“We need so much – food, clean water, doctors to help us when we are sick – but most of all we need education. If we don’t have education, we have nothing.”
A little while ago I was in a refugee camp in Iraq that was the new home of thousands of Syrian families who had fled the long and brutal conflict in Syria. The camp was about 40 minutes drive from the nearest town, and was incredibly bleak. The tents were the same dusty beige as the sandy ground, and the only solid structures in the camp, the toilet blocks, were no longer working because rain had caused the ground on that side of the camp to sink making the toilet blocks unsafe to use. There was no medical clinic, no places for children to play, and no transportation to get them to the nearest town.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there as a child.
Photo credit. This is another refugee camp in Iraq, not the one Sarah visited.
I was there to talk to girls aged between 13 and 18. They told me of not being allowed to leave their family tents because their parents were afraid that they would be sexually abused. One girl told me that despite coming from a county where before the war nearly everyone went to school, she had not been allowed to go to school for over four years because there were only schools for boys in this refugee camp.
A 15-year-old girl told me that when she arrived at the camp two years ago, her parents had been forced to marry her to a much older man because they didn’t have enough money to feed their family.
I was told story after story of why they weren’t allowed to go to school, and the reasons ranged from physical danger of leaving their tents, of not being able to afford school fees or school books, of their brothers being prioritised before them if there was only enough money to send one child to school, of having to work to support their family, or simply, just because they were girls.
Eventually I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The responses came quickly: a teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer. I asked them if they could have anything – more food, cleaner water, better tents – what would it be? One after one, the girls said education. One girl said: “school is the most important thing in our lives and will fulfil our dreams. If we can get an education, we can have a better life”.
And with my own ears, I have heard this time and time again from girls in the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan, Uganda, Kenya, Syria and Somalia.
“I can’t go to school because my brother’s education is more important than mine.”
“I can’t go to school because my new husband who is 20 years older than me wants me to stay at home instead.”
“I can’t go to school because my parents are worried that if I leave my home, I’ll be sexually abused.”
Photo credit: Peter Hershey
These examples may sound a little far-fetched for a lot of us, but this is the reality for many of the 130 million girls around the world who are currently out of school. In fact, of that 130 million, 15 million girls will never, not even once, enter a classroom. Sometimes it’s hard to picture what a figure that big looks like: 15 million is the total population of people living Australia’s capital cities, combined.
This needs to change. As those girls in Iraq told me, “without education we have nothing”. We know that investing in girls provides benefits not just to the individual girl, but to whole communities and nations. Better educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labour market, earn higher incomes, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and enable better health care and education for their children, should they choose to become mothers. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities and nations out of poverty.
And this is the transformational effect of education, the ripple effect. If you educate a girl, everything can change. The benefits extend not only to the individual girl, but to her future family, and her community – and the benefits continue generation after generation.
And that’s why One Girl focuses on educating girls.
I have being lucky to have been born in a country where I have been able to access so many opportunities and choices that allowed me to shape my own future. I grew up in Brisbane and went to a good school. I worked as a journalist with the ABC before moving to London where I took a volunteer position with Save the Children, an international charity.
Just one month after taking that role, I was standing in the middle of a disaster zone in Myanmar as part of an emergency response team responding to Cyclone Nargis, a cyclone that killed hundreds of thousands of people and affected millions. This was the start of my career in international aid, a career that has taken me around the world, working in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq.
And I’ve been able to do all of this because I was born into a life where education for everyone is considered a basic human right, my parents had enough money to buy me school books and school uniforms, my teachers encouraged me to study, and the school I went to was safe.
But this is not the case for so many girls around the world who haven’t been as lucky, who have been born into a country where because of circumstance, culture, religion or just simply because of their gender, they haven’t had the same opportunities.
I am so excited to be the new CEO of One Girl because every day I get to provide opportunities for more girls around the world to go to school. But this is just the start. Right now there are 130 million girls around the world not going to school. You, me, we all have the power to change this.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #PressforProgress. Collective action and shared ownership for driving gender parity is what makes International Women’s Day successful. As it says on the IWD website, “individually we are one drop but together we are an ocean”. So together we need to ‘Press for Progress’ – to harness our collective action to make change for girls all around the world – to get them back into school, to provide them with opportunities so they can have a say over their own futures, and to help them overcome the barriers they face to be able to live up to their full potential.
And for me, it all comes back to education because an educated and empowered woman will build up those around her. When you educate a girl, anything can happen.