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Opening school doors to women worldwide

THE talent of half the human race is being wasted - that was the message at a conference on women's education sponsored by Mount Holyoke College. Fifty women from all over the world converged on this leaf-strewn college for women in the first major international gathering of women since the 1985 conference in Nairobi, Kenya, that marked the end of the Decade of Women. The conference was held as part of Mount Holyoke's 150th anniversary celebration. The delegates represented top thinkers and activists from 21 countries. Included were legislators from England, Egypt, France, Mexico, and the Philippines, as well as educators, government workers, and representatives of women's groups. Many said that women's education is caught in a complex web of entrenched problems including foreign debt loads that draw money away from education; lack of trained teachers; vestiges of colonial education; and development programs that ignore women's economic role.

While many of these problems affect men's education as well, women also have to contend with traditional attitudes toward their capabilities and place in society. Delegates from every part of the globe had troubling tales to tell:

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Only 13 percent of girls in Muslim Pakistan go to school, says Khawar Mumtaz, founder of the Women's Action Forum. ``There are hardly any schools for girls. When there are schools, there are no teachers. When there are teachers, there are no textbooks. When there are textbooks, the rains [halt school].''

In India, where coeducation is compulsory until age 15, only 20 percent of girls stay in school that long, says Neera Desai, professor emeritus and honorary director of the Research Center for Women's Studies in Bombay. Many are kept at home because the families need them.

In Zimbabwe, menstruating girls may stay out of school for a week, says Fay Chung, chief education officer in the Ministry of Education. And some teachers, she says, compound the problem with their attitude that schooling is a ``train'' that doesn't wait for those who miss classes. As a result girls fall far behind and drop out. Dr. Chung's office is working on making low-cost physical protection available as well as counteracting the view of menstruation as debilitating.

In many other countries, girls are not so much dropouts as they are left out - forced by early marriages and pregnancies from continuing school. In Pakistan, says Dr. Mumtaz, it is a crime for girls to get pregnant before they are married. Consequently, most girls marry at 15. And when girls leave school at an early age, they often revert to illiteracy.

In India, says Dr. Desai, ``High-caste parents say, `Why waste time and money on a girl when she will learn big ideas that will get her beaten up by her husband?' But the cleaning lady takes great pains to see that her daughter will get educated.''

Even in first-world countries, education for women needs improvement: Shirley Williams, co-founder and president of the Social Democratic Party in Britain, pointed out results of a study that showed that more home computers were purchased for boys than for girls and that boys spent 13 times more time at computers than girls. At school, she said, they ``used their physical and vocal dominance to get the lion's share of time at the computer.''

Many viewed with alarm the increasing tendency to use the mass media as an educational tool, because it takes teaching out of the hands of teachers, can be used for ideological purposes, and because of the ``hidden curriculum'' of sexism, as one delegate from Kenya put it. ``Look at the mistakes made in the West. We must make sure the media is supportive of the values we want to convey to our children.''

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Many speakers said that formal education had not ``delivered the goods'': provided universal and appropriate education. And they looked to informal education to fill in the gaps. ``We need to be concerned about the context of education,'' said Eddah Gachukia, a consultant on population education for UNESCO, in Nairobi, Kenya.

``In some cases, simple scientific knowledge that helps food producers develop better products and know how to take care of a sick cow can be a first step. Then we can add other types of knowledge.''

There were some glimmers of progress: In Britain, ``girls are now doing as well as and in some cases better than boys leaving examinations,'' says Tessa Blackstone, Master of Birkbeck College, University of London. ``In higher education, the proportion of women going on has risen dramatically in the last 25 years.''

Dr. Gachukia said that Kenya President Daniel arap Moi has publicly supported education of girls. ``There are now town meetings that raise money for buildings, and now boys are complaining that there is too much attention being paid to girls' education,'' she said.

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