The majority of countries where extremism is flourishing are countries where poverty and archaic systems of education intersect and where five conditions exist at the same time:
1. Wide spread poverty in some regions of these countries;
2. Old, archaic systems of education where the content of education and the methodologies of teaching do not respect basic human rights and devalue girls and women;
3. Low girls’ secondary education completion rates;
4. A gap between girls’ completion rates and boys’ completion rates at the secondary level; and
5. High unemployment rates in certain regions of these countries or in the country as a whole.
As a result of these five factors meshing together, a fertile ground for extremism flourishes. Other factors, mainly political, also play a major role, however, the above five factors are necessary conditions for extremism to flourish.
The following statistics from UNICEF for three countries where terrorism continues to flourish are a case in point. These three countries are Yemen, Nigeria, and Afghanistan.
Male secondary school participation, net attendance ratio: 48.8% (2008-2012)
Female secondary school participation, net attendance ratio: 27.2% (2008-2012)
Population below international poverty line of US$1.25 per day: 17.5% (2007-2011)
Note the gap between male and female secondary school attendance in Yemen. There are no readily accessible national statistics for completion rates at the secondary level. These rates will be even lower than the attendance rates and the gender gap bigger. If we look at the regional statistics of Yemen, we will note that the gender gap in the northern part of the country is wider than in the southern part. It is also important to note that Al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen is mainly in the northern part.
Male youth (15-24 years) literacy rate: 75.6% (2008-2012)
Female youth (15-24 years) literacy rate: 58% (2008-2012)
Population below international poverty line of US$1.25 per day: 54.4% (2007-2011)
There are no readily accessible secondary attendance or completion statistics for Nigeria, only youth statistics.
The gender gap for completion of secondary school will be much larger than the youth literacy rates gender gap, and of course in the northern Nigerian region of Kano where Boko Haram exists, all of these statistics would be lower and the gender gap larger.
Male secondary school participation, net attendance ratio: 42.8% (2008-2012)
Female secondary school participation, net attendance ratio: 21.1% (2008-2012)
Population below international poverty line of US$1.25 per day: 35.8% (2007-2011)
Note the very low female secondary school participation rate, female completion rates would be even lower.
Girls and young women as well as boys and young men who live in poor rural areas or urban shanty towns and who have the opportunity of completing quality modern secondary education will be transformed and empowered in very practical ways. The key words here are quality and modern. Old archaic educational systems teach gender norms that do not emanate from a vision of social justice. Many of the traditional educational system curricula teach blind obedience to religion and leaders; narrow gender roles that portray women as submissive; do not appreciate diversity and minorities; neglect respect for inquiry and discovery methods; and do not even acknowledge basic human rights.
The content and objectives of many antiquated educational systems are often dictated by patriarchal societies where social norms expect that girls and young women belong to a private sphere and have no business in the public sphere. They value followers, not free thinkers. Many of the educational systems in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia follow this pattern.
Reform is imperative within the education systems where conservative traditional societies dictate non-flexible gender norms, and where basic human rights and a vision of an inclusive social justice are absent. In many countries, the education systems in general and classroom teachers in particular need to ensure that students — girls and boys — are learning “modern” skills in addition to the classical literacy and numeracy foundational skills.
What I mean by “modern” skills are curricula that teach girls and boys independent thinking, critical analysis, problem solving, rational behavior, questioning and inquiry, discovery approaches, taking initiative, respect for diversity, appreciation of social justice, and knowledge that enables individuals to continuously acquire relevant information and skills that they can use in their personal lives to earn a living.
Young women and men who receive such education act more assertively and play a more constructive role in the social and economic decisions of their homes, their families, and their communities.
This is what extremists like Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda in Yemen, and ISIS in Syria and Iraq seek to end. Empowered women with minds of their own, and women who want to help determine their and their families’ futures as equal partners are not part of the extremist agenda. Rare exceptions might exist when a small number of women accept to become tools in the hands of such extremist organizations and blindly obey the leadership to commit terrorists acts. However, educated women in general are less likely to accept subjugation and oppression and are less likely to follow blindly the ruthless leaders of terrorist organizations.
The voices of educated women can and will become a transformative factor in very traditional societies where extremists dominate.
The coalition of countries that is working to weaken and defeat ISIS, and other terrorist organizations, must pay attention to reforming the systems of education in these countries. Long-term solutions require that the coalition of governments that are working together assist in overhauling educational systems to ensure societies’ exposure to elevated principals of tolerance, gender equity, and basic human rights. The reformed systems of education should offer both girls and boys quality modern education and help them all complete secondary education. Also, assistance to these countries in transitioning girls and boys from secondary education to careers or tertiary education is critical.
We lose our ability to imagine lasting social solutions when our vision of international educational development is not inclusive of girls and boys, young women and young men.
We must see that military action to defeat extremists is a short term solution. Long-term solutions can only be obtained as a result of a quality, modern system of education that reaches equally girls and boys and has the power to transform the new generations into a constructive social power.