“He was a good man. He sent all his daughters to school, too.” I used to hear this every now and then, from my mom and other relatives, when I was growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe. They would usually be talking about an older uncle who had passed, the fact that he had made sure all his children were educated, not just the boys.
My own grandfather, the father of one son and six daughters, was among those highly-spoken-of men; he not only made sure his girls received a high-school education but also helped them get into universities. That was no small feat in colonial Africa in the ’50s and ’60s. It was considered something exceptional to send girls to school back then. Unfortunately, it still is exceptional.
How is it possible that we are still in a world where 130 million girls don’t go to school simply because they are girls? If the girls out of school globally formed a country, it would be the tenth largest in the world. What an absolute waste of potential and possibility.
This is something American women may take for granted, but in the developing world, where I grew up, to be a girl comes with so much liability, gaining an education is still considered a privilege, not a right. In some instances, even if girls are sent to school, they’re not allowed to learn math or science or subjects that are relevant to the world they inhabit. It’s literally crippling their future and perpetuating oppression.
I wrote a play, Eclipsed, and focused on what I learned when I interviewed girls and women who had survived Liberia’s vicious civil war. So many of these amazing women and girls had not received much education; so many had received none at all. This was the effect of a twenty-year war, painfully revealed. But they were hungry to learn. I would always ask them — each and every woman I interviewed — what they wanted. Some told me no one had ever asked them that. Ever. But they all, literally all, wanted the same thing: access to schooling. Access to an education that would allow them to truly explore what they were capable of. What society had denied them.
Liberia remains on the list of the countries where girls are least likely to be educated. Nearly two-thirds of primary-school-aged girls in Liberia are out of school. I see that, and I see their faces, those girls and women. And I feel helpless.
But I could not sit idly by and let this global crisis continue without taking action. During the time Eclipsed was on Broadway, I collaborated with an astounding man, Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human-rights attorney who founded an organization called Education Must Continue (EMC). His work is particularly focused on the conflict in Northern Nigeria, where the girls at a boarding school in Chibok were abducted in the middle of the night by the terrorist group Boko Haram. On that night in April 2014, 272 girls were taken from their school and loaded into trucks, to be transported God knows where. Fifty-odd girls jumped out of the trucks. Some of the ones who escaped were brought to the United States by EMC, to continue their schooling without fear of re-abduction. The movement known as #bringbackourgirls is the result of this.
We dedicated each Eclipsed performance to the girls still in captivity, speaking their names aloud. We had our Broadway audiences speak them, too. Boko Haram is an example of the attack we are under. Their name literally translates to “Western education is sin.” They told those girls they had no business being in school as they abducted them into a life of captivity and systematic assault. These girls were assigned as “wives” to the men of this group. Many of them are still living this hell.
The hopeful part of it all is that educated girls do incredible things.
The girls I met here in the United States have graduated from high school and are on their way to pursuing a bright future. But the struggle is still real for many of their peers. The ONE campaign, which advocates for people living in poverty around the world, uses the phrase “Poverty Is Sexist,” and it is. You can see this clearly in the fact that the poorest countries in the world have the largest gender gap around access and education. According to the ONE campaign, “If every girl completed a primary education in sub-Saharan Africa, maternal mortality could fall by a dramatic 70 percent — in part because women with more education tend to have fewer children.”
So what do we do? I grew up bicultural. Born in middle America, I was raised by Zimbabwean parents in Zimbabwe, and I returned to the United States as an adult for university and beyond. It’s a bit of a mind warp, feeling intimately close to these two deeply disparate places to the same degree.
The most painful part of this cultural duality is when my Western peers don’t see the plights and issues in the developing world beyond a sad and distant story to scroll past on their Twitter feeds. When they don’t see the shared humanity and equality they have with those on the other side of the world who suffer so much simply because of geography. It’s the very reason I write African female-led narratives in the West.
Until we get rid of that level of apathy and passing fancy interest, we will continue to see our sisters across the globe suffer and the issues worsen. To become a part of the solution, we have to start with ourselves. We are, by virtue of being from the United States, some of the most powerful females on the planet. We may not feel powerful, but by comparison, there is no question.
I don’t have the perfect answer to how to fix this massive global education gap, and it’s something I grapple with all the time. But I do know we have to start by giving a darn. We have to start by recognizing the true connection we have to women everywhere. Then we have to hold ourselves accountable to consistently garner awareness, and we have to work together with shared strategy and goals.
Because the hopeful part of it all, and I grew up witnessing this, is that educated girls do incredible things. They lift their families out of poverty, and they combat the issues of their communities with innovation and courage. Girls who are educated are more likely to wait until adulthood to get married, and they raise the GDP in their nations once they are able to participate in the economy. Often, when education is introduced to girls, even in poor nations, those countries outperform wealthier nations.
I saw this hopefulness in the eyes of the girls I met from Chibok, who were willing to be away from their families and friends in this strange land at such a young age just to get a chance to explore what they were capable of without fear.
October 11 is the International Day of the Girl. Remember the girl in Ethiopia working in a field instead of going to school, the girl in Mali who watches her brother going to class every day while she has to stay at home, the girl in Northern Nigeria who started her day in April 2014 thinking about her math quiz and ended it as the forced “wife” of a rebel-army officer. They need you on the battlefield, at least trying to figure out how to effectively participate.
Joining ONE’s Poverty Is Sexist campaign is a good place to start: You can call attention to the education crisis by using the most powerful tool at your disposal — your voice. Take action right now with #girlscount, a bold campaign that brings this problem to life by inviting us to count from one to 130 million — one number for every girl out of school. All you have to do is pick a number, then upload and share your counting video. ONE is compiling each and every count into the world’s longest video to show both the scale of the problem and the enormous amount of global support that exists for addressing it. ONE will be using this film to petition your leaders to take urgent action to get these girls in school. The organization will make sure your voice gets heard.
Get your activism on. It is a journey, and you choose where the path leads. We are all a lot more powerful than we think. Now is the time, and the Day of the Girl is the day that we figure out just how much we can use our power for the future of a sister across the world.