By Emily McNeill
Sukhie Brar is Principal Education Specialist in the Social Sectors Division of the Southeast Asia Department for the Asian Development Bank. She is currently responsible for ADB’s education portfolio in Cambodia and Lao PDR. Most recently, she has worked on projects in Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia to improve teacher training, increase access to secondary education, reform policy and provide scholarships. She spoke to Buzzsaw about her work and about girls’ access to education in the developing world.
Buzzsaw Haircut: What is the Asian Development Bank?
Sukhie Brar: The Asian Development Bank is a multi-lateral development institution, which lends to developing countries of the Asia Pacific region for projects, with the overall goal of poverty reduction.
BH: What projects have you worked on recently?
SB: In 2006, I was team leader for a project in Vietnam for secondary and vocational teacher development and a project for increasing access to lower secondary education. [I also worked on] some policy reform in the education sector, plus strengthening capacity of the Ministry of Education for better planning and financial management. Currently I am in the final stages of a project for enhancing quality of education for Cambodia. We will provide scholarships to children from remote and backward areas – 60 percent of the scholarships are for girls – to enroll in upper secondary schools and also to enroll in teacher training institutions to give them an opportunity to become teachers.
BH: What are the most common barriers to women’s education in developing countries?
SB: A complex set of factors act as barriers to girl’s education, depending on the country. In some countries girls are not sent to school for cultural reasons; girls are seen as an “asset” of the family into which they will marry. Therefore families do not want to invest in their education.
Also exposure to situations where a girl’s reputation may be affected – coeducational schools, or school being at a distance where safety of the girls in transit – is an issue that also act as a barrier to attending school. In many poor households girls are not sent to school because they provide useful labor in the house – in household chores as well as looking after the siblings while the mother goes out to work.
When resources are scarce in poor families, usually the boys get preference in allocation of resources and thus priority for education.
Poverty and not having a school within a safe distance are the two most important factors that affect girls’ enrollment in schools.
BH: What solutions have been implemented? What has worked and what hasn’t?
SB: A variety of solutions have been tried including stipends, scholarships, school nutrition programs (providing free meals), providing dormitories, uniforms, text books, etc.
All of the above work to some degree, but these incentives are not enough to bring all girls – or for that matter all children – into schools.
BH: How do the trends in boys’ education compare to the trends in girls’ education?
SB: More boys are enrolled in schools than girls. The differentials in enrollment are narrowest in urban areas and among the economically well-to-do. Differentials are greatest in remote, poor and disadvantaged areas. But once enrolled, girls tend to do better than boys, with lower repetition and higher retention rates.
BH: What are the trends in education of women? Do you foresee the situation improving?
SB: Overall trends for girls’ education are positive – more girls are now in school than ever before. This is partly because of greater awareness, because of the international focus on and support for girls’ education in developing countries. International focus on girls’ education began in the early 1990s when research indicated the tremendous benefits to society from girls’ education. Of the 8 Millennium Development Goals, two relate to education. One relates to achieving universal completion of primary education and the other is to achieve gender parity in education by 2015. All countries have committed to achieving these goals, and thus girls’ education has come in for special focus because girls’ enrollment is critical to achieving them.
However, it has to be mentioned that in poor households, particularly in the remote and disadvantaged areas, boys are also at risk of being deprived of an education.
BH: Why is educating girls important to developing countries?
SB: The importance of educating girls in developing countries – indeed everywhere where they may be disadvantaged – has to be seen from several angles. First is the issue of exclusion and the impact it has on individuals’ lives and their ability to avail themselves of opportunities to better their lives. Second, there are tremendous benefits to society that accrue from girls’ education, such as lower fertility, increased prenatal care utilization, improved health and nutrition status of families, and higher educational attainment for their children.
BH: What sort of involvement does the local population have in developing and implementing projects?
SB: The involvement of the local population has increased considerably in developing and implementing projects that have a direct relevance to their lives. In education, where system reform and expansion of access and quality is generally the emphasis, direct community participation is lower. But many activities are becoming community based – such as construction of primary schools – and the community is represented in school committees to take decision in matters such as selection of children for scholarships, utilization of school grants, management of school facilities, school planning, etc.
BH: Are the Millennium Development Goals for education expected to be reached?
SB: There are countries that are unlikely to achieve the education MDGs.
BH: How has the ADB responded to criticisms of it and other organizations (like the World Bank) that it furthers globalization and supports projects that are often opposed by local populations?
SB: ADB gets its share of criticism, and I can’t really comment on the larger institutional issues – they are multi-dimensional issues. All I would like to say is that tremendous knowledge and experience has been gained in development, and everyone has benefited in the process. Organizations such as ADB have become very transparent, have adopted policies for disclosure which require that all project documents- right from the conceptual stage – are placed on the website so that nothing is a surprise at any stage for anyone. The consultation processes have been mainstreamed.
BH: What is your personal investment in this issue?
SB: I am a woman from a developing country where girls are still discriminated against for social and economic reasons. In my time particularly, it was unusual for girls to aspire to careers, or even to higher education. In many villages in India at the time no girls had ever been enrolled in school. I was widowed very young with two young children; if I did not have an education my life and that of my children would have been different. Education has been my biggest asset in my life.
Emily McNeill is a senior journalism major who is advancing in the corporate world, with the help of Hooked on Phonics. Email her at emcneil1[at]ithaca.edu.