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[Op-Ed] The Girl Effect

Posted January. 29, 2009 07:03,   


“She must learn more.” A mother encouraged her 16-year-old daughter to study more and allowed her to get on the last train bound for Seoul. They lived in a remote rural village where the daughter finally got to use electricity at age 13. She must have suffered since she had to work by day and study by night in Seoul. Had her mother not given her daughter a chance at education, Shin Gyeong-sook would never have become one of Korea’s most renowned female writers. Shin also became a bestselling writer after her teacher discovered her outstanding writing skills in her articles.

Korea was poor in the 1960s and 70s but Koreans were eager to educate their children. This is not true in all poor nations, however. Parents in certain developing nations urge their children to earn money instead of studying. Girls are rarely given an education. Under the control of the Taliban, Afghanistan banned girls from attending school. This created a vicious cycle of poverty, domestic violence, unemployment and underdevelopment. Mexico faced a currency crisis in 1994, then introduced the conditional welfare system “Oportunidades,” meaning opportunities. Under the system, poor mothers are given cash only when they send both sons and daughters to school. As a result, the share of Mexicans living in poverty plummeted from 37.4 percent in 1996 to 13.8 percent 10 years later.

In 1992, then World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers, now the director of the White House National Economic Council, said education for girls could well produce the highest rate of return on investment in the developing world. If a girl attends elementary school for one more year, her future income will increase 20 percent and one more year in middle school will result in a rise of 25 percent. Women also invest 90 percent of their income in their own families while men spend only 35 percent. Well-educated women are more willing to educate their children. Moreover, education for girls leads to a drop in infant mortality and AIDS infections.

The World Economic Forum, which opened yesterday, put the anti-poverty efforts of developing nations via the “girl effect” on its agenda. If the share of girls who graduate from secondary school increases 10 percent, poor nations will see their economic growth rate jump by more than three percentage points. That is the “girl effect.” Without it, neither women nor society can grow. Korea’s example of growth proves the effectiveness of the “girl effect.”

Editorial Writer Kim Soon-deok (yuri@donga.com)