.”

One young woman was overcome with emotion when she went to speak. She had had so little confidence when she first received her scholarship, she explained, that the combination of academic and mentoring support had changed her life.

This work demonstrates what a large-scale program of girls’ education across Asia could achieve with a mix of public and private investment. The Asia Foundation has managed girls’ education programs in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Mongolia for decades. Our programs are multifaceted and include scholarships, living accommodations, literacy tutoring, mentoring, career counseling, financial literacy training, and soft-skills development. To date, the Foundation has supported over 70,000 girls in Afghanistan and more than 10,000 in other parts of Asia.

In Vietnam, the Foundation has two scholarship programs for girls, one for secondary schools and one for university students. The Foundation’s secondary school scholarships have supported 1,700 girls from six provinces since 2004. The university program, launched in 2011, has supported 220 female students majoring in STEM to help position them for careers in high-skill fields with better pay and opportunities. In addition to tuition, academic support, and skill-building support, peer-to-peer mentoring is an especially valuable part of this program.

While in Mindanao in the Philippines last week, spending time with some of the women who led the peace process here, we talked about the importance of girl’s education. Froilyn Mendoza, executive director of the Teduray Lambangian Women’s Organization, spoke of how poverty, isolation, and traditional social norms hamper indigenous girls’ education. Many girls are illiterate. Many marry early, become pregnant, and if they don’t die in childbirth, are condemned to a life of poverty, where they reproduce the cycle of lack of education and opportunity.

“Our theory of change for women, peace, and security needs to start with girls’ education,” I said. “We need to include scholarships and wrap-around support in a comprehensive program, since women are integral to the peace process and to the region’s long-term economic prosperity.”

Noraida Chio, a senior program officer with The Asia Foundation in Mindanao, was quiet, listening intently, and then she said, “I am a testament to that. I came from a very poor family, and I was only able to attend Notre Dame University in Cotabato City because of a scholarship. But I didn’t have the mentoring support I needed, and I lost my scholarship due to a couple of poor grades.”

“Before I left the city, I took the test for the government’s scholarship program. Then I returned to my home near the sea, and I stared at the waves, thinking, ‘I don’t want to spend my time watching waves.’ So, I tried military training, where the commanders expected me to crawl through barriers and dismantle arms. A commander had his boots on my back, and I was thinking, ‘This isn’t for me.’”

“One day, I went home and found a fat letter awaiting me, and I read the lines, ‘Congratulations, you passed the scholarship exam.’ I immediately returned to Notre Dame University to get my education degree.”

“This time, instead of losing my scholarship, I made the dean’s list for my last two years. When I graduated, my first career was in alternative learning systems. My first student was my mother, who was illiterate. Within two weeks she was reading.”

Now, 20 years later, Noraida is leading The Asia Foundation’s Women, Peace, and Security program in the Philippines, working with schools on curriculum and supporting more than 50,000 women who have been active in bringing peace to Mindanao.

Educating girls and young women can change the history of a nation as well as the life of a girl. It’s time for a large-scale investment in girls’ education in Asia to make that a reality for the next generation.

Jane Sloane is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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