Open a newspaper, visit a coffee shop or enter a bookstore and you are likely to see the consensus that education, and particularly education for girls, is the key to development. "Educate a girl, and educate the world" we are told, and certainly we want to believe it and do. Corporations eager to present themselves as good global citizens attempt to associate their brand with empowerment by offering consumers ways participate in girls' education. We learn somewhere there is a girl waiting to leave her proverbial shackles behind by entering the classroom, and our purchasing of this bag of coffee, those shoes, that book makes it all possible. The pictures are compelling, the stories of transformation through schooling uplifting, and we sign on our support. If our goodwill and disposable income were able to create empowered, educated girls and developed communities across the global South, one hopes it would have already happened. Yet it hasn't.
So why hasn't schooling, and specifically schooling for girls, been the panacea it seemed it would be? What may make schooling work better for the most marginalized? Would that the answers to these questions were so easily distillable as to fit on the label of socially conscious bottle of water. A closer look at communities around the world reveals schooling to lie at the nexus of widely various historical, economic, material, gendered, cultural and political realities. Academic content, methods of instruction, classroom conditions and levels of security and safety vary significantly. Schooling, we may conclude, doesn't necessarily, automatically create developed communities and empowered girls after all. We begin to re-think our assumption that education is always positive, always opportunity-creating and indeed that schooling for girls in the global South is the answer to overcoming poverty. If expanding education and getting girls into school isn't enough, what are we to do? Those of us interested in social justice and a more equitable world are tempted to despair at the elusive nature of progress.
These are the kinds of questions that led me, a Western feminist educator who has also been a secondary school teacher in Tanzania, back to the academy. Here I propose that rather than writing off schooling as a force for change in the communities and lives of girls in the global South or transferring our hopes to a new purported solution to global poverty, let us instead pause, take the posture of a learner and listen to the histories and experiences of historically marginalized communities to understand schooling's complexities and as a way to see how to best move forward. This kind of engagement is harder than simply opening our checkbooks, asks more of us than choosing a particular brand of coffee and understands there may not be one simple, global fix to complex and varying problems. Postcolonial and feminist perspectives on schooling, gender and development further the conversation. By re-conceptualizing history and placing those whose voices have been historically left out of the conversation back at the center, these frameworks offer ways to rethink schooling and potentially open a future for girls and marginalized communities that may indeed be transformative, empowering. The following accounts of schooling in two communities in the global South illustrate how schooling's historical roots influence its present expressions and offer hints of how we might proceed reflectively, intentionally, toward a more empowering form of schooling.
Frances Vavrus's account of how one community in northern Tanzania has negotiated with varying religious, colonial and postcolonial governmental authorities around schooling reminds us how education is inherently political. Her book Desire and Decline: Schooling Amid Crisis in Tanzania describes how education isn't always intended simply for the betterment of the local communities -- yet these communities are not necessarily passive recipients and can use schooling to meet their needs. Schooling for the Chagga people on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro has dramatically changed shape and purpose over the years. Formal education was originally used for conversion: it arrived with German missionaries in the 1890s and was only for male students to become evangelists and teachers. As spreading a foreign religion was not high on the Chagga peoples' agenda, families initially felt schooling's benefits were quite limited - sending sons to school meant lost labor, after all. Yet as the presence of Europeans increased, Chagga families perceived the advantages of literacy and the status afforded by education in dealing with their colonizers and soon embraced schooling as offering the possibility of self-representation. Missionaries gradually expanded education on Mt. Kilimanjaro to include girls, but for the limited purposes of spreading Christianity, emphasizing hygiene and disseminating Victorian ideals of mothering. Around the first World War, there were divergent colonial and religious notions of what schooling should be on Mount Kilimanjaro: German missionaries who thought it should preserve certain Chagga tribal traditions were replaced by American missionaries who thought assimilation and Westernization would free the Chagga from "ignorance" and cultural practices that stood in the way of "progress". The Chagga people, for their part, did what they could to own schooling for their children by advocating for more government schools and organizing to represent their economic interests by forming a coffee growers' cooperative union. That profits from this cooperative were used to support education suggests Chagga parents found schooling important for their children's futures.
