For Fawzia, “literacy and education is as light. It also gives you power.” The 10-year-old aspires to become Afghanistan’s president. Fawzia is among the fortunate few to attend school in a country where women continue to battle for rights as simple as moving freely outside their homes. Around the world, 31 million young girls like Fawzia are out of school. They dream of big achievements, but for most access to basic education remains a luxury, not a right.
As the Hon. Julia Gillard said, good education helps girls grow into strong women; but long-standing cultural differences, fragile states and conflict, underfinancing and terrorist intimidation are just some of the gender-specific barriers that stand in the way of educating girls.
Indeed, global voices and actions in support of girls’ education and women’s empowerment have grown much stronger in the past decade. Social enterprises have contributed to these efforts. The World Innovation Summit for Education (wise-qatar.org), an initiative of Qatar Foundation, supports and promotes high-impact initiatives that have succeeded in mobilizing communities to help women live better lives, especially through education.
For instance, Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education, leverages girl power to beat poverty in Africa. Founded by Ann Cotton, a WISE Prize for Education laureate(and Skoll Foundation awardee), Camfed’s innovative approach has benefitted more than three million children, spurring broader change as women use their education to give back to their communities.
Meanwhile in Ghana, life no longer comes to a standstill when a woman loses her husband. In a country where widowhood is still considered a curse, the Widows Alliance Network (WANE) is turning the tide by equipping women with skills needed to set up and run sustainable businesses.
Another example that comes to mind is in India, home to the largest number of illiterate women in the world (nearly 200 million). Educate Girls operates in districts with significant gender gaps in education, like Rajasthan. The organization works closely with village communities to raise awareness, improve the quality of education, and improve infrastructure to bring girls to school on a larger scale.
In Turkey, the Mother Child Education Program (MOCEP) is training mothers as “first educators”. The list of projects, campaigns and initiatives is long and their impact is beginning to show on the ground.
As we strengthen the momentum to bring 31 million girls to school, we cannot afford to ignore the ones who are already enrolled. Significant challenges remain. For starters, very few girls are attracted to fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). STEM skills offer more than just career paths; they hone the fundamental 4Cs – creativity, co-operation, communication and critical thinking – skills that will be expected of the future workforce.
Private initiatives such as Goldieblox, Girls Who Code or DIGITS encourage girls and women not only to enter STEM, but to stay in the field. However these programs are primarily confined to North America and Europe.
Furthermore, teachers and parents too have to play their part to inspire a passion from an early age. According to a Microsoft study, male students are more likely to pursue STEM because they have always enjoyed games and toys that are focused on their chosen subject area.
The global economy is facing a serious skills shortage, with employers seeking ever more graduates with STEM-related skills. To solve this skills shortage, we need more women involved – more girls should code, more women should aim to join the first human voyage to Mars, more female graduates should be entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
Giving girls and women access to quality education and equal opportunities goes beyond solving one of the biggest moral challenges facing our generation. As the world sets out to inaugurate the new sustainable development goals, holistic quality education for girls in and out of school must be a core priority.
I spent more than a decade working in the aid and development sector in Afghanistan. A key lesson that I brought back home is that educating a girl is not just about giving her a secure future, saving her from child marriage or making herfinancially independent. Educating a girl is about transforming her entire community.
This article was originally published by Skoll World Forum.
Published in collaboration with WISE. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Sebastien Turbot is the Director of Content and Curator of the World Innovation Summit for Education, an Initiative of Qatar Foundation.
Image: Girls stand inside their classroom at a primary school. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya.