Friday, January 14, 2011
Women in Education
This year Peace Corps Nicaragua is running a 3-day youth retreat to foster leadership skills in 100 young people from around the country. The other day I was in the home of an 18-year-old girl from my community who I am hoping will be able to attend the event. While making the invitation, I got to talking with her and her mother about the other children in the family. There are three girls, of whom the 18-year-old is the youngest, and two boys. The girls have all either finished or are attending college. One studied in the US and now runs an English-language institute. In contrast, neither of the two boys finished sixth grade. They are currently working construction in Costa Rica, and over the years they have alternated between working abroad and farming at home.
I have seen this type of situation in other families, too. In my host family it is only my host sister who has gone to college. Of her two brothers, only one finished high school. They have both worked in Costa Rica and have talked about going to the US. The one who finished high school was recently enrolled in a veterinary program, but he decided it was too much work for too little payoff, and he will be going back to Costa Rica as soon as he has the money to travel.
When I’ve talked to other volunteers, they have made the same observation: in contrast to what you read in the development literature, here it is the girls who stay in school, not the boys. Anyone who teaches in a rural Nicaraguan high school cannot help but notice that the majority of the students are girls. Some time after sixth grade the boys start dropping out to work in the fields with their dads. Yes, there are girls who get pregnant and stop coming to class, but many of them come back once they’ve had their babies; some even manage to go on to college, while their families help take care of their children. Once they’ve left, though, the boys rarely come back to school.
This situation is surprising to me, since everything I read before coming to Nicaragua suggested that when resources are scarce it is the boys who receive an education. I wonder, what is going on here? Machismo is alive and thriving in Nicaragua, so I don’t believe that this educational imbalance has to do with valuing girl children more than boy children. Instead, I think the cause is that even with a college education a woman still has less earning potential than a man. Furthermore, the boys are needed out in the fields to help with the family’s primary income-generating activity.
A college degree is no guarantee, either. I have seen my host sister struggle to find employment and work a low-paying job (albeit in her field) for a manager who takes advantage of her. Another young woman in town has a degree in computer engineering and can’t find work. Working in agriculture as day laborers or on their families’ plots men can still earn more than college-educated women, and the work they do is more vital to the family’s overall security, given that in addition to earning money, they produce food. Also, men are more empowered to go to Costa Rica or the US (though women do it too) to look for low-wage work abroad that pays more than any jobs pays domestically.
Maybe a better question than why it is that women tend to receive more formal education than men is what the outcome of this situation will be in the long term. There, I am completely stumped. Will it turn out that the tables will turn and women will become emancipated, more able to earn good salaries than men? Will the boys get left behind? Or will the current situation persist, with education failing to be linked to higher earning potential (at least for men) and education remaining mostly the province of women?
I should mention that these observations probably do not hold for city families. Still, I think there is something going on here in the rural areas. I also find it ironic to note that in the US it is now the case that more women than men earn advanced degrees. Although the farming economy and the pull of higher wages abroad cannot be the explanatory factors there, I wonder if there might be some other underlying factor common to both Nicaragua and the US that is causing women to seek more education than men. Any ideas?