Author: Kalwinder Sandhu (CWV Board Member)
Listening to Malala Yousafzai on the radio, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly how eloquent and well thought out her arguments were. This young woman has shown such courage to be defiant against those who sought to limit her right to an education and her own life.
I also thought about what an excellent role model she is for young BME women in particular. There aren’t many role models that today’s female BME teenagers can look up to outside of the TV/film, music industry.
But many contradictions surfaced when I thought about the portrayal of this story and the narrative that we as a nation, as a society, as a country believe in education for all and that young women here have access to education that is out of bounds for many young women in Pakistan.
Yes this country has provided a safe haven for Malala and her family, she has an education that she is entitled to and, the freedom to express her views. These are all virtues of the society we live in. However my recent research for Coventry Womens’ Voices found evidence suggesting that the reality of the barriers many BME women face accessing education contradicts the narrative of a society in which education is available to all.
The most crushing point I reached when I did this study was when one woman said, to the agreement of others in the room:
“My husband has lost his job and we don’t have much money and so we are only thinking about now sending our son to university and not our daughter.“
This may seem extreme but the reality facing many low income households is that when money is tight investing in education, especially a girl’s education, is less of a priority. There have been spending cuts that have affected young women in many ways.
The Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which supported young people aged over 16 in education has been replaced by a Bursary Fund and the funding has been cut from £560 million to £180 million. An Equality Impact Assessment of EMA carried out in 2009 showed that EMA had a particularly positive impact on BAME girls and young women.
The Youth Cohort Study, which sampled respondents in receipt of EMA, indicated that the 17/18 year olds most likely to have taken up EMA were:
• Minority ethnic groups, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani.
• Members of ‘lower’ socio-economic groups.
• Those who received free school meals while at school
• Those whose parents are less well educated.
• Students who are living with only one parent.
I focussed on EMA because of education but it is only one of a number of cuts families are facing: benefits cap, Non-dependents deductions, cuts to tax credits, are just some that are all hitting families hard. By the Government’s own admission ‘of the households likely to be affected by the cap approximately 40% will contain somebody who is from an ethnic minority’.2
We don’t know what the full combined financial impact is yet as a result of the increase in university fees, job losses, cuts to benefits and the rising cost of living. Indeed many of the discussions around welfare reform focus on the financial loss. We don’t yet know what the societal and human costs will be as a result of the spending cuts. The above quote may be a warning to our society that we may pay a heavy price in the future if girls and young women don’t access their full potential when it comes to education in the UK.
 Department for Education (2009) “Equality Impact Assessment: Education Maintenance Allowance.” p.5-6 Available online at http://media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/e/equia%20education%20maintenance%20allowance.pdf