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Education and employment is the solution, not State control of our bodies

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, February 18, 2014    

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Development studies have long identified education as the key to eradicating poverty and alleviating the dysfunctions with which we struggle. Contemporary studies are not just identifying education generally, but education of girls in particular, since they will become women and the primary stabilisers and leaders of families

NAÏVE expectations, on my part, suggest that leaders should be conscientious about providing the best analyses and thoughtful solutions to our problems. At the very least, they should be more

interested in portraying themselves as trying to understand their portfolios more so than they are in portraying themselves as publicity-seeking buffoons.

Senator Ruel Reid, last week, put paid to my naïveté with his skewed reasoning on the reason so many Jamaicans are poor, and the suggestion that the State should legislate how many children people (read, women) are allowed to have.

Reid made similar statements last year, reported in the media April 22, 2013. He was challenged authoritatively, April 25, by youth advocate Jaevion Nelson, who unleashed an abundance of data pointing to weaknesses in the education system that undermines positive education outcomes, separate from issues of poverty.

As an educator, and a former president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, Reid should have been aware of the data Nelson provided. If he weren't, a cursory reading of Nelson's article would have shown him that his perspective is based on ignorance, as well as the ill-advisedness of blaming poor people for either the failures of the education systems or for our social dysfunctions overall. Apparently, it did not sink in, or maybe he got so much attention from it he thought repeating it would be a good idea.

My disquiet with reasonings like Reid's comes from a basic place: the extent to which people at his level make it obvious that they do not understand the issues, and therefore are incapable of influencing policies to organise our society in ways that will make life more rational for the majority, ensure longterm sustainability, and do so at the speed that is required, if we are not to fall farther behind.

This is a serious challenge. We are in an uber-competitive marketplace; we are trailing on many development markers. Twenty-first century global economic conditions do not favour poorly run crime-ridden small states. Our socio-economic structure, with its vulgar inequalities, is unsustainable; as our habits and desires exceed our ability to sustain them. Consequently, we are partly in that grey zone — a fragile state — with low growth rates or stagnation, extreme inequality in wealth distribution; inequality in availability and access to services like health care and education, and political divisiveness.

Development studies have long identified education as the key to eradicating poverty and alleviating the dysfunctions with which we struggle. Contemporary studies are not just identifying education generally, but education of girls in particular, since they will become women and the primary stabilisers and leaders of families. Higher education, for example, leads to longer life expectancy, better health, improved quality of life over generations, better decision-making skills as consumers, higher lifetime average salaries, higher

employment rates, greater job consistency, higher savings levels, and improved working conditions and mobility. Society benefits overall from the higher contributions educated people make to tax revenues, greater productivity, higher consumption, less reliance on government financial support, reduced crime rates, and greater ability to adapt technology.

A relevant contemporary education must pay particular attention to girls for four key reasons:

1) they are more likely to be affected by poverty, and when they are poor, whole families suffer;

2) they represent a critical point of intervention on many issues before they become problematic;

3) an increasing number of households are headed by women; and

4) women exert the strongest influence over families and social groups, even if men are fooled into thinking otherwise.

The recognition that girls' education is essential to poverty reduction comes both from the special roles they play and the special challenges they will face. This includes the risk of early pregnancy, which, whenever it occurs, can terminate their education and further trap them and their offspring into the cycle of poverty. In our context then, every effort should be made to reduce teen pregnancy through robust family life education, access to contraceptives, and through opening students' eyes to the range of options available to them other than having babies. If early pregnancy does occur, girls must be allowed to continue their education through provisions that include safe and accessible daycare. For many women, daycare will be an issue throughout their lives.

Many will spend considerable time providing care for their children or elderly or disabled family members. This obviously reduces their time in the workforce and pushes them deeper into poverty. In a society such as ours, with a weak social welfare system, women's role as unpaid caregivers is a major risk factor for increased poverty. Women are also disproportionately affected by domestic and sexual violence, which puts them at risk of homelessness, which is dislocating, leaves the victims vulnerable to further abuse, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Now that the world is so small, and we are just a YouTube video away from seeing our shame laid bare for all to see, some of us are embarrassed by the poor among us.

We want them to go away and we are attributing their presence to everything except the failure of the education system or the State to address the root causes of poverty. Some of our attitudes range from contempt to condescension, and excuse is made for Reid's gaffe with passionate rhetoric about responsibility — a straw man argument, because no one, including those who disagree with Reid, is advocating irresponsibility or indiscriminate breeding.

Ultimately, If Senator Ruel Reid wants to be relevant, he needs to be proffering compelling strategies to address the systemic problems in education such as how to reduce inequalities and create a system relevant to the 21st century.

He will learn, along the way that if the State does what it is supposed to there will be no need for politicians to try to assume guardianship over women's vaginas.

Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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