Education Protects Women From Abuse

Extremists hate smart girls because smart girls are less likely to be kept down.
Joe Penney/Reuters

The horrifying kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram was made even more horrifying by the fact that the group specifically targeted the girls for trying to improve their lives. Boko Haram went after the girls for the same reason the Taliban went after Malala Yousafzai: Extremists fear smart women.

“If you want to mire a nation in backwardness, manacle your daughters,” Nick Kristof wrote in a recent column.

Kristof listed some of the better-known positive externalities of having an educated female population: Fewer children, and thus less risk of a “youth bulge” and, later, civil war. Not to mention a more skilled labor force and a stronger economy.

But a new report suggests that the benefit of girls’ schooling extends even further—that it has a protective effect against domestic violence, rape, and child marriage.

“No place is less safe for a woman than her own home,” reads a World Bank report released this week. Roughly 30 percent of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners, and across 33 developing countries surveyed by the organization, nearly one-third of women said they could not refuse sex with their partner.

Share of Women Who Have Experienced Physical or Sexual Violence by an Intimate Partner

World Bank

“Yes, it’s normal, being beaten, yelled at. If you tell [anyone], your peers will ask you, is this your first time to be beaten? Some of us are used to it, just like the way we are used to eating ugali,” one Tanzanian woman said in a World Bank focus group.

To make matters worse, one in three women said they thought wife-beating was justifiable, and women who condoned domestic violence were more likely to experience it.

Change in the Percent of Women Who Believe a Husband Is Justified in Beating His Wife if She ...

World Bank

But the Bank also found that better-educated women were more likely to not be sexually or physically abused. Each additional year of schooling was associated with a 1-percent increase in their ability to refuse sex with their partner.

“The strongest correlate of women’s sexual autonomy in a relationship is her level of education,” the report notes. “Overall, 87 percent of women with a higher education say they can refuse sex. Women with some or completed secondary education have an 11 and 36 percent lower risk of violence, respectively, compared with women with no education.”

One of the most lasting, damaging impacts of the Boko Haram kidnapping could be making Nigerian girls nervous about attending class. According to recent interviews with some of the escaped girls, when the group arrived at the school in northern Nigeria, they were shouting, “We are Boko Haram. We will burn your school. You shall not do school again. You shall do Islamic school.”

Of course, it's also crucial to change social norms and laws in countries with high levels of domestic violence, and working with men’s groups can go a long way as well. But since female education seems to inoculate societies against misogyny, it’s both unsurprising and heartbreaking that Boko Haram would target classrooms.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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