By Camilla Caraccio
International Women's Initiative News Writer
In Fall 2015, all 193 Member States of the United Nations spelled out their resolute commitment to working toward gender equality worldwide as part of the UN's 2030 Development Agenda. One year and a handful of reform efforts later, small yet significant steps forward suggest that Jordan may be on the right track to reaching this goal within the target date.
Yet, the significant gains achieved in urban areas overshadow the struggle that numerous rural women still face in accessing education in their impoverished communities. In these backward settings of Jordan, the reluctance to educate girls finds its stubborn root cause in a series of elements, among which longstanding cultural practices play a prominent role. Alongside this aspect, rural education enrolment has been historically influenced by geographic location and wealth status, with a persistent correlation between GDP and life-school expectancy.
Acting Beyond the Urban/Rural Dichotomy
A lucid analysis of the problem, though, should encompass more nuances rather than being limited to mere quantitative terms. According to a report released by Amman-based think tank Identity Center for Human Development, little improvement of female participation in education has been seen over the past decade, with girls enrolled at a growing rate. Notwithstanding such formidable progress, education opportunities available to rural students remain limited because the quality of education provided in rural schools is not as high as that of their urban counterparts. The discrepancy between the two is mainly due to an overall negative in-school climate that can be ascribed to two phenomena: rural to urban teacher migration and insufficient educational resources. In particular, financial restrictions have taken heavy toll on the capacity of local teachers, hence the whole education system is cracking under considerable strain.
Together with parental decisions around marriage and social gender roles, low-quality schooling has been identified as key element leading to dropouts and one of the major barriers to participation in higher education. Being education a prerequisite for them to get involved in decision-making processes, women represent the segment of society most severely affected by this asymmetry. Poor schooling translates into a dearth of basic competencies, which in turn proves key deterrent value to conscious life and individual career choices. Furthermore, rural schools notably lack the presence of female role models that would be crucial in encouraging girls' educational success and the achievement of greater economic self-sufficiency. As direct implication of all these features, it's likely that a poor girl abandons her school and ultimately loses the opportunity to help with their community's development, ending up in a precarious work environment or – even worse – trapped into a suffocating dependence upon her husband and family.
Ending the enduring reliance of rural schools on the government would require radical changes to the education system but, in order to be effective, further reforms need to address the earliest stages of education, the report argues. Then, as the government dawdles on substantial reforms, innovative educational roadmaps may be the key to transforming women's rural education from the inside out.
Building Up Gender Equality Through Diverse Educational Pathways
UNESCO defines education as a paramount tool for individuals and national development. A lifelong process which enables the continuous enhancement of a person’s capabilities as an individual and as a member of society, it can take three different forms. Among these, non-formal education is a way of helping societies to be more democratic and to respect human rights, ensuring de facto that at-risk and vulnerable segments acquire and cultivate the skills, abilities and dispositions needed to cope with a continuously changing social, technological and economic environment.
A variety of studies have corroborated the importance of non-formal educational practices, while many development actors have made them integral part of their work on the ground. Okpoko (2002) highlights that non-formal education is a substantive strategy to bring about changes in rural women. At the same time, it enables them to live better quality lives as well as providing the opportunity to discuss and reflect on issues relating to their concerns and aspirations. By developing social capabilities, vocational skills trainings and other innovative modes of teaching manage to reinforce youth's intellectual and emotional individuality, nurturing sentiments of leadership and inner strength that are necessary to promote gender balance, in the workplace and in the domestic sphere alike. It goes without saying that this will qualify them to attain certain economic, political and cultural functions, and, ultimately, feed the overall economic growth.
In Jordan, a renewed interest in empowering marginalised individuals by leveraging non-traditional outlets is reshaping the discourse around rural education. Some young women residing in unprivileged areas of Jerash, Zarqa and Karak have recently witnessed quite a transformative change. This was made possible thanks to some non-formal education programs implemented to create safe spaces and diverse educational path opportunities by addressing women's academic underachievement - the failure to reach their fullest potential. These young women mostly suffer from socioeconomic disadvantage and systemic biases, have low literacy rate and even lower academic support. At times, they are forced to leave school and get engaged at early age so that they won't be a financial burden for their families. But providing them with powerful models to look up to proves beneficial in terms of pushing them to consider new life prospects, change mentality and replace submissive attitudes with driven ambition.
Another successful story stems from a project recently run in Jordan's rural centers that was specifically designed to help housewives generate sustainable income. With the aim of getting them involved in economic processes inside their nuclear family, some unemployed and undereducated women were provided a platform where to develop context-specific marketable skills and team up with other vulnerable women. They were taught how to master digital tools, capitalise on their cultural assets to tap into their hidden business potential and use social media to promote their capabilities and products. Today, this group of motivated women is economically emancipated, having started off an online shop of homemade bracelets and contributing significantly to job growth in the area. “The sense of creation and ownership paves the way to individuals that are strong and resilient. Once you feel you can create things relying on yourself only, then there's nothing that will stop you,” says Saddam Sayyaleh, passionate director of these initiatives held under the name of ILearn in some of the most left-behind zones across the Kingdom.
In light of these decisive facts, non-formal education can be openly regarded as an undeniable supplement to formal education, an essential part of the entire educational process that deserves to be recognised as such. Even more so if one considers the enormous impact it has on educational outcomes; in numerous cases, non-formal education has prompted women to defy traditional gender role constraints and pursue diverse higher education tracks, by looking for instance into tuition support or the allocation of scholarships required for their intellectual and professional advancement.
Last but not least, the role of non-formal education has also been also determinant in dismantling the culture of shame (thaqafat al ‘aib), or the social stigma that surrounds some professional choices, like vocational and technical jobs.
As the 2030 approaches, an invigorated commitment to pursuing innovative ways to support women inclusion and empowerment in rural areas, including the implementation of non-formal education activities and projects, must be put at the forefront of the international development agenda. Although challenges certainly remain and new learning needs continue to arise, we have today a better understanding and more solid structures to respond to them. Thus, it is critical to sustain and accelerate the pace in order to cater to the ever-evolving educational and development landscape.
Either formal or non-formal, women's education is a fundamental piece of the puzzle that would make contemporary societies truly equitable. With it, girls can grow into strong women and wholly take charge of their lives as citizens, as mothers and as independent individuals in the first place.