As the political landscape of the 20th century changed from a British colonial authority to a newly independent Tanzania, the Chagga continued to shape their region's schooling by advocating for more schools, the secularization of education, increased access for girls and the abolishment of regional quotas that restricted Chagga students' access to secondary schools. More recently, when internationally imposed structural adjustment programs made schooling in Tanzania more expensive and access decreased, Chagga people, like many Tanzanian communities, turned to private schooling as a means to continue educating their children. Yet paying ever-increasing school fees has not always been possible for families on the margins, and some Chagga parents, like many around the world, have had to make difficult choices about how best to maximize their meager resources by choosing to educate only some of their children and only to a certain level. NGOs , bilateral aid groups and religious communities have stepped into some of the gap on Kilimanjaro, but secondary schooling in particular remains out of reach for many families. Additionally, for those lucky enough to go to school, conditions can be tough, teachers and resources few and the local expressions of a depressed global economy are likely to limit job opportunities education can offer graduates.
We see that for the Chagga, schooling has been and remains a site of tension where identities and the purpose of education are contested, where Western players -whether missionaries on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro speaking the Chagga language or far away policy makers in international bank boardrooms - greatly influence what is taught and to whom. This is but one example of one community in one country on one continent, yet the Chagga people's historical and current relationships with schooling are representative of a myriad of complexities of schooling's place in communities around the world, particularly in the postcolonial global South. Though schooling hasn't always been fashioned to serve their purposes and isn't sufficient to guarantee an opportunity-filled future, Chagga families have continued to value schooling for their children and continually seek to influence and own education on Kilimanjaro. This suggests schooling remains a central strategy in building a better life, in developing individual and communal futures. So we ask ourselves, how might schooling, even with its at times dubious past and circumscribed present, be made to work for the betterment of marginalized communities, and particularly for girls? While there are a great many models of schooling for empowerment being explored, let us look at one.
Switching to another postcolonial context in India, Payal P. Shah describes a school that has made inroads in fostering empowerment for at risk girls. Also a former British colony, India's national education system retains vestiges of its colonial and mission past where Western-model schooling was first implemented to meet the needs of the colonizers. As such, rather than being an empowering, opportunity-creating institution, schooling has often perpetuated and exacerbated divisions and inequalities in India, especially in regards to caste and gender. The KGBV Residential Primary School Program is an effort between the Indian government and the NGO CARE India to meet the needs of the most marginalized girls who may not otherwise attend school due to their class, caste and gender.
Shah cites several innovative features of this school that make it uniquely equipped to serve these girls. First, in addition to emphasizing academics, the program explicitly focuses on building the girls' confidence through emphasizing social, communicative and life skills. This is done in part by shifting the pedagogical focus away from the teacher as experts toward the students as co-creators of knowledge, challenging top-down notions and enabling the students to develop their higher-order thinking skills. These skills will be necessary when they return to confront and possibly transform the realities of their communities. Additionally, the school intentionally seeks to create "space", both physical and metaphorical, for the girls to grow and develop. This is a particularly powerful concept for a girls' school in India given how densely populated the country is, and how some traditional gendered norms limit the opportunities girls are afforded. It is in this space that girls begin to imagine a world in which their places are reconfigured and how they may go about attaining such a place. Finally, as it is a residential school, girls are free from domestic duties and better able to concentrate on their studies and foster deep relationships with their peers and teachers. One girl remarks about her teacher: "(She) is like our mother, she takes good care of us. The other girls, we are all like sisters." Such a model builds a sense of solidarity and collective strength. Indeed, the program exemplifies ways in which schooling may be transformed from its more limited historical models to become a place that fosters transformative potential in girls for their own lives and their communities. The KGBV is a powerful model of schooling where education is owned by and works for the people it seeks to serve.
In Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Chandra Mohanty affirms "it is the common context of struggles against specific exploitative structures and systems that determines our potential political alliances". Too often, both historically and in the present, schooling has been one of the more exploitative systems, particularly so in the global South. Thus schooling's position as the solution for the problems of global poverty and disempowerment need to be questioned. Nevertheless, the examples from Tanzania and India suggest that, despite its limitations, education remains a critical and potentially transformative component of individual and community development, especially schooling in reconfigured forms that intentionally seek to promote empowerment for the most marginalized. The challenge for those of us who seek social justice and wish to encourage empowerment for girls in the global South is to move beyond simplistic, consumer-oriented fixes and find ways to ally ourselves with those who are doing the hard, transformative work of schooling and development for empowerment. I am convinced that, with supportive solidarity, marginalized communities can find ways to own their schooling toward empowerment.
Mohanty, C. (2003): Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke, Chap 2: Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and Politics of Feminism
Shay, P. (2011): Girls' Education and Discursive Spaces for Empowerment: Perspectives from rural India. Research in Comparative and International Education, 6(1), 90-106.
Vavrus, F. (2003): Desire and Decline: Schooling Amid Crisis in Tanzania. NY: Peter Lang, Chap 2: Transformations in Schooling in Northern Tanzania.