15 women leading the way for girls’ education

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re honoring 15 women who are using their voices, leadership and influence to make progress for girls’ education globally.

March 08, 2015 by GPE Secretariat
18 minutes read
15 women leading the way for girls’ education

Across the globe, about 31 million girls of primary school age are not in school. And in Sub-Saharan Africa, it’s estimated that if current trends continue that it won’t be until 2086 when all girls will be completing primary school.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re honoring 15 women who are using their voices, leadership and influence to make progress for girls’ education globally.  This is by no means an exhaustive list – just a few out of millions of women who are helping make change happen.

1. Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile

During her second non-consecutive term, President Bachelet in 2014 ushered through a far-reaching education reform program that raised the government’s investment in public education.

In her prior role as Executive Director of UN Women, she championed the Fund for Gender Equality, which provides grants to support innovative programs by government agencies and civil society groups to promote equal gender access to quality education.

“We focus on girls' education,” she said, “because it sets them on a path to greater economic opportunities and participation in their societies.”

2. Malala Yousafzai, Activist

By daring to go to school as a young teen, Malala defied Pakistani extremists and their violent attacks and became a global icon for the importance of educating girls. Because of Malala’s heroic and eloquent statements for girls’ education, she was awarded at age 17 the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014.

“I don't want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but the ‘girl who fought for education’," she said. “This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”

She is the founder of the Malala Fund, which advocates for international, national and local level policy and system changes that give girls access to a high quality education.

As Malala turns 18 this year, there is no doubt she will continue demanding progress and commitments for girls’ education in the decades to come. 

3. Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of the Board of the Global Partnership for Education

Long a champion of education in her career as an elected official and currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, Ms. Gillard is one of the leading global advocates for strengthening education systems around the world, especially for girls.

“The education of girls has to be at the center of any nation’s effort to transition from poverty to prosperity,” she wrote.

“…Educating the world's poorest girls can only be done with the firm commitment of many stakeholders – both domestic and international – to plan, fund and build strong, sustainable and equitable education systems.”

4. Graça Machel, activist and philanthropist

Through her philanthropy and advocacy at the Graça Machel Trust, Ms. Machel has been a lifelong champion of girls’ education and children’s rights, and raised awareness about the scourge of early child marriage, female genital mutilation and other practices that keep girls from reaching their full potential.

“In childhood and adolescence, too many girls are undernourished, stunted, denied education and forced into early marriages,” she and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg co-wrote in an Op-Ed article last year.

“This creates a gender disparity that threatens to undermine stability in future generations and must be addressed by policymakers.”

5. Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States

Mrs. Obama has frequently championed the value of educating girls worldwide and, in 2015, unveiled “Let Girls Learn," a new U.S. initiative to support community-focused girls' education across the globe.

The project will draw on 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers to support hundreds of new community projects that help girls go to school and stay in school.

“Girls are our change-makers -- our future doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs,” the First Lady said at the White House launch. “They’re our dreamers and our visionaries who could change the world as we know it.”

6. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State

In 2014, Mrs. Clinton launched in 2014 the Collaborative for Harnessing Ambition and Resources for Girls Education (or Girls CHARGE) alongside Julia Gillard, Board Chair of the Global Partnership for Education.

The five-year initiative committing $600 million to enable 14 million girls around the globe to go to school. Also, as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton established the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, whose mandate included increasing out-of-school girls’ access to primary education.

"We know when girls have equal opportunities to primary and secondary school, cycles of poverty are broken, economies grow, glass ceilings are cracked and potential unleashed," she said at the launch of Girls CHARGE.

7. Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway

In 2014, Prime Minister Solberg led Norway’s funding of a new UN initiative to promote greater access to and quality of education for girls in Malawi. This program includes school meals, health services, measures combating gender-based violence, sexuality and human rights education, and further professional training for teachers.

“If you invest in a girl,” Prime Minister Solberg co-wrote in a 2014 Op-Ed, “she feeds herself, educates future children, lifts up her community and propels her nation forward – charting a path that offers dignity for all in the process.”

Prime Minister Solberg recently announced a doubling of Norway’s support to the Global Partnership for Education, which works to ensure that more girls enroll in school and receive a good quality education.

8. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

In 2007, one year after President Johnson Sirleaf took office, Liberia joined the Global Partnership for Education and subsequently enacted a long-term Education Sector Plan that emphasizes the expansion and quality improvement of preschool and primary education.

A GPE grant of $40 million will help finance that effort. Faced with the imperative to close schools as the Ebola crisis struck Liberia, President Johnson Sirleaf worked hard to reopen the schools in early 2015. “It is unacceptable that... 30 million girls in Africa are denied their basic human right to a quality education,” she wrote in 2014.

“Ensuring that every child goes to school, stays in school and learns something of value will require firm commitments and action by governments to invest in education and prioritize the education of its girls.”

9. Emma Watson, Actress

Ms. Watson is a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, the United Nations organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. In that role, she has launched the HeForShe campaign, which seeks to engage men and boys in removing the social and cultural barriers that prevent women and girls' full participation in society.

As she said at a UN Women event in September 2014, “We don't often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence.”

10. Angelique Kidjo, Musician

West African singer, songwriter and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador is also the founder of the Batonga Foundation, which focuses on empowering young women and girls in Africa through secondary school and higher education.

Batonga works to improve school infrastructure, increase enrollment, grant scholarships, provide in-kind support and micro loans for scholars’ families, cultivate mentoring and tutoring programs, and advocate for community awareness of the value of education for girls.

“The problem we are having today,” she told Al-Jazeera, “is that girls in some countries, in some traditions, are still seen as [a] commodity. Therefore, they can be kidnapped. They can be married. The only thing that I know as an African person that can transform my continent is girls' education.” 

11. Her Highness Sheikha Moza, Philanthropist

UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education, Her Highness Sheikha Moza has become a strong supporter in the world of education in developing countries, especially for girls.

The head of the Qatar Foundation, she is the founder of Educate a Child, which seeks to accelerate the identification, enrollment and completion of primary education for at least 10 million out-of-school children, working through a diverse set of partners ranging from major international educational, development, and humanitarian organizations to locally-based groups.

"Girls need to be educated in the same way that boys need to be educated,” she told the BBC last year.

12. Ann Cotton, Founder of CAMFED

As the founder of the Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed, Ms. Cotton received the 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) prize in Doha in recognition of her career in giving learning opportunities to girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa.

By investing in girls and women in the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, Camfed has become a major driver behind getting more girls in school and empowering young women to step up as leaders of change, citing the growing level of efforts to address girls’ education, she said last year that “There is a feeling, a zeitgeist, a global awareness around this issue, and we have to take advantage of it.”

13. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women

A former Deputy President of South Africa, responsible for anti-poverty initiatives, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka was also the founder of the Umlambo Foundation, which focuses on raising learning outcomes in South African public schools.

“We are still a long way from achieving equality between men and women, boys and girls,” she said in a recent statement on International Women’s Day.

“Women need change and humanity needs change. This we can do together; women and girls, men and boys, young and old, rich and poor.”

14. Sarah Brown, Co-Founder and A World at School

As co-founder of the children’s charity Theirworld, Founder and Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education and co-founder A World at School, Sarah Brown is leading the way for progress in girls’ education mobilizing education campaigns around the world.

In July 2013, she helped to convene the first ever youth takeover of the United Nations for Malala Day, established the Safe Schools Initiative, in response to the kidnapped girls of Chibok in Nigeria and launched #UpForSchool – a global petition to enforce the right of every child to go to school, without danger or discrimination.

“The world is calling for a safe education for all children,” Mrs. Brown wrote recently. “We plan to offer support everywhere girls feel too afraid of terrorists to go to school. This support will include physical fortifications, guards, telecommunications connections and protective community safeguards.”

15. Zainab Salbi, Activist

A survivor of war and domestic abuse in her native Iraq, Ms. Salbi founded Women for Women International to provide thousands of women in conflict areas the resources and support to rebuild their lives, families and communities.

“One half of all out-of-school children are living in conflict-affected and fragile states,” she said.

“We are already seeing the effects of this and of the gendered divisions of education levels today in Iraq. Few of the women of my mother’s generation – a generation of educated women who have worked in all different sectors of the country – are still holding on.”

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