When Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters crooned, “We don't need no education, We don't need no thought control” to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, performing in what used to be the “no man’s lot” between the two Germanys - authoritarian communist East and democratic West - a crowd of 350,00 present and hundreds of millions watching live in 52 countries, joined in unison “Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone! All in all, you're just another brick in the wall.” The electrifying tumbling of the iron curtain in 1991 ushered in an unprecedented era of emerging democracies in Europe and across the globe. In those countries, the influx of diverse voices into governance led to higher levels of egalitarian gender attitudes and facilitated social cohesion making communities more likely to cooperate for common goods. This trend, however, has been reversing for half of the 32 years since. According to V-Dem’s 2022 Democracy Report about 70% of the world population now lives in autocracies, up from 49% a decade ago.
Yet the rising tide of authoritarian governments, many still masquerading as democracies, has met a formidable foe: resistance, much of it led by young people, especially young women, most of whom are students. Students have led many of history’s greatest protests worldwide, including the 1976 Soweto, South Africa Uprising against Apartheid, to Tiananmen Square in China that same year, to climate strikes initiated by female high school activists gaining global momentum in 2019. Today, young women in Afghanistan and Iran demanding basic rights and freedoms are dubbed the “gate openers of democracy.” In NDI’s dedicated Changing the Face of Politics podcast episode featuring young women leaders as part of its campaign, 19-year-old Chilean climate justice and gender equity youth activist, Julieta Martinez, interviewed 19-year-old Nigerian girls’ education activist, Peace Ayo, about the importance of education and engaging young women and girls in politics while breaking through gender norms. Ayo talks about her desire to “be a voice to help amplify other voices” and encourages other young women to directly advocate for and champion change. Education makes for informed civic actors.
Historically, and increasingly, women mobilize, connect across divides, and launch resistance movements as antidotes to authoritarianism and oppression, including cynical attempts to deprive them of education, constraining what and how they may learn. But “girls are still more likely than boys to never set foot in a classroom, despite the tremendous progress made over the past 20 years,” cautions the UN. Further, girls face more difficulty accessing education than boys due to discriminatory social norms. These norms often mean that they have "responsibilities that can interfere with schooling," as well as practical obstacles ranging from sexual harassment from teachers and other students, and unavailable menstrual care products or toilet facilities in schools. All these barriers directly affect the extent to which girls and women are able to participate in civic affairs and political processes: those with education are more likely to be aware of their rights and be confident in asserting them.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s forced school shutdowns further exacerbated the gender gap in education, particularly among girls in low-income and vulnerable circumstances who left school during COVID-19. Many have not and will not return, with clear long-term impacts on personal earnings, their participation in public life, and their ability to contribute to a prosperous, secure, and stable future for their families and communities.
In Afghanistan women and girls are now banned from attending schools and universities. Cognizant of the inherent injustice of such a decree and its systemic implementation and given its far-reaching, intergenerational ramifications, fellow male students walked out of classes and male professors resigned until a time when women may resume or commence their studies. The hashtag #LetHerLearn appeared on public walls and drew worldwide online uptake. While women are also barred from working and most public spaces, including gyms and parks, and from running for or holding office, the cutting off of education means today's and future generations of Afghan women will grow up without the skills and knowledge needed to contribute to their economies and shape their countries’ trajectories.
Today, the International Day of Education, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as a celebration of “the role of education for peace and development” affirms education as “a human right, a public good and a public responsibility.” Education is also a basic prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Empirical studies find that higher education rates lead to greater popular support for and more democratic politics with greater civic engagement. Likewise, better-educated nations are more likely both to preserve democracy and to protect it from backsliding. In a near virtuous cycle, research data indicates that education leads to more democracy, and democracy leads to more education, with the most concrete dividends going to rural, low- and middle-income households.
Inclusive, gender-equitable democracies serve to reduce poverty and foster a more empowered populace and peaceful future. Closing the education gap for girls and women in all their diversity is key to those achievements. We all need education. The kind that spurs better, more inclusive and just futures for people and the planet. The kind that builds bridges, not walls.
Author: Tzili Mor, Senior Advisor for Gender & Democracy with Kaimyn Paszko, Program Officer with the Women, Gender and Democracy team at NDI, and with thanks to Sarah Miyahara for initiating research and drafting of this piece.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.