As we have seen through the stories of Kakenya and Exildah women and girls achieve amazing things when given equal access to education and a space in which they can fulfill their potential. I saw this first hand a few years ago when I volunteered in the tiny country of Belize and then in its neighbour, Guatemala – both times working with NGOs that worked to empower women through education and advocacy.
In Belize I worked with women and girls from poorer communities to create opportunities for education. While education is essentially “free”, compulsory uniforms and school registration fees pose a significant obstacle to education for many children. Women are not considered potential bread winners for the family, so if a family can’t afford to send all their children to school, it is the girls who are held back first.
Young women also have little or no access to reproductive education or family planning information because most schools are affiliated with religious organisations that don’t do sex education. This means often young women become mothers too early and don’t get a chance to complete their education. High HIV prevalence rates worsen the situation for women.
Finally, a staggering amount of women in Belize suffer domestic abuse. Domestic violence poses a significant obstacle to education and equal opportunity. Women living in violence are less likely to seek equal rights or opportunities for themselves or their children, particularly female children, due to fear, or a belief they are not deserving of their rights.
Access to computers and the internet is something that most of us take for granted. It’s also a mark of our technological advancement and educational opportunity. Many females in poorer Belizean communities do not have the opportunity to complete their education, let alone access to computers and computer training.I therefore decided to run computer training workshops for young women, no longer in school, from within two of my then local communities. After managing to acquire some (very old) computers, I set about running the workshops once I had got the donated computers working. They had been hauled straight out of the nineties and had not been touched since!The workshops were publicised throughout the communities and the response I received from women was incredible. I had planned to run the workshops once a week but with the overwhelming response I had, with women queuing out the door to sign up, I ended up running the workshops several nights a week. When asked what they most wanted to learn, the women unanimously stated that they wanted to learn to use the internet and to send emails.After running the workshops for ten weeks, all the women learnt to send emails and use the internet. This was wonderful to see, especially considering that when many of the women started they did not know that a mouse was anything other than a small, hairy cheese-loving rodent..
While it may seem a small thing enabling women to use the technology we so readily take for granted on a daily basis, for these women it gave them the opportunity to begin to pursue their ambitions in a space in which they were comfortable, and free to learn.We all share similar dreams and aspirations, regardless of where or who we are. What differs is where in the world we were born, and the opportunities we are given to achieve our dreams. As I stood amongst a gaggle of women learning to the use the internet in Belize, I realised that if everyone’s to have these opportunities, we’re going to need to work together.
As we continue to focus on MDG3 this week, Exildah tells her story in the video above. Her
story, like Kakenya’s (See Blog Below), supports findings that the education of women is by far one of the most effective tools to lift a community out of poverty.
Statistics have shown that when you educate a girl she will earn up to 25% more,
reinvestment in her community will increase, she is less likely to contract HIV, and she will
have a smaller, healthier family.
Education improves the life of Exhildah and her family, and also ensures the long term
sustainability of an otherwise struggling community. Access to education for Exildah, means
access to healthcare for her community.
So, in receiving an education, Exildah is not only provided with the chance to fulfil her own
aspirations of becoming a doctor, but is also simultaneously provided the opportunity to
improve the life of everyone in her community.
Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) the organisation who made Exildah’s education possible, is working hard to get more female children into school, so that we can move closer to achieving MDG3.
Camfed were profiled in Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s inspiring book Half the Sky,
which is due to be released in the UK in August. It is a wonderful campaigning tool and
provides a unique insight into the transformative effects of women’s empowerment.
Check back here in a few weeks when GPP will be offering our friends and supporters an
exclusive chance to win a free copy of Half the Sky, as soon as it’s released in the UK.
As Kofi Annan identified back in 2008, there are 860 million illiterate adults in the world, and
two thirds of these are women. Out of more than 100 million children not currently in school,
the majority are girls.
MDG3 calls for the elimination of the gender disparity in education for women and girls at
all levels, by 2015. In this visually beautiful video, Kakenya tells her uplifting story and it
illustrates the great things that can be accomplished if we uphold our commitment to achieve
the third MDG.
Her story is a wonderful example of the far reaching effects of women’s empowerment in a
single community. It demonstrates that enabling a female child to go to school, and to get an
education equal to that of a male child, will positively change the lives of all members of her
The story of Kakenya shows how this type of change, or cultural shift, in a community needs
to come from within the community itself, rather than from the outside. And, that change
begins with a conversation.
Providing an education for women and girls equips them with the confidence to speak out,
and to assert more control over their own lives. An education also creates a space in which
women and girls can speak freely, and in which they will be listened to with equal respect.
As Kakenya’s story show us, when given the opportunity to speak and act in an environment
equal to that of their male counterparts, women can, and do bring about incredible change.
Vital Voices is an organisation working across the world with people like Kakenya. They
empower women and girls to create spaces in which to lead and to assert their voices with
confidence, and to transform their communities.
This clip from UNICEF gives a great insight into some of the challenges – and solutions – to enable kids to get into school, and to learn once they’re there.
It certainly reminded me that kids are the same all the world over – they want to fit in. It’s embarrassing to be older than all the other kids in your class, and it’s embarrassing to make mistakes that could make people think you’re stupid. And, for us, it’s a reminder of how important it is to ensure that all kids are supported to get in – and stay in – school from the very start, and to provide second chances for kids who miss out, or fall out of the system.
It revealed some of the complexities of enabling kids to learn well. For many families in the poorest countries, food is sometimes scarce, and it’s hard to learn and concentrate on an empty stomach. That’s why the World Food Program have invested in school feeding programs around the world, with good evidence to say that it improves both attendance and test results when done well.
And, it gives important context, reminding us that getting an education is just one of many things that kids in the world’s poorest countries need to manage. Long walks to and from school. The challenge of affording a uniform and books – even if school is free. Family responsibilities, like the need to fetch water or care for younger siblings.
Yet, despite these challenges, we’re seeing solid progress. More needs to be done, and it needs to be done quicker, but there’s no down-playing the massive achievement of getting 40 million additional kids into school in the last decade.
Getting kids into school is about more than just making it free, and telling kids to go.
As we work towards the achievement of the second millennium development goal, we’re going to need to find more innovative ways to enable the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable children to learn to read and write – like this above example.
Each context is going to be different, which means that what works in one place won’t necessarily work in others. But, what we do know is that to make education work for kids (as we’ve talked about before), there are a couple of things we need to focus on:
It’s about learning, not attendance. It’s easy just to think that if we get all kids into school, the learning will take care of itself. It doesn’t. Our aid money often goes to get numbers into school, which is a great start, but it needs to do more to ensure that the kids who turn up really learn, and that the curriculum they learn is relevant to their lives.
Wanted: More teachers. As we’ve made education free in more countries and more kids turn up, teachers have been overwhelmed, and are often teaching huge classes. Oxfam think that to achieve the education millennium development goal with reasonable class sizes, we need an extra 15 million teachers worldwide.
Filling the funding gap. Most of the money to get kids into school comes locally, with the international community agreeing to chip in the rest through the Education for All Fast Track Initiative. But right now, donors are an estimated $16 billion a year short of what will be needed to get all kids into school.