Fostering Girl’s Leadership through Education – so what? Why is it so important?

On September 18, the Women’s From @ UNA-GB continued its #BringBackOurGirls series with an inspirational panel consisting of Dr. Iyano Obasanjo, Fatoumata Fall, Amy Brakeman, and Angha Sirpurkar-Childress. All four leaders from various walks of life addressed the fundamental issue of education as an imperative and valuable tool in fostering girls leadership.

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 11.32.30 AMDr. Obasanjo, a Distinguished Fellow at the African Presidential Center at Boston University who has served on the Nigerian Senate and Nigeria’s Commission for Health, opened discussion the paradigms of what is needed to globally progress women’s and girl’s status in underdeveloped nations. It is clear that there is an issue of female leadership. She states that “having women in leadership is imperative,” but the basic building block of progress are dealing with women as regards to child bearing, child rearing, and education; common themes for the rest of the panel.

Dr. Obasanjo introduced the engrossed listeners, members of UNA-GB and visitors, to Fatoumata Fall, a fourth year student at Harvard University from Senegal, and Amy Brakeman, an active advocate for advancing educational and entrepreneurship programs through institutions abroad (African Leadership Academy) and in the Boston community. Fall and Brakeman shared a slideshow presentation discussing the need for reform in the quality of education in developing countries, like West African states. Fall provided statistics showing a correlation between an increased number of highly educated women and increase in unemployment. This seemed counterintuitive as one would think an increase in highly educated women would result in positive development. However, Fall and Brakeman argued that the problem lies in the quality and direction of the education provided to the girls and boys in Africa. Highly educated girls lack skills that are transferrable to the working world. This is clear something that must change – and fast.

Fatoumata expresses “Most African governments are quick to say that ‘Let’s build more school’s’ but they never talk about making the schools better, that is, redesigning the education system.” It is a matter of quantity versus quality. Along the same thread, Bakeman emphasized that the solution is initiating programs that teach women transferrable skills such as entrepreneurship and critical thinking to enforce and improve livelihood, which has been manifested in initiatives like the African Leadership Academy.

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Fatoumata used a grid like this to strengthen a school in Africa; teaching not only the children but the teachers as well

Similarly, panelist Angha Sirpurkar-Childress discussed the mission and success stories of her initiative, Barakat, which supports coeducational, literacy programs to all ages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of whom are Afghan refugees (read more about Barakat’s 10 Facts about Girls’ Education). Childress explains the cultural and social challenges in accessing education to children and specifically to women. Families are reluctant to send girls to schools with males teachers and students distances away. Sadly, schools can and are dangerous environments for girls where they are prone to rape and other forms of abuse. One of the solutions is to create a demand and incentive for female professionals and teachers in that field who can provide a more safe and effective learning environment for young women.

Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 11.32.12 AMOther solutions may not be obvious at first. Building bathrooms so that girls can have privacy during their menstrual cycles – which is a major concern for parents and girls hitting puberty while still at school. Better education and laws against child marriage, which takes girls out of school to care for a husband and her own children. The panel and guests even discussed the potential game-changer of technology that allows girls to ‘bring school home’ so they don’t have to worry about getting to and from school, but can learn from the safety of home. These and many other advances could make a significant impact on the ability for girls to get a better, longer, fuller education.

The subsequent open floor discussion resurrected other issues that hindered education and progress; many of which stem from socioeconomic and cultural pressures. Education is not an independent, stand-alone issue but it encompasses and brings to surface other crisis that equally need solutions. Primary education is one of the Millennium Development goals set by the United Nations, which although has reached high levels of progress and accomplishment, is still very much a work in progress.