Why you should care
Because this country’s unique story holds lessons for the rest of the developing world.
Nothing reveals as much about a society, and its future, as its high schools. Yet amid accelerating change — widening inequality, unprecedented globalization and technological advances — they’ve lagged woefully behind. There are, of course, exceptions. Follow OZY’s special series High School, Disrupted to find out about the global leaders, cutting-edge trends and big ideas reimagining secondary education — for the better.
When Nthatisi Quella was a student in Lesotho, the small sub-Saharan country where she grew up, she used to joke that the gender imbalance was due to there being more women than men in the world. (For the record, there aren’t.) Of all low-income countries in the world, Lesotho has the highest proportion of women in education — a trend across education levels but most pronounced at the high school level.
Lesotho has the world’s biggest educational gender imbalance — in favor of women.
No matter how you measure it, the country stands out. Lesotho has nearly 1.6 girls for every boy enrolled in secondary school — the most extreme ratio in favor of girls in the world. In second place is Honduras, where the ratio is less than 1.2 girls per boy, according to UNESCO data for 2015. This isn’t a one-off statistical blip: The educational imbalance has been around for decades, meaning women in Lesotho are far more literate than men. The same is true in only three other African countries, where the male and female stats are less than 2 percentage points apart. In Lesotho? The gap is 18 points. “This is really, really unusual in the developing world,” says Theresa Ulicki, a gender and development studies professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
“It has to do with the peculiarity of Lesotho as a country,” explains Marc Epprecht, a Queen’s University professor who has studied the region extensively. Tiny by African standards, the mountainous enclave is surrounded by South Africa; it’s the only country in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 meters of elevation. Find the country on Google Earth, and you can easily identify its borders based on natural features alone — they were drawn by white settlers to leave all the fertile land on the South African side and little other than rugged mountains on the Lesotho side.
This is definitely not because [Lesotho] is a matriarchal society.
Marc Epprecht, Queen’s University, Ontario
With few agricultural or other economic opportunities, for decades men left in droves to work in South African mines. “Under the warped, racist logic of apartheid,” says Scott Rosenberg, a Wittenberg University professor, they “received preferential hiring in the gold mine” due to supposedly innate qualities of the country’s Basotho ethnic group. The scale of emigration was huge, with most males leaving Lesotho as adolescents and not returning until retirement — women outnumbered men by 4 to 1, or more, in many villages, says Epprecht. Young boys were left to tend to the family’s cattle, which hold a high cultural significance in the country and have traditionally acted as a store of wealth. But given Lesotho’s extreme topography, tending the cattle meant taking them into the highlands to find pastures, often for months at a time. Hence, young boys in Lesotho were unable to attend school for long periods, and why should they? Their future lay in the mines.
Although employment of Basotho men in South African mines has fallen by about two-thirds, Rosenberg says, the cultural legacy is strong. Boys just don’t have the same attitude toward education as girls, explains Adrian Hernandez, who taught English in Lesotho while in the Peace Corps; boys struggled with the basics of reading and writing, which resulted with them being forced to repeat grades and sit in classes with 11-year-old girls when they were 15 or 16. In Lesotho, primary education is free for all children, but secondary education is a substantial investment for families, and many boys drop out. Quella’s mother was the only one of seven siblings to attend high school: It was expensive, so her eldest brother worked in the mines to support the family while she received an education.
But one thing is certain: Lesotho’s educational imbalance “is definitely not because it’s a matriarchal society,” asserts Epprecht. The country has among the world’s highest rates of sexual assault and violence against women — almost two-thirds of women have been the victims of sexual violence. There is a systemic lack of jobs in the country, leaving most women who graduate high school or college to work for the government, teach or look for jobs in South Africa. Quella is no exception — after graduation, she left for South Africa, and now works in the United States. This exodus of educated young people — men and women — may distort some of the country’s literacy stats, but it’s hard to tell.
“I don’t think you can equate access to education or access to employment as women’s equality,” says Ulicki. Lesotho teaches the world, then, that while education for young girls should be a necessary priority, it is not a sufficient goal, and much more needs to be done to empower women in developing regions.