Celebrating 4 champions of girls’ and women’s education in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic

As part of the 2021 International Women’s Day celebrations, we acknowledge four remarkable African women who have been leading the fight to ensure girls and women continue learning during and after the pandemic.

March 16, 2021 by Rita Bissoonauth, African Union International Center for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa, and Anoziva Marindire, African Union International Center for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa
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4 minutes read
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From left to right: Prof. Sarah Agbor, Ann Nassanga, Catherine Nakabugo and Mebi Djam Espoir Achi.
From left to right: Prof. Sarah Agbor, Ann Nassanga, Catherine Nakabugo and Mebi Djam Espoir Achi.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, 53 African Union (AU) Member States shut down all educational institutions to curb the spread of the virus, affecting over 250 million students in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of which were girls.

In spite of setting up continued learning spaces in Member States, anecdotal evidence shows that girls have experienced difficulties in accessing these distance learning facilities amidst this health crisis and have faced increased exposure to child marriage and teen pregnancy.

It is estimated that over 1 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa could face the possibility of being barred from school due to policies and practices that ban pregnant girls and young mothers from attending classes according to a brief published in February 2021 by the GPE Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) Observatory on COVID-19 Responses in Africa's Educational Systems.

In September 2020, the AU/CIEFFA launched a campaign to rally AU Member States and key education stakeholders to take action towards ensuring girls’ continued learning and re-entry to school during and post COVID-19. The campaign has garnered responses from education actors and youth across Africa, who took pledges to act in their communities and areas of influence to ensure girls can return to school.

The #AfricaEducatesHer campaign was also spotlighted during the 5th High Level Dialogue on Gender and Education in February 2021, featuring AU-CIEFFA youth champions, artist Youssou N’dour, and the Cabinet Secretary for Gender in Kenya speaking on behalf of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Co-hosted with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), Norway, UNICEF, UNESCO and Save the Children, it was an opportunity to discuss about domestic and external financing, plus the investments needed to get girls back into school and sustain their learning in the COVID recovery.

As we marked the International Women’s Day 2021, whose theme was “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” we celebrate four African women who have been taking action and leading the fight to ensure girls and women continue learning during and after the pandemic.

Prof. Sarah Agbor, AU’s Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation

Prof. Sarah Agbor, AU’s Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation

Prof. Agbor is the AU’s Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology (HRST) and a passionate advocate for girls and women’s empowerment through education. Under her leadership, the HRST department has become a powerful voice within the Commission, campaigning for girls’ and women’s right to education during and post-COVID-19. When the AU/CIEFFA launched the #AfricaEducatesHer campaign, she became one of the first African Union leaders to call on African countries to join the campaign and promote policies that would enable girls to continue learning during and after the school lockdowns.

Afrie, award-winning musician

Ann Nassanga

Ann Nassanga, whose stage name is ‘Afrie’, is a 26-year-old Ugandan vocalist, pianist, filmmaker, and advocate for girls' and women’s education. As an AU/CIEFFA champion, she is using music and filmmaking as tools to educate young women and girls on the importance of education with a particular focus on digital literacy. She penned the #AfricaEducatesHer theme song titled: “Let Her Know (I am an African girl)”, where she encourages African girls to go to school. Through Afriedom, a group of women filmmakers and artists, she is training young girls in digital storytelling and filmmaking to and make their voices and their own stories heard. Afrie’s soulful voice was the anthem of the AU-CIEFFA 5th High Level Dialogue on Gender.

Mebi Djam Espoir Achi, girls’ education advocate

Mebi Djam Espoir Achi

Espoir is an award-winning advocate for girls’ and women’s empowerment who launched two projects in line with the #AfricaEducatesHer campaign to get girls and women back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic. She rallied the support of the Embassy of France in Cameroon to launch the “Girls Return to School project.” This national initiative saw Espoir and her team of youth volunteers going around Cameroon and creating awareness about national, continental and international legal instruments and laws that safeguard girls’ right to education and protect girls against gender-based violence. Through the “Men Who Protect Women” project supported by the German Embassy in Cameroon, she is producing short advocacy films to highlight the role men can play in safeguarding girls’ and women’s rights in Cameroon.

Catherine Nakabugo, teacher and founder of Direct Hand Foundation

Catherine Nakabugo

Catherine is one of the top 50 finalists for the 2018 Global Teacher Prize and founder of Direct Hand Foundation, an organization that empowers out-of-school girls though the promotion of technical and vocational education and training and entrepreneurial initiatives in Uganda. As schools were slowly reopening in 2020 after the COVID-19 related shutdowns, Catherine noticed that a lot of girls were hesitant to return to school due to the fear of contracting the virus. She designed and promoted a COVID-19 hygiene toolkit for girls, comprising a face mask, hand sanitizer bottle and two reusable pads. These kits were distributed to schools across Uganda and her idea has been replicated by AU/CIEFFA alumni in other parts of Africa.

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Gender equality
Sub-Saharan Africa: Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda

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Great work done showing that support initiatives by anyone can grow from small ones to large ones. Congratulations to the ladies.

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