International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies
The International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies is a non-partisan and multidisciplinary Think-Tank Organization.
18:15 - 10 May 2010

EDUCATION AND PARTICIPATION OF WOMEN IN HUMAN DEVELOPMENT: New Challenges in the World of Globalization and Hybridization


Hisako Koizumi, M.D.

Holistic Medicine of Central Ohio.  Columbus, Ohio, U.S.A.

1. Introduction

It is widely recognized by now that the word “development” should be more broadly conceived than “economic development”, with its narrow focus on per capita GNP or income as the measure of country’s development. Since 1990, when United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published its inaugural Human Development Report, the concept of “human development”, consisting of life expectancy at birth, educational attainment and income, has gained popularity and is now widely used to measure the degree of country’s development.

While the role of education in promoting economic development and, therefore, enhancing income was well-recognized and well-documented1, UNDP counts educational attainment itself, as measured by adult literacy rate, as one essential component of human development as a broad measure of country’s development as society. Indeed, education is becoming crucial in promoting human development in the world evolving around us characterized by two forces of social change—globalization and hybridization. And women, who have tended to lag behind men in their educational and social achievements in developing countries, are faced with new challenges to contribute to human development if their countries are to keep up with developing countries, which are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization and hybridization.

2. Literacy and Human Development

UNDP reports the status of human development in countries of the world by using the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite index consisting of life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, and income. The HDI value for a country indicates how far that country has to go in order to attain certain defined goals: average life span of 85 years, access to education for all, and a decent level of income. The closer a country’s HDI is to 1, the less the remaining distance that country has to travel.

Human Development Report divides countries of the world into three groups: high, medium, and low human development. In the 2008 version of Human Development Report, 70 out of 177 countries in the world belong to the high human development group, 84 countries to the medium human development group, and 26 countries to the low human development group. To indicate the degree of discrepancy between highest and lowest, Iceland was ranked highest with HDI of 0.968 and Sierra Leone lowest with HDI of 0.336.

In the high human development countries, Iceland is followed by Norway, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan, while the United States is ranked as number 12. With the adult literacy rate of 99%, these countries have almost universal adult literacy. Overall, countries in the high human development group have adult literacy rate ranging from 99% to 82.9%. In contrast to the high human development countries, adult literacy rate shows a much wider variation for countries in the medium human development countries, ranging from 99% to 47.5%. For low human development countries, adult literacy rate is generally lower, ranging from 67.4% to 24.0%. (See Appendix)

What distinguishes among high, medium and low human development countries is not just the level of adult literacy rate. What is equally, if nor more, striking is the disparity between male and female adult literacy rates among these countries. The disparity between the sexes in adult literacy is almost non-existent in high human development countries. As a matter of fact, the combined gross enrollment ratio for primary, secondary and tertiary education is higher for females than for males in some countries. In contrast, the disparity is large and significant in medium and low human development countries. For example, in Morocco, which is one of the countries in the medium HDI group, adult literacy rate for males is 65.7% and that for females is 39.6%. And in Sierra Leone, which is ranked lowest in the HDI ranking, adult literacy rate for males is 46.7% and that for females is 24.2%. It is not difficult to infer from this that the disparity between male and female education is one of the crucial factors in determining the degree of country’s accomplishment in human development.

3. Education and Participation of Women in Human Development in Japan

Japan, which currently occupies the eighth spot in the HDI ranking, offers an interesting—and indeed suggestive—example in thinking about the role of education and participation of women in human development. The country’s history shows that it was only in the modern period that the idea of full equality of men and women was transformed into a social policy. This does not mean that Japan did not produce notable female figures with high educational accomplishments in earlier periods. As a matter of fact, women’s contribution to Japanese literature goes as far back as the seventh century, when some poems written by women were included in Manyoushu (Collection of Ten Thousand Poems). And the Heian period (794-1185) produced two remarkable female authors: Murasaki Shikibu, the author of Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), and Sei Shonagon, the author of Makurano Soshi (Collection of Pillow Stories), who are widely respected in Japan and other countries even today.2 But these extraordinary women were really exceptions in their days, for they were either members of the royal family themselves as were the case with Manyoushu poetesses or attendants at the imperial court like Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon.

The rise of the Samurai class as the rulers since the establishment of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192 has changed the way women are treated in Japanese society, for women were relegated to play the supporting role as wives and mothers to their warrior husbands and warrior sons. While women in the upper social class of samurai families received some education in literature, women in lower social classes received little, if any, education. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the introduction of Confucian social ethics turned “obedience” to men into the requisite for women, as typified by their required obedience to their fathers before marriage, to their husbands after marriage, and to their sons after the death of their husbands.3 Women were treated as belonging to an unequal and separate social class from men as they were not allowed to sit in the same room since age seven. During the whole feudal period when Japan was ruled by the samurai class, there was no equality between men and women, including in education.

With the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which restored the imperial family as the formal head of state, women’s social status was also restored, though gradually, as Japan began the task of catching up with the advanced nations of the West. Opening up educational opportunities for women, initially at the elementary level only, was mostly motivated to take advantage of their potential as human resources. However, the legacy of Confucian social ethics remained well into the modern period as boys and girls went to separate schools beyond the elementary schools. Indeed, girls were not encouraged to attain higher education by the government.

