Tomorrow is international Human Rights Day, making this a good time to reflect on our most basic human rights: food, clean water, shelter, safety. One of the most transformative human rights is education, which we often take for granted in the U.S., but for many, many girls around the globe it’s just a dream they must fight for every day.
Recently, the Ms. Blog sat down for a cross-continental conversation with some young rural women in South Africa. They’re part of Imagine Scholar, a four-year, after-school mentorship program for talented, disadvantaged youth across the Nkomazi, a municipality between Swaziland and Mozambique. This region faces a large unemployment problem, a prenatal HIV prevalence rate of 47.3 percent (as of 2010) and a poverty rate of 61.4 percent (as of 2011). A meager 6.7 percent of the residents there have received any higher education.
Imagine Scholar focuses on critical-thinking skills, character development and English language proficiency to prepare students for higher education. Currently, about 70 percent of Imagine Scholars are girls. Says the program’s international development manager, Nicholas Drushella,
The original goal of Imagine Scholar wasn’t to recruit more girls than boys from the area, but over time we found that girls excel in our curriculum and are suited to the program’s goals, because they tend to want to stay in their communities and fix the problems there.
As the recent documentary Girl Rising demonstrates, educating girls can be one of a community’s highest-returning investments. But there are still 31 million girls of primary-school age and 34 million female adolescents worldwide who are not in school. Yet studies show that educating girls is the smartest and most simple solution to many of our most daunting social issues, such as:
- Teen pregnancy: 10 percent fewer girls under the age of 17 would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they had a primary education.
- Infant mortality: A literate mother has a 50 percent higher chance that her child will survive to the age of 5, and child deaths would be cut in half if all women had a secondary education, saving 3 million lives.
- Child marriages: Girls with secondary education are 6 times less likely to be married as children, and if all girls had a secondary education there would be two-thirds fewer child marriages.
- Illiteracy: Two-thirds of the 792 million illiterate adults in the world are female, and an educated mother is more than twice as likely to send her children to school
- Poverty: A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 percent more as an adult. If India enrolled just 1 percent more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.
- Maternal Mortality: In developing countries, the #1 cause of death for girls 15-19 is childbirth. Maternal deaths would be reduced by two-thirds if each mother completed primary education.
The three bright and talented Imagine Scholars I spoke with are Nomthandazo (grade 9), Queen (grade 10) and Zinzi (Grade 10). In a conversation that covered everything from discrimination in South African public schools to uneven chore assignments and household expectations for boys and girls, these young women were eloquent and enthusiastic testaments to the power of educating girls.
Queen: If I wasn’t part of Imagine Scholar I wouldn’t have been able to notice that I’m being manipulated or discriminated [against]. I learned to have the respect of being a woman … I just want to help the people around me and show them that being a
girl doesn’t mean that you don’t have to go to school, that you must get pregnant and do all the chores. You can still go to school and do something with your life, because more people depend on you and you are to help them.
Nomthandazo: My mom saw the situation she faced because she quit school, so she told me that I must go to school and learn, because the things she’s come across, she doesn’t want me to come across. I just want to convince girls how important is education.
Zinzi: If I hadn’t joined Imagine Scholar, I think I would’ve been pregnant by now. I had bad friends and they would pressure me to do bad stuff and I would usually fall into their traps. I was really that dumb to believe them. Imagine
Scholar just took my life and changed it for good. It made me view myself as a woman and say This is what I want to be. I took ownership of my life, became the independent woman I want to be and with that I can go places, because I’m me, I’m a woman and I believe that I can still be that leader that I want to be.
Tomorrow, on Human Rights Day, let’s take a moment to be thankful for rights we so often take for granted and to support continued efforts across the globe to make education a right for all, regardless of gender. When you educate girls in a community, you better the entire community and, eventually, the world.
Photos courtesy of Imagine Scholar.
Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms. Read more from her at OhHeyMeliss.com.