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CAMFED: Marking International Women’s Day

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©CAMFED
Statement by Ann Cotton, CAMFED Founder & Executive Director

8 March 2006 - Last month, I was sitting in the headmaster’s office of a primary school in Samfya, in the heart of rural Zambia. Mr Ben Charma leads 46 teachers in his school of 1,700 children, more than half of whom have been orphaned by AIDS.

The son of a copper miner, Ben Charma worked hard at school and avoided the mining life that ruined his father’s health. He knows what lies in store for children when educational chances are limited by poverty.

The exam results were out and the final year pupils at the primary school had done well – Zambia too has its league tables. Yet this is the most heart-breaking time of all for school staff. They have worked so hard to achieve a good pass rate for their pupils, yet for many children – particularly girls – this will be their very last day at school, at the age of just 11 or 12.

Without money for school clothing, shoes, books, stationery and fees, these children have no chance of going on to secondary school.

And so it is that parents come to beg. Mothers who have never been to school themselves know only too well what they have lost. They know that, without the benefits of education, their daughters will be forced to marry young and face lives of back-breaking agricultural and domestic toil with babies born into families too poor to give them more than life.

This tragic scene is played out across the continent of Africa year after year. And on International Women’s Day, a day when we are supposed to celebrate women’s achievements across the globe, it is a scandal that more than 24 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa are still not able to go to school.

This has a devastating impact, particularly on rural communities. Children die younger when their mothers do not know about basic hygiene; HIV spreads more rapidly when uneducated women do not know how to protect themselves from the disease; and earnings are lower when women do not have access to education.

Send a girl to school and the opportunities are multiplied across her whole community. When women farmers have the same access to education as their brothers and husbands, crop yields rise by 22 per cent. In Africa, if mothers receive just five years of education, their children are 40% more likely to live to their fifth birthday. And educated women are three times more likely to protect themselves against AIDS than those with no education.

Lamentably, the world has been slow to heed the urgent message that educating girls is the key to eradicating poverty. Last year saw the failure of the first Millennium Development Goal: to get an equal number of boys and girls into school by the end of 2005. The millions of girls who are waiting for an education across sub-Saharan Africa have no idea that this Goal was established in their name or that its failure met with so little censure.
The time to create change in the lives of these girls is now. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recently said: “Without achieving gender equity for girls in education, the world has no chance of achieving many of the ambitious health, social and development targets it has set for itself.”

This year, the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) has been invited to co-chair the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, a coalition of governments, international agencies and charities. We are working tirelessly to make sure that the world doesn’t forget the 2005 Goal, which can still be met if we keep fighting for it. And we are making sure that the world doesn’t miss the next Millennium Development Goal – to give boys and girls equal access to all levels of education by 2015.

Internationally, there is a renewed effort to invest in girls’ education as the first crucial step underpinning all other plans to defeat the double threat of poverty and AIDS. But far more resources and political will are still needed. Unless world leaders take drastic action over the next ten years, the lack of progress on girls’ education will account for over 10 million unnecessary child and maternal deaths.

Only with the world’s continued commitment will it be possible for girls to receive the education they deserve. Only then will teachers in Samfya and across Africa be able to unlock the potential of their brightest girl students and celebrate with them as they graduate from primary and then secondary school. Only then will we be in a position to celebrate International Women’s Day and say that girls and boys are truly equal across the world.


 

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