It was only in 1945, with the adoption of the new Constitution, that women gained social equality with men, not only in education but also in political participation.4 Needless to say, there had been long and arduous struggles conducted by courageous women to gain equality in a society dominated by Confucian social ethics. However, gaining constitutional equality with men does not necessarily mean that women have become equal partners with men in human development. There are still social customs, implicit and subtle forms of discrimination, and the general lack of social support, that discourage women to work to their fullest potential. For example, women must take their husbands’ names upon marriage to be legally recognized as married according to the family registration law. This law leads many professional women who have established themselves as professionals to deter marriage, for their pre-marriage professional accomplishments will not be recognized as such under their new names upon marriage. Lack of social support in providing adequate child care leads many women to quit their jobs in the middle of their professional career, as is the case with female medical doctors. To begin with, women comprise only 34.5% of those medical students who pass the national board examination even in 2008. Moreover, only 76% of female doctors are actively engaged in their profession 10 years after the graduation, compared to 90% of male doctors.

4. Examples from Other Countries

As Japan has done, other developing countries are also making efforts to change the inequality between the sexes in education and other social areas of social life. We would like to provide a few concrete examples of these efforts to show that people are increasingly becoming aware of the crucial importance of education and social participation of women in human development.

  Our first example actually represents the effort of one individual from one of the developed countries. Greg Mortenson is an American mountain climber. Lost in the mountain following the failed attempt to scale K2 in Pakistan, Mortenson was rescued and brought back to health by villagers in the most remote countryside of that country, where there was no school. To pay back villagers for their kindness, he collected donations in the US and built a school in the village, with the help of villagers who participated in building the school. It was not just one school in this village that Mortenson built; he went on to build more than 55 schools throughout Pakistan.5 Moreover, Mortenson emphasized the importance of educating girls, for he was acutely aware of the inequality in education in that country with the literacy rate for males at 64.1% and that for females at only 35.4%. In April 2009, Mortenson was awarded the “Star of Pakistan”, the highest award given for civilians, by the Pakistani government.

The second example represents the initiative coming from women themselves in developing countries. An article titled “Islam’s Soft Revolution” in the March 30, 2009 issue of Time tells the story of a new generation of activists, bloggers and preachers discovering ways to synthesize Islam and modernity in the world of Internet, satellite television and Facebook.  This “soft revolution”, as the article calls it, is led by women who are challenging one of the strictest male domains in the Muslim world: the mosque.  Women have traditionally been relegated to small side rooms for prayer and excluded from the leadership role.  But many professional women are now memorizing the Koran, and are even teaching at mosques. While this change is taking place, more women in the younger generation are wearing the veil. This illustrates how women can seek equality in this globalizing world, while maintaining their cultural tradition, for education for women is essential for human development but the cultural tradition is also important to maintain social cohesion.

The last example concerns religion, which is one area of human activities that is bound by centuries-old traditions. But change is also coming here as in other areas of social life. In the Buddhist tradition, nuns have not been treated as equals to monks, their male counterparts, with even a senior nun placed below a novice monk.  The renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a Vietnamese monk and who was nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, is trying to change that tradition in his practice, which he calls “engaged Buddhism”. In the article titled “The Eight Practices of Respect” published in the August issue of Mindfulness Bell, he sets out new guidelines for monks to treat nuns as equals and also with respect. He further states that if a nun is learned and is skilled in sharing the knowledge of Buddhism, monks can contact the nun and invite her to come and teach. Because many monks are still hesitant to accept the idea of listening to a nun, let alone inviting her to teach them, this clause is regarded as the most revolutionary in the guidelines. While it may take some time before his guidelines are translated into social practices in Vietnam and other Buddhist countries, they certainly represent one hopeful chnge for women in general in developing countries.

5. Conclusion

The world of globalization and hybridization evolving around us is a challenging environment for human development everywhere in the world. With an ever-increasing flow of information, it is imperative for individuals that they possess adequate knowledge of what is happening in the world in order to adapt themselves to changes taking place in their lives and their societies by making intelligent decisions.  It goes without saying that education plays a crucial role in equipping individuals with knowledge of the world and the tools to make intellectual decisions. In developing countries where women have traditionally been denied equality with men in educational and other opportunities, achieving equality in education is not only a matter of demanding basic human rights for them but also a matter of acquiring necessary tools for subsistence in the world.


1.     For a classic study on the importance of literacy on economic development, see Cippola (1969).

2.     For these and other notable female figures in Japanese history, see Akagi (1988).

3.     For details about Confucian ethics in Tokugawa Japan, see Bellah (1970).

4.     Article 24 of the Constitution formally specifies the equality of men and women in marriage, property, inheritance and other matters.

5.     See Mortenson and Relin (2006) for details about Mortenson’s efforts to build schools in Pakinson.


Akagi, Shijuko, Women: Mini-encycropedia of Japanese History, Tokyo: Kondo

Publishing Company, 1988.

Bellah, Robert, Tokugawa Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

Chan Duc, Sister Annabel, “The New Gurudharmas for Monks”, The Mindfulness Bell, August 2008.

Cippola, Carlo, Literacy and Development in the West, Harmondsworth: Pengun Books, 1969.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, “The Eight Practices of Respect – Gurudharmas for a Bhikshu to Practice with Regard to a Bhikshuni”, The mindfelness Bee, August 2008

Mortenson, Greg, and Relin, David Oliver, Three Cups of Tea, Penguin Books, 2006

United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report, 2008.

Wright, Robin, “Islam’s Soft Revolution”, Time, March 30, 2009.

Appendix: Human Development Index (HDI)

HDI Value
Adult Literacy

Rate (%)
Adult Literacy

Rate – Female
Adult Literacy

Rate – Male
High Human Development

1. Iceland

8. Japan

Range among

70 countries
99 to 82.9
99 to 73.5
99 to 86.4
Medium Human Development

126. Morocco

Range among

84 countries
99 to 47.5

99.3 to 34.7
99.8 to 49.9
Low Human Development

177. Sierra Leone

Range among

26 countries
67.4 to 24.0
71.5 to 15.1
78.2 to 31.4
*Average HDI value for the group

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