The lasting effect of educating girls
I am often asked why, post-politics, I have chosen to work to further educational opportunities for children globally.
On one level, the answer is simple: I have always passionately believed that every child deserves a quality education, regardless of their circumstances.
But improving educational opportunities has a far greater reach than just the benefits for that individual child. This is particularly the case for educating girls and young women.
We know that each year of post-primary education for each girl has a massive multiplier effect. It expands their employment outcomes, decreases their chance of early marriage, and improves their health and wellbeing, as well as the health and wellbeing of their children.
However, their educational opportunities are still more limited than those of boys – 132 million girls worldwide are out of school, and many millions more are in school but not actually learning.
Alice, a young woman in Zambia, had to drop out of school at 14 because her family could no longer afford the cost, and was at risk of child marriage. Young girls like Alice in rural Africa are particularly at risk of dropping out of school.
The Campaign for Female Education, known as CAMFED, stepped in to support Alice. Her secondary school community, part of CAMFED's network of local activists, noticed her absence from school, alerted CAMFED, worked with the family to solve pressing issues, and ensured that Alice received the financial and psychosocial support she needed to complete her secondary schooling.
But Alice's story doesn't end there.
Structured peer support and leadership
One of the best things about my role as Patron of CAMFED has been my involvement with CAMA – the alumni association for CAMFED graduates – a structured peer support and leadership network now 140 000-strong across five African countries.
CAMFED supports young women through school, and importantly, on the journey to independence after school – providing financial and training resources that complement and build on CAMA members' expertise in breaking down barriers to female education.
Through the network, graduates are offered skills and entrepreneurship training, technology, business loans, and mentoring support at the critical time when they move out of formal education, and may be under pressure to marry young, or to leave their rural communities for jobs in towns or cities, where they are extremely vulnerable.
After secondary school, Alice became a trainer in financial literacy and entrepreneurship through CAMA. She started a business to fund her own university education, completing a degree in Sociology. She now works for CAMFED in Zambia, and with many of the district officials who once supported her. Her role includes monitoring programs, mentoring vulnerable children, and supporting teachers and parents to keep girls in school, helping them learn and succeed. Through CAMA, Alice is giving back to her community and mentoring the next generation.
CAMA is the largest network of its kind in Africa, and provides the next steps for girls who were supported to get an education like Alice. These young women are breaking the cycle of poverty by providing for their extended families, financing their own further education, creating new jobs and opportunities, and supporting more children at school.
Investing in girls' education
I have been privileged to meet a number of these impressive women who have stepped up as leaders of change. My dear friend and colleague, Angie Murimirwa, was one of the founding members of CAMA. Now CAMFED's Executive Director – Africa, Angie's story echoed that of so many young girls who are vulnerable and at risk of dropping out of school. Angie went on to become one of the first 400 CAMFED graduates.
In founding CAMA, Angie and her peers understood that completing formal education was a first important step, but that there remained many barriers to further training and employment. Angie also played a key role in the launch of CAMFED's Learner Guide Program, where young women use their lived experience to return to local schools as peer role models and mentors to support vulnerable children with life skills, study skills and literacy training.
CAMA members play an integral role in galvanising communities to support their children through education, and to work together on solutions to any barriers they face. They are working in partnership with boys and men, changing the status quo for women in their communities, and their countries, for good. Today, Alice is a youth representative on the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI).
Summing up CAMFED's achievements in 2018, Alice said: ‘Something that has happened to CAMA this year is that we are now taking the lead, we are now at the front line. You know, it's rare that youth are given the frontline to lead in any activity. But we are doing that with the support of CAMFED.'
Investing in girls' education is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. Committing to a vision of gender equality starts with educating girls like Alice and Angie, and ends in an equal, empowered, educated future for all.