Higher Education: A Direct Path to Social Justice
RISNAWATI UTAMI of Indonesia was diagnosed with polio when she was four years old, and spent 13 years in a brace because her family could not afford a wheelchair. Today, she has a master’s degree in International Health Policy and Management from Brandeis University, and works as Program Manager for UCP Wheels for Humanity in Indonesia.
DENNITAH GHATI was born into a pastoral tribe in Kenya’s Kuria district, where sociocultural norms often deny women agency over their own lives, primarily through female genital mutilation and early marriage. Dennitah escaped this fate when she hid among Catholic nuns days before she was to be "cut". Today, she is a graduate of world-renowned Columbia University in New York, and is Co-Founder of the Education Centre for the Advancement of Women in Kuria.
ROSANA PAULINO grew up in the largest and wealthiest city in Brazil, but she didn't have access to a well-paid professional life. After a string of dead-end jobs, she decided to follow her creative dreams no matter the cost. Now a leading contemporary modern artist with a doctoral degree in Public Arts from Sao Paolo University, she sparks community dialogue through her mixed media exhibitions, which deconstruct, explore, and re-imagine the black woman's experience in Brazilian society throughout history.
What do all of these women have in common? Along with persistence and a passion for human rights, the answer lies in higher education.
The international community is right to prioritize early and secondary education for girls; statistics show that this is an important first step towards longer term goals to eradicate extreme poverty and violence against women, among other things. But we also need to consider the direct path between higher education and social justice.
An untold number of women from underserved communities around the world have the academic and leadership capacity - as well as the social commitment - required for graduate study at top universities, where they would gain access to education, training, and professional networks they need to develop impactful careers. But most lack access to a university system because of their gender, economic background, religion, or ethnicity.
Developing more inclusive higher education policies not only empowers women but can lead to a real, measurable impact, often in a short amount of time. Indeed, this has tremendous implications for a wide variety of sectors -- especially those in which women already play important socio-economic roles simply by virtue of their gender, but have not been given a voice, or the skills they need to improve their livelihoods.
What’s more, many people today agree that access to higher education is central to economic growth and sustainable development. The phrase “global citizenship” has become commonplace in academic circles and among education policy leaders. If we are serious about the role that higher education can play in promoting social justice for communities worldwide, let’s consider how we can recruit, select, and support the 800 million women around the world who already contribute to the global economy.
It’s time for fellowship programs, philanthropic organizations, and academic institutions to include more women from marginalized communities as a matter of policy. The jury is in: when women leaders from underserved populations are given an opportunity for post-graduate study, the impact on their home communities – and the world – can be profound.
Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program