Lucy Lake , Director of International Programmes, CAMFED


Honourable Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen – I’m delighted to join you at this important forum and to speak on behalf of civil society. I am here representing CAMFED, the Campaign for Female Education. We work in Africa, but the lessons and findings of our programmes resonate around the globe. Our focus is on girls’ education, on practical initiatives to get girls into school, and it is through this lens that I’ll present some perspectives on the link between girls’ education and adult female literacy.


The young women I work with across Africa often speak about ‘the Tsunami’. They are not talking about the awful tidal wave that struck south Asia last year, what they are referring to is that a generation of girls has been swept away by virtue of the fact that they have been excluded from school. For despite the benefits of girls’ education that are now widely heralded, despite the resources that are being committed in the name of girls, at the front line, every day, we see more and more girls dropping out of school. That’s the reality.


We have to use UNGEI as a mechanism for highlighting the successes in giving girls their right to education, but we also have to use it to ask the hard-hitting questions as to why so many girls continue to drop out of school.


There are many layers to girls’ education. Girls are at the mercy of a complex web of gendered social and economic constraints to their education. The only way to succeed in unravelling this web of constraints is to involve all those who have an influence over girls’ lives. On the one hand, this includes patriarchal authorities such as chiefs, as well as school authorities that influence the welfare of children in the community. On the other hand, it involves girls’ families and crucially, their mothers.


The vast majority of girls outside the school system are in families where mothers were themselves excluded from education. These mothers’ involvement in helping their daughters to go to school is critical. I’ll use an example to highlight what I mean: One young woman, Mama, who we are working with in Ghana to lead initiatives in support of girls, spoke earlier this year to the UK Chancellor, Gordon Brown, at an event organised by DFID on girls’ education. The main point Mama chose to make was this:

“When you visit a school in Africa and you see that the most beautiful girl is receiving the bursary for education, you must ask yourself why. It is most likely because the girl is paying for her education through sex with the headmaster. It is very important that bursaries are given by the community and that girls and parents understand what they are entitled to.”


In order to support their daughters, mothers need to be able to negotiate complex gender and power dynamics that affect their daughters’ education in order to be confident of their daughters’ welfare in school. This is so difficult in a context in which these women were themselves excluded from a system, to then be asked to engage and negotiate with it. When they do, they cannot just be there on committees as’ token’ representatives, ticking the box for rural women’s participation, which is too often the case. They have to be given the tools and confidence to negotiate their daughters’ education, to make demands on the system to ensure their daughters’ welfare and protection, and this is where the link to mothers’ literacy is key.


At CAMFED, we’ve been investing in innovative forms of literacy to enable rural women to find new ways to negotiate with authorities, allowing them to cut through the fact that they’ve never had a formal education. This has focused on training in film-making techniques and the production of films on sensitive issues that are then used as a starting point for discussion in communities, and for negotiations with local and national authorities.


The most critical issue, however, the most important input to unravel the web of constraints that surround girls’ education, is money to meet the direct and indirect costs of education. Put money at the centre to overcome the poverty-related constraints on girls’ education, and this brings people round to tackle the social constraints. Cut through poverty and all kinds of creativity is unlocked. It is the incentive for mothers and school authorities to negotiate. It is the catalyst for girls to go to school. And in this respect, UNGEI can be the converter, by making sure that money raised in the name of girls, gets through to girls.


Every day, we are all asking communities to reflect on and address the power dynamics that underpin girls’ exclusion. We also need to be doing the same here at international level and ask serious questions about where money is going, in which layers is it being spent before reaching girls, and is it being managed in a way that really brings benefits to girls without further exacerbating their vulnerability. It’s a hard thing to hold up a mirror to ourselves in this way. But if it works, UNGEI can be that mirror. We owe it to girls to do so.


Thank you.