As a newly-minted public health researcher, I was standing in the spacious but poorly-equipped emergency room in a township children’s hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, observing doctors taking care of severely under-nourished newborns. One of them had passed away 10 minutes earlier and her mother, by all appearances no more than 20 years old, was still in a catastrophic state of distress. This was not an exception. Other babies were crying with no tears coming out of their eyes due to dehydration or simply lying on the bed without energy to move their bodies. In this hospital alone, hundreds of babies die every year simply because of malnutrition and related causes.
Educating young mothers improves children’s health
Sierra Leone has one of the highest neonatal mortality rates in the world: 50 deaths per 1,000 live births according to the World Bank.
Globally, it is estimated that three quarters of the annual neonatal death toll is avoidable. Education for young girls (who will be mothers) is one of the most effective ways to avoid neonatal deaths.
Young mothers with limited education often don’t know how best to provide quality feeding and a safe environment for their infants. When babies are severely ill, mothers around Freetown travel long distances to seek medical treatment in clinics and hospitals. Their extremely limited educational background does not allow them to describe a baby’s symptoms properly, which in turn makes it very difficult for doctors to diagnose the problem in a timely manner.
Also, let’s not forget that maternal and child health is often linked to the income of women, which indirectly correlates with the education mothers receive. The less a mother (and family) earns, the less money is spent on infant and child healthcare.
A huge body of research has proven that better educated women spend more on their children’s health. In short, investing in girls’ education is not only a matter that impacts our generation, but is also a crucial matter of importance for generations to come.
Girls’ health problems and related stigma prevent them from going to school
The relationship between education and health is not a one-way street. Girls’ health, particularly sexual and reproductive health, is an important issue for their education. Often, girls’ sexual and reproductive health problems are related to stigma and discrimination, further creating ostracism in and outside of school.
Take the example of June, a young woman from a rural area in Baan Grang in Pitsanulok Province, Thailand. During an interview in Bangkok, she recounted how as a young woman, she was trafficked to Bangkok for commercial sex work. She had hoped that the money she earned could later be used to pay for her education.
Unfortunately, she experienced several unwanted pregnancies and contracted sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The cultural context and her health status didn’t allow her to continue her education.
However, emerging from her general feelings of hopelessness and bleak outlook was the firm conviction that education for girls can only be improved if health and health-related stigma are taken into serious consideration by policymakers.
Social norms need to change – particularly for girls
As a youth coordinator at the United Nations Population Fund in China working on adolescent sexual and reproductive health issues, I have met dozens of young girls like June from China and other countries who are out of school because of unwanted pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, and STDs. However, unlike other infectious diseases, the government, communities, and society at large continue to ignore the real and devastating problems these girls face because of social norms.
While the same government or community may strongly advocate for the education rights for all, they will not talk about barriers these girls face or help find solutions -- simply because those issues are not their priorities.
What’s been forgotten is that universal education rights don’t mean anything if issues related to women’s health and gender inequality remain unsolved.
Despite the proven relationship between girls’ education and public health and the overall progress countries have made in universal education, stories like June’s and the one from Sierra Leone show that more efforts must be made. To ensure progress, we need continuous efforts to identify and address the full range of issues affecting girls’ education.
Special thanks to Ms. Maeva Peek, an intern at the United Nation Population Fund China office, who contributed to this article.