WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations convened this Wednesday to discuss the barrier to Girls Global Education and possible steps to resolve it. Senator Marco Rubio presided over the hearing, and two panels presented troubling statistics as well as inspring stories to improve the U.S. response on this issue.
Susan Markham, Senior Coordinator at USAID Women’s Empowerment, recounted her recent experience during a visit to Malawi. She had asked a villager how many children he had and he responded,“I have three children and two girls.” This comment sets the tone for the entire session: girls are not referred to as children and therefore not considered full members of society.
Over 62 million adolescents around the world do not receive primary education, with nearly half being girls. This is mainly due to displacement, classroom violence and cultural prejudice against girls global education.
In conflict zones, such as Syria, one in four children do not receive proper education. They either live in refugee camps or hold “escape debts” to smugglers who funneled them out of the country. Ms. Markham pointed out several USAID efforts to curb this statistic by delivering the importance of girls global education earlier in the displacement process.
Catherine Russel, Ambassador-At-Large for the Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State, mentioned Myanmar as an exemplary success story for Girls Global Education. The 50 years of civil war resulted in the collapse of the education program, which resulted informal education programs in refugee camps that had a huge impact on female education. This example can be followed in other countries, such as Yemen and Tanzania, where Ms. Markham’s meetings revealed that girls are particularly interested in the STEM fields of chemistry, aviation, and engineering.
Later in the session, Senator Rubio pointed the discussion beyond basic literacy programs. He stated that “character education” is not enough. He stressed the importance of implementing programs that empower women to become government leaders and entrepreneurs. In Central America, for example, female police officers should benefit from the large security assistance packages already provided to this region.
From 2010 to 2013, the U.S. disbursed $642 million in security aid under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). According to Senator Rubio, more of these funds should support Global Girls Education and the training of women in the criminal justice field.
Senator Tim Kaine and Ambassador Russel agreed with this idea. They reminded the panel that a better educated female workforce would ensure greater stability and civil participation abroad. In addition, Sen. Rubio emphasized the importance of education exchange programs; and more specifically the ones that bring poor and underprivileged women to study or train in the U.S. This comes at an opportune time given the proposed funding cuts to Fulbright scholarships this year.
Toward the end of the hearing, Kenyan educator and doctor of philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, Kakenya Ntaiya, provided a poignant example on the impact of education on girls: the success story of the boarding school she founded in the village of Enoosaen, Kenya.
Dr. Ntaiya experienced the gender barriers that Girls Global Education tries to disband firsthand. She accounts of the deal she made with her own father when she convinced him to allow her to further her education instead of undergoing genital mutilation. Parents send their girls to her boarding school so that families might simply “have one less mouth to feed.” She explained that girls have 2 options: attend boarding school or stay behind in local villages to “earn money to feed the family.”
Dr. Ntaiya’s case is a living example of Senator Rubio’s suggestions to resolve the issue on Girls Global Education. Today, her school hosts 40 girls and collaborates with local ministries to improve the quality of teaching. Orphans, which represent 20 percent of her girls, are automatically admitted.
The Kakenya Center for Excellence works with over 30 high schools in Kenya to persuade and encourage students to further study and then perhaps, one day, have an opportunity to study in the U.S. like Ntaiya.
– Alfredo Cumerma
Photo: U.N. Multimedia