Invest in education to turn African girls into superheroes

by Teopista Birungi Mayanja | Africa Network Campaign for Education For All
Thursday, 8 March 2018 12:11 GMT

Schoolgirls run from a classroom during breaktime at the Senator Barack Obama primary school near Kogelo village west of Kenya's capital Nairobi, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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I want to raise our African girls to reach for the stars

Imagine a peaceful African country with unparalleled technological sophistication, a diverse and educated population, and strong, brilliant women in positions of power. This is the utopian vision of Wakanda – the fictitious African kingdom so stunningly created in the groundbreaking film of the moment, Black Panther. This Marvel superhero movie is not only breaking international box-office records but also shattering long-held cultural stereotypes and media representations of the African continent and the potential of its people.

Black Panther’s beautiful celebration of African brains and brawn is an inspiration for women and girls around the globe. One female character who steals the show is the younger sister of Wakandan King T’Challa, Shuri (played by Letitia Wright) – a self-assured 16-year-old science and engineering genius who develops the country’s most advanced technological creations. She is the brains behind the throne.

Here’s my wish for International Women’s Day: I want to raise our African girls to reach for the stars and become the next Shuris of the continent. That starts with making sure they all receive a quality education.

In my home country of Uganda, women and girls are making great strides. Two national exams – for secondary school students hoping to pursue an advanced degree and students focused on technical skills – recently posted their annual results. For both, girls outperformed boys. Educated girls become successful women. Last year, the MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs released a report revealing that Uganda has the highest percentage of women business owners in the world – 34.8 percent. We are one of the few countries in the world where women are as likely to start a business as men.

But these educational opportunities are reserved for the lucky few. According to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics, 75 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa start school, but only 8 percent finish secondary school.  Without education, girls are more vulnerable to threats like female genital mutilation and child marriage. Plan International estimates that four in ten Ugandan girls wed before they turn 18 years old. All of this impacts health. Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reveal that nearly 28,000 Ugandan women died in 2016 from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and maternal health emergencies.

This is not just a Ugandan concern. If current trends continue, Africa will be home to one billion youth by 2050, but one-third of them will not be able to complete basic secondary education. A disproportionate number of them will be girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, only two out of 35 countries have gender parity in education. Girls in these countries will not have many options for the future.

But education can create options, and open up pathways for girls to thrive as they become women. According to UNICEF, one in eight girls in Sub-Saharan Africa is married by age 15. A girl that stays in secondary school is much less likely to marry early. If all girls completed secondary education, early marriage would be reduced by more than 60 percent. Education influences a young women’s choice of family size and age of first birth. A young African girl who receives full secondary education will have only two children instead of five. Educated girls also lift up the next generation: A child whose mother can read is 50 percent more likely to live past the age of five and twice as likely to attend school.

African girls should be pursuing their passions in science or math or the arts – not getting married, giving birth, or becoming victims of violence. The biggest single obstacle to expanding access to education is financial resources.

For the past three years, I have been part of the International Commission on Financing Education Opportunity – also known as the Education Commission – chaired by former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown. We are a group of global leaders committed to ensuring every child has a right to a quality and equitable education.

The Commission recommends that developing countries mobilize more and better domestic resources for education, and this should be complemented by increased international financing to improve effectiveness. The international community – which includes all partners, public and private – must step up to the plate and help us tackle the urgent education crisis.

But aid alone is simply not enough to fill the huge funding gaps. African countries must be empowered to invest more national resources in education through reform of their domestic resource mobilization systems and new innovations in financing should be explored.

More and better education funding would open up enormous opportunities for African children – particularly girls – making it possible for them to go to school, achieve learning goals, earn income, have healthy families, and lead fulfilling lives.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day today, let’s take inspiration from the bold vision of Black Panther and make #WakandaForever a reality – so that young girls everywhere can dream of following Shuri’s lead and become anything they want to be. Ensuring a quality education for all – and the funding to make this happen – is the critical first step.

Teopista Birungi Mayanja is the founder and General Secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) and an advocate of free education for all and better conditions for teachers. She presently serves as Regional Coordinator at the Africa Network Campaign for Education For All (ANCEFA).