Educating Girls: We’re All in This Fight Together

Posted on September 25, 2012, by Joyce Adolwa, Senior Technical Advisor, CARE

My daughter just started kindergarten. I’m sure most parents can relate to how my husband and I felt as we accompanied her into a school classroom for the first time. We were proud, excited and, of course, a little bit wistful about how quickly our girl is growing up.

Our daughter is enrolled in our neighborhood’s public school. A magnet school designed to promote achievement in science, technology, engineering and math, its classrooms are packed with cutting-edge information technology and scientific gadgets. Instead of a chalkboard, teachers in every class guide students through lessons using a giant electronic screen. If there’s chalk in the school, it’s probably for kids to play with during recess.

Living in suburban Atlanta, my daughter is starting her formal education with advantages most children don’t have, and probably can’t even imagine. I think about those children every day. As head of girls’ empowerment and adolescent programming at CARE USA, my day-to-day work connects me with them: kids in some of the world’s poorest communities who know that a good education is the surest path they have out of poverty.

It’s not just my career that connects me to children for whom education is often more dream than reality. It’s a struggle I can relate to personally. As a child in Kenya, my parents sent me to our family’s ancestral village every year to make sure I maintained a close relationship with our extended family even after they had moved to Nairobi.

In and around the village, I saw and played with children so poor that many could not afford school. And many of the ones whose parents managed to pay school fees couldn’t afford the basic school supplies. Some didn’t even have pencils or paper. They did their homework using chalk and small, handheld chalkboards. When their assignments were reviewed by their teacher, they erased the chalk and proceeded with the next assignment.



CARE’s girls’ leadership programs use sports to help girls develop skills they need to stand up for their right to be educated.

 

Poverty hurts everyone, but in my family’s ancestral village, and countless rural communities just like it across the poorest parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, it’s the girls on whom poverty lays the heaviest burden. Hours before classes started, it was the village girls who marched beyond the village outskirts in the dark to gather the family’s firewood. It was girls who had to find enough water for the family’s cooking, drinking, and washing needs for the day. To put that into perspective, a five gallon pail of water weighs more than 42 pounds. Imagine any five-year-old you know, a girl or a boy, hauling that kind of load around.

As significant an obstacle to education as economic impoverishment is, it’s not always the biggest obstacle to education in the developing world. Social and cultural norms that are expressed in the form of gender discrimination can severely limit a girl’s access to a quality education just as much as material deprivation.

Orpita is a 13-year-old girl CARE works with in rural Bangladesh. A hard-working, high-achieving student, she and many of her girl classmates were targeted daily with verbal harassment, so-called “eve-teasing,” when they walked to and from school. What Orpita experienced is, unfortunately, very common in communities where the right of girls and women to go freely about their lives is not fully accepted.

Orpita participates in CARE’s girls’ leadership program in her village. The program helps girls develop their communication skills, self-possession and self-confidence. In Orpita’s village, and across the world, CARE has found that helping girls develop these skills has a beneficial ripple effect. They’re better able to take care of themselves and to pass the skills on to people around them.

After talking through their problem with their group, Orpita and two of her friends confronted their harasser and asked him to stop. When he refused, the girls approached his family and asked them to intervene. They did, and the harassment stopped. Just as importantly, the self-confidence and intelligence Orpita and her classmates displayed has caused many of her classmates, girls and boys alike, to rethink some of the harmful stereotypical assumptions of girls that helps fuel the harassment in the first place.

Through the same programs, CARE is helping girls avoid forced child marriages that lead them to drop out of school. Girls who can confidently articulate to their families how much education means to them stay in school longer. And parents who see their girls flourishing in school are more likely to keep their children enrolled longer. Girls who pursue education longer and marry later stay healthier, have healthier children, and tend to be more prosperous.

Thinking about all the advantages my daughter will have as she gets her education, I’m grateful for all of the technology at her disposal. I’m grateful for her professional teachers with advanced degrees and her modern, safe school building around the corner from our home.

But I’ve seen so many girls around the world succeed without any of those things that I know there’s more to education and girls’ empowerment than what’s physically tangible. What my daughter and her classmates have in common with Orpita and her classmates is that someone fought for, and is still fighting for, one of their most basic rights as human beings – the right to an education.

If that fight is largely invisible to American children, that’s good. It means they’ll have more time and energy to study, to play with their friends and family, and to enjoy their lives. I hope it also means that we in this country have time, energy and money to help children in places where the right to an education can’t be taken for granted.

Joyce Adolwa is head of girls’ empowerment and adolescent programming at the global poverty-fighting organization CARE. To find out how you can support her work and other CARE efforts to empower women and girls, go to www.care.org, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.