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Fighting the education gender gap: the story of Bayan, a young woman from Syria

By Giada Santana

The fight for education can not be completed if women are left behind. We need to address the women’s education gender gap. This gap means that young women are less likely to receive education than young men in many developing countries. Globally, 61 percent of people who lack basic reading and writing skills are young women. Leaving women and girls out of education has serious consequences, including hindered economic development, reinforcement of social inequality, and the perpetuation of cyclical, gendered poverty. Since women carry a disproportionate burden of poverty, any improvement to their job opportunities and wealth can have a groundbreaking impact on the vicious circle of poverty.

There are many other reasons why we should invest in girls’ education. On average, the rate of returns of women’s education in terms of attendance and academic performance are higher than those of men. However, those investments have an impact far beyond instruction: young girls given the opportunity to go to school tend to work more, earn higher wages, marry later in life, and have fewer children. Education is also connected to health: studies show that educated mothers raise healthier children, showing that education creates a legacy of benefits that extend beyond a singlet generation.

In order to achieve better results in terms of women’s attendance and education level, we should first and foremost aim at making education accessible to them. How can we do this? By designing school and learning programs that take into account the unique challenges women face when they attempt to access it in their daily life. For instance, since women are the prime carers for children, they struggle to access education because of their reduced mobility - providing online education is one crucial way to make it easier and more accessible for many women to take advantage of learning opportunities.

For our podcast series, a collaboration between Paper Airplanes and Empower Her* Voice, we aimed to highlight the experiences of women in our Paper Airplanes community who have sought education in person and online, to understand their motivations, challenges, and experiences. We interviewed Bayan, an alumnus from one of our online education programs and now a member of Paper Airplanes’ staff. Bayan is a dentist from Damascus, Syria, who studied in the Paper Airplanes English Program for 3 years before pursuing technical skills in the Women in Tech Program. When asked what made Paper Airplanes the right learning platform for her, Bayan said:

“As a student I was looking for free and flexible resources and Paper Airplanes met all of those demands and more. The whole staff works to make you learn in the most effective ways: there were plenty of resources online, [such] as texts, videos, dialogues, enriching the curriculum. We also had exams every semester to test that knowledge. It’s hard to work on conversation skills here in Syria, we rarely have training or practise to do it. The training with PA was very useful”

Investing in women’s education also means giving them the opportunity to join community members determined to improve their societies. While Bayan had already cultivated an engaging community for herself, there are many young women that lack the encouragement and the tools to take that step on their own. Digital technologies play a key role in facilitating connection between people and services, jobs, and information. In this sense, the current pandemic has shed light on the multiple benefits coming out of digital technology: many of us had never experienced before the lack of mobility and isolation refugees and conflict affected students often experience. COVID-19 has been an eye opening experience to realize how much digital technologies can create bridges and help us overcome different obstacles. Bayan explained:

“Quarantine provided lots of online opportunities to motivate young people to get involved and achieve more. For instance, I have attended many courses related to anatomy, learning skills, teaching strategies and soft skills. It’s amazing to have a platform where you can hear other people’s experiences and be inspired by them.”

At Paper Airplanes, we believe academic knowledge should underpin real life programs. The Women in Tech (WiT) project is an example of this. The WiT program targets women from ages 18-35 who speak advanced English and have little to no coding experience. Students receive live instruction in basic CSS, JavaScript, and HTML and are matched with a personal mentor, with whom they meet once a week to help with assignments or answer questions. At the end of the program, each student has three weeks to develop their own personal project to add to their portfolio and showcase to potential employers. The course gives necessary skills in our globalized world. Bayan chose to attend the Women in Tech program for a semester, and describes her experience:

“[The program] is based on involving young girls and women in the tech world by teaching coding. It was very useful for me...The program was really unique and inspiring for women. Women got to prove to be innovative and enter the world of coding (...) Before the course, none of us had any idea of what coding was, but the teacher was very patient and explained things step by step.

Bayan’s motto is: “Be the change you want to see in the world” - and she clearly lives by it. At the moment, Bayan is working on a project for mobile dental care to help people living in rural areas and at Syria’s borders who struggle to access medical and dental infrastructures - a testament to the change women and girls drive when they have access to the education resources they deserve. Her dream is to work at a humanitarian organization, like the WHO:

“Even when people are below the poverty line, they are humans and they have the right to be treated like humans”.

Despite the long years of war and the economic recession that discouraged many, Bayan is ambitious and determined.

Hope is not enough for people to get better, that is why we should be doers and make the difference we want to see in our society. Young people are the most important part of it, because we can give real help”

She concluded her interview with an appeal to all young female students:

“If you’re a young student, don’t waste a second of your life. Don’t limit yourself to doing your homework as fast as you can and then forget about it. In my second year of dentistry major, I focused on English classes, then German classes, then I studied codying and I’ve been a volunteer in many different projects.

I want to encourage every girl and woman in society to be active and entrepreneurial”.

Do you want to help drive down the education gender gap? Check out our website for more information on how to become a tutor or support us by donating here.

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