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Lydia Wilbard’s Address to Mrs. Annan’s Special Event for First Spouses

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©UNICEF/HQ05-1131/Markisz
Lydia Wilbard (left) tells her story at a briefing for first spouses.

On 14 September 2005, as more than 170 Heads of State/Government gathered for the 2005 United Nations World Summit, Nane Annan, wife of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, hosted a briefing for first spouses at UN Headquarters. The briefing, co-sponsored by UNICEF and UNAIDS, focussed on girls' education and HIV/AIDS as they relate to development.

Mrs. Annan, Your Majesties, First Ladies, Distinguished Guests,

When people asked me what I would say to you all today, I told them, people can see me talking as Lydia, an orphan from a local village who can influence others. I will tell them that everything is possible.

I bring to you a story of hope, a real story of hope for village girls like me.

My lovely mother died when I was 10 years old. My heart was heavy. I thought that if I were a nurse I could have prolonged her life. From that day my dream was to become a medical professional. Whenever I got the chance I would get hold of anything that looked educational and hook myself to it.

I was happy when I was asked to go and live with my aunt who had seven sons and no daughters. But life there was not as I expected, as I found myself struggling with a lot of heavy work as the only girl in my aunt’s family. Work like cooking, washing clothes, farming, cleaning the house and collecting firewood all depended on me.

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© UNGEI
I couldn’t go to school every day because I had too much to do at home. Sometimes I arrived at school long after classes had started. My teacher knew about my situation and communicated with my aunt and she would say, “I’m sorry. Next time she will come early.” But still it happened.

I held fast to my goal and asked God to give me a brave and persevering heart. I copied the notes of my classmates at night when everyone had gone to sleep. But the truth is that although there was oil for the lamps, I was sleepy from the day’s exhaustion.

Yet, a wonderful moment came at the end of my primary school education. I passed for secondary school. Usually two or three children passed to go to secondary school but that year I was the only one. My teachers were very happy for me. Now, when I go home I always go to my primary school to thank my teachers.

But the money for secondary education was difficult to find. The government provided half the fees and I helped my aunt make and sell local beer. And so I left the culture of my auntie’s home.

I was happy to be at boarding school and organize my life. Other students found it difficult to cope with the workload of washing their clothes and farming the allotments but for me this was a light workload. I had lots of time to study on my own.

In the second year we had to pay to sit the national examination and I still had debts from the previous year. The headmaster told us in Assembly that any student owing even one shilling would not be allowed to sit. I was so shocked I was panting. All I could do was leave school for the bus stand although I did not have the $1.30 for the fare home. I was crying so hard that a man asked me why I was crying. When I told him he gave me $5 for the exam, telling me that my father could pay him back later.

I succeeded in my exams and in the fifth year selected Physics, Chemistry and Biology for my specialist subjects to follow my dream of becoming a medical professional. Many girls called these subjects “boys’ subjects.”

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©UNICEF/HQ05-1131/Markisz
Lydia Wilbard speaks with Laura Bush, wife of President of the United States of America George W. Bush and Honorary Chairperson Nane Annan.

That same year I lost my dear father. At his funeral I thought to myself, ‘How can I live without parents?’ For that year, I stayed at school throughout. A kind woman gave me money to buy sugar but I thought there was a better way to use the money. I bought some cards and sold them to my fellow students for a profit. I bought more cards and so on. My business prospered. I got in trouble with teachers for running my enterprise, saying you can’t mix study with business, but the truth is that it didn’t affect my timetable. I paid all the debts I owed at school, bought shoes, a set of smart clothes and a suitcase.

Honourable ladies and gentlemen, this is my story and it has only begun. I am now at medical college. I am honouring my dear mother, I am a role model in my community. I am honouring my dear auntie whose harshness taught me to overcome challenges. She is proud of me, very, very proud.

I am also mentoring young women who are setting up their businesses through my work with the Campaign for Female Education. I am also counselling girls from poor backgrounds at primary and secondary schools. I am inspiring others to succeed.

There are millions of girls like the Lydia I once was who can only dream of education. They need our assistance, not next year, not tomorrow but today. Without assistance they will grow up poor. They will give birth to children who will grow up poor. And I have a special message for our sisters in the United States and other developed countries that are in secondary schools and universities – “Use your education wisely and think what you can do to help girls in the developing world not as fortunate as you.”

The government of Tanzania is putting up new schools and training new teachers. But in spite of their best efforts, poor girls will not go to school unless they have money for books, pens, examinations and clothes. UNICEF, the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) and many other organizations have joined hands to help the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.

But more resources are needed.

Education has made me independent, knowledgeable, confident and assertive. It has thrown open a window, letting hope and opportunity into my life. Let’s throw open the window for every girl who is not at school today and show her that we care about her plight.

Thank you Mrs. Annan for the opportunity to speak today. It is a great moment in my life.


 

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Video
14 September 2005
Interview with girls' education speaker Lydia Wilbard
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14 September 2005
Highlights from the the First Spouses Event
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(Real player)