“A Stiller Doom”: How an Interest Convergence Approach to Girls’ Education Perpetuates Stereotypes & Contradicts International Human Rights’ Standards

By: Chantelle Dial

“Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. . . . [W]omen feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer . . . . It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” [1] 

* * * * *

Charlotte Bronte was way ahead of her time when she wrote Jane Eyre. However, despite how dramatically traditions and roles may have changed over the years, the current U.S. approach to why women at home and abroad should be educated often perpetuates harmful stereotypes under the guise of progress.


Interest Convergence Theory & Education

A brief look at Professor Derrick Bell’s Interest Convergence theory provides some insight into how education departments and policymakers are choosing to frame the female education discussion. Today’s post, while briefly discussing Professor Bell’s Interest Convergence Theory, is not intended as a discussion of that topic. Nor do I argue race and gender issues are similar or dissimilar. Instead, the goal in mentioning Interest Convergence is to identify ways in which similar language is used in the discussion surrounding female education. In order for true change in female education to occur, leaders must recognize the harm of purposefully employing an interest convergence argument to female education.

Regarding the historical Brown v. Board of Education decision, Professor Bell argued, “[T]he decision was the result of a convergence of interests. White elites were willing to concede on the segregation battle . . . because they were concerned about international condemnation . . . . [And b]ecause their self-interests coincided with those of civil rights leaders, school desegregation was accomplished.” [2] Essentially, the party in power had an interest in things changing; so things changed.

As Seen in Girls’ Education Movements & Discussions

The White House initiative Let Girls Learn opens with this statement: “To educate a girl is to build a healthier family, a stronger community, and a brighter future.” [3] Many of the discussions surrounding the Let Girls Learn initiative also perpetuate the idea that girls should be educated solely as “instruments of development change.” [4] For instance, one author’s focus states, “Study after study has shown that when a girl receives an education, she is more likely to earn a viable living, raise a healthier family, and improve the quality of life for herself, her family, and her community.” [5]

While these are all noble end-results, “[w]hen the focus is on rates of return, efficiency and calculating gains to GDP, programs that promote girls' education as a fundamental human right are marginalized.” [4] Perhaps buy-in from the historically powerful, male-dominant group makes the economization of female education and an interest convergence approach a necessary evil. However, a complete lack of discussion about the human rights aspect of why women should have equal access to education may do more harm than good. The discussion about gender equality must change from ‘girls should be educated because it will help the economy’ to ‘women should be educated because women are human too.


International Standards

There are many international programs, covenants, treaties, and constitutions focusing on education. The following is a brief overview of an international context for discussing equal education.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Nations across the world recognize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [6] as the key international document outlining fundamental human rights. Article 26 of the Declaration states everyone has a right to an education.[7] The article emphasizes, “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality . . . . [and] shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”[8] This right to education is not focused on the ability of individuals to improve an economy.

The Dakar Framework

The Dakar Framework, laid out in April 2000, affirms international acceptance of education as an important human right—in addition to serving as a powerful vehicle for wider change. The document makes perfectly clear, “Education is a fundamental human right.”[9] The Framework also acknowledges education is “key to sustainable development and peace and stability within and among countries.”[9] However, the document avoids a purely interest convergence appeal.[10] Instead, the focus is on “the rights-based approach to education supported by the Universal Declaration of Human rights.”[11]

UNICEF, Promoting Gender Equality

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also suggests ways to approach female education. The Girls’ Education Movement (GEM), in association with UNICEF, states “every child has the right to learn.”[12] GEM “focuses on education because it gives girls the knowledge, skills, confidence and power to positively transform their own lives by claiming their rights.”[13] After all, “Education is a human right and girls are human, too!”[14]


The ‘Iceland’ Approach

In 2014, Iceland, for the fifth consecutive year, led the way in closing the gender gap.[15] In 2013, Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs & Icelandic International Development Agency published the government’s position on gender equality in Iceland’s International Development Co-Operation.[16] This public policy statement by the Icelandic government may be compared to the U.S. Let Girls Learn initiative. Unlike the U.S., Iceland focused on the right to education in addition to the possible secondary benefits. The publication begins with the assertion that “[e]ach individual is entitled equal rights, opportunities and dignity, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”[16] Iceland couches the discussion about gender equality leading to greater social and economic progress in the larger context of “gender equality [as] a human right.”[16]



The societal and familial benefits that come with equal education for women are all important results. Educating women can lead to better wages, better families, and better economies just as educating men can also lead to those worthy results. But these are not the reasons we should educate women. The reason to educate women is simple: women deserve education because “women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts.”[1] No other reason is necessary.


[1] CHARLOTTE BRONTE, JANE EYRE (Richard J. Dunn ed., Norton Critical Edition 2001) (1847). 
[2] DERRICK BELL OFFICIAL SITE (last visited Nov. 5, 2015).
[3] Let Girls Learn, THE WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING ROOM (last visited May 4, 2015).
[4] Kathryn Moeller, Rethinking Why to Prioritize Girls’ Education, HUFFINGTON POST (Mar. 8, 2015, 1:50 PM).
[5] Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Why Letting Girls Learn Matters, HUFFINGTON POST (Mar. 3, 2015, 3:13 PM).
[6] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III) (Dec. 10, 1948). Additionally, the United Nations recently published the Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. G.A. Res. 66/137, U.N. Doc. A/RES/66/137 (Feb. 16, 2012). In the introduction of the Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, the United Nations reaffirmed “that everyone has the right to education, and that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society and promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace, security and the promotion of development and human rights.”
[7] UDHR art. 26(1).
[8] UDHR art. 26(2). 
[9] The Dakar Framework for Action, UNESCO WORLD EDUCATION FORUM, ¶ 6 (Apr. 26-28, 2000).
[10] Indeed, the Dakar Framework talks about committing to “ensuring girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality” without even following up with broad economic benefits. Dakar Framework ¶ 7(v).
[11] Dakar Framework at 3.
[12] Thomas Nybo, Girls’ Education Movement promotes schooling for vulnerable children in Uganda, UNICEF (Apr. 19, 2010).
[13] The Girls’ Education Movement: GEM, UNICEF at 6 (Sept. 2002).
[14] Promoting Gender Equality through UNICEF-Supported Programming in Basic Education: Operational Guidance, UNICEF (June 2011).
[15] Hyacinth Mascarenhas, How Iceland Became the Most Feminist Country in the World, WORLD.MIC (June 19, 2014).
[16] Gender Equality in Iceland’s International Development Co-Operation, MINISTRY FOR FOREIGN AFF. & ICE. INT’L DEV. AGENCY (2013).