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Barbara Bylenga Headshot

Are We Afraid to Educate Girls Beyond Secondary School?

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GIRLS IN SCHOOL NIGERIA
ASSOCIATED PRESS

As someone committed to women's empowerment in post-conflict countries, I am deeply moved by the outcry and press regarding the schoolgirl kidnappings by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Although tragic, this event is also compelling because it allows the world to see the fear of educated women.

This is not unique to Islamic terrorists. Shining a light on this issue also illuminates the fact that the global movement to educate girls currently stops short of helping them attain college degrees -- achieving the level of education required to become leaders able to shape and change cultures and laws. Instead, women in developing nations typically hit a wall after secondary school. While they gain a path to more productive work and livelihoods that help their families and nations thrive, the best and brightest still lack the opportunity to become forceful leaders and change-agents.

Many argue that the movement's hesitancy to push this educational envelope is a function of scarce resources in emerging economies that face massive economic, social, and health priorities. That's undoubtedly true. But the limitations are also a function of fear -- fear of finding out what would really happen if women were not just educated enough to better themselves, but to crash through and dismantle centuries of gender barriers.

Now, for the first time in history, Afghan women have the opportunity to attain positions of power in the social, political and economic affairs of their country. One of the main reasons that Afghanistan's young women can demand seats at the decision-making table is because they have earned college degrees. Will these college-educated young women lead to widespread changes over time? Backlashes notwithstanding, I'm willing to bet on it.

Next to education, the greatest, and perhaps most insidious barrier to empowering women as leaders is cultural oppression. In many developing nations, from the moment a female is born, cultural mores reinforce that she is "less than" her male counterparts. Building the confidence to challenge gender barriers and break the cycle of oppression is extremely difficult in such circumstances, even with a college degree. There will always be a few Malala Yousafzais and Leymah Gbowees who exude natural confidence and leadership. But profound and lasting change will require an influential number of women with a wider perspective on what is possible than they were taught growing up.

Exposure to higher education in the U.S. is especially valuable as it requires women to develop an array of skills -- critical thinking, entrepreneurship, the embrace of diverse ideas and views, communicating persuasively and effectively -- that enable them to be successful leaders at home. In their home country, where they experience severe gender discrimination, these skills are rarely taught to women in university settings, much less encouraged culturally. Therefore, even those who are educated at home and later assume leadership roles often lack the confidence, skills, and global perspectives to challenge authority and outdated norms.

U.S. colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to become an influential force in building female global leadership in post-conflict countries. By coming together and consistently awarding international scholarships to the brightest young women from these countries, U.S. schools can produce a steady stream of educated, empowered and networked leaders returning home each year. Together these women will form a small but solid base of change agents and role models with the potential to influence millions of people.

As post-conflict countries go through challenging political transitions, women must have a say in the trajectory of their governments' decisions and futures. This will not be possible without building a strong and growing network of influential young women with a higher education, a global sensibility, and a sense of personal empowerment. Until the Western world rises up and extends the movement for girls' education beyond secondary school we must ask whether we, like Boko Haram, are afraid that girls are becoming a little too smart.