Education: An Unstoppable Tide

Posted on August 20, 2012, by Ann Cotton, Founder and President, Camfed

Empowerment is a deceptive word. It is meant to capture a sense of an individual’s control over her own life, of her ability to make choices. But it also often contains a sense of passivity: a hint that power is being granted to individuals, handed over to them like a bag of grain. The word contains within it the tussle between the powerful and the powerless and the implicit sense that for the weak or poor to thrive, the transfer of ‘power’ –­­–– be it knowledge, ability or wealth –– must be all in one direction: downwards from the strong or rich.

In fact, true power is not about handouts or handovers. It is about eliminating barriers –– such as ignorance, poverty or hunger –– so that individuals have the chance to achieve their potential. Crucially, true empowerment that benefits the many, not just the few, comes not when power is transferred from one individual to another, but rather when it is shared: for individuals to flourish, they need to be given the means to discover how to fly –– not simply handed wings.

Angeline Murimirwa knows this from personal experience.  

Angeline Murimirwa with students under a jacaranda tree. (Photo courtesy Camfed.)

Angie –– who is profiled in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide –– was born in Sadza, a rural district in Zimbabwe, southern Africa. Her parents were subsistence farmers. They grew little or no surplus food to sell for basics –– let alone for school fees, which every child in Zimbabwe must pay to go to secondary school. Angie clearly remembers wearing a torn dress to school, having no shoes and little to eat –– and being sent home to collect school fees, which she knew her family did not have. Yet she knew she was a bright child. She would hear neighbors say things like “manhanga anowira kune vasina hari” (“those who harvest so many pumpkins are often the people who do not have clay pots to cook them in”) –– meaning her mother had a clever daughter, but could not afford to capitalize on it.

Angie sobbed when she got her results at the end of primary school: not out of joy, but out of pain. Though she achieved one of the best results in the entire country, she knew that without money for school fees or clothing she would not be able to go to secondary school. It was then, she says, that she felt the real power of poverty: education could give her the knowledge and skills that would enable her to make her own choices in life, choices her parents were unable to make for want of such opportunity. Without money, she would never be able to access that education.

Study after study has shown that one of the most important factors in eliminating poverty is the education of women. And in the five African countries in which Camfed operates, the chief barrier to them accessing that education is money –– not cultural resistance as is often assumed. In the 20 years Camfed has operated, no parent has ever refused a bursary for their child.

Angie was one of the first girls Camfed supported through school. She was given not just the fees to pay for schooling, but also a uniform, shoes and school equipment. Access to this education did not give Angie wings. The money that provided her with a bursary did not in itself “empower” her. But they gave her the knowledge and the skills she needed to fly. “It was like being told you too can have this, can be whoever you want to be. It is not the preserve of a select few,” says Angie.  “It was confirmation that this is possible, attainable –– even by you.”

And, importantly, they gave her an understanding of “what might have been” and what could be had those doors not opened, which Angie now uses to help others realize their potential – as the executive director for Camfed in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

“I have acted on the potential that poverty had suppressed in me. I’ve made meaningful decisions not just for myself but to support family and friends,” she says.

“I’ve learnt to challenge oppressive situations and voice my objections whenever I realize someone’s ignorance is being exploited. I have gained the confidence to be the real me.”

Education has a snowball effect. When Angie left school, she and 300 other girls who had been supported through school founded Cama –– an alumnae network for young women who had been helped by Camfed. The Cama network, which started with just a few hundred women in 1998, now numbers more than 17,000 across five countries.

Cama offers peer support, mentoring, and training in financial literacy, health and ICT, assisting women to set up businesses, become health workers, or train as educators. The young women of Cama are business people, doctors, teachers, lawyers and politicians.

But it is not so much the individual achievements of its members that make Cama remarkable. What makes it powerful –– and empowering in the truest sense of the word –– is the way in which the group shares power. Cama members give their time to train and support girls and their families in their communities, extending the benefits of their own education well beyond their own personal sphere. And they directly finance the education of thousands more children, including those to whom they are not even related.

Cama members gain their strength both from the education they have received –– which gives them the confidence and ability to make their own decisions about their futures –– and from the support they derive from, and give to, one another. As the proverb says:  “Alone I go faster, together we go further.”

Nowhere is the power of this snowball effect more in evidence than in Angie. In July of this year the primary school girl who once washed teachers’ dishes just to get a pen stood before government ministers, national officials and nearly 1,000 rural girls to celebrate the launch of 24,000 new Camfed secondary school scholarships in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean secondary school students. (Photo courtesy Camfed.)

“Today is an amazing, paradigm-shifting, mould-shattering and trendsetting day,” she told the crowd.

“In June 2010, we asked young women Camfed had supported to complete school how many children they were now each supporting to go to school. On average each of them was supporting three children. This included their siblings, relatives and neighbors, and non-relatives.

“Can you imagine how many more children will be in school once the 24,000 girls for whom we are gathered today go through school?

“It is an unstoppable positive tide.”

You can contribute to this unstoppable positive tide by sending a girl to school. Please visit our Back to School Shop to donate uniforms, books, or full scholarships and follow Camfed on Twitter and Facebook.

Ann Cotton is the president and founder of Camfed.