More than 130 million girls around the world cannot go to school. Millions more are fighting just to stay in school. During war and conflict or when resources are stretched for poor families, girls’ education is often the first to be affected.
This is not an abstract problem but rather one that continues to affect girls all over the world. I know, because I was one of those girls.
Education is a pathway out of poverty
I grew up in Fiji, an island that so many see only as a land of tropical beaches and beautiful sunsets. It is also a place where extreme poverty continues to be a daily reality. I was born in an extremely poor community, where my family often struggled to earn a few dollars a day.
My grandparents had come to Fiji under the indenture servant system, and going to school hadn’t been possible for anyone in my entire family. My mother was married by 14 and every girl I knew of school age was not in school.
Despite this reality and having been denied the right to go to school herself, my mother was adamant that the lives of my sister and me would not be defined by poverty or dominant gender norms. Whatever it would take, she was going to send us to school. A resolve that called for and endured extreme challenges throughout my schooling days.
Gender and cultural norms are barriers for girls
On my first day of school, the headmaster told my mother that due to limited space there wasn’t any room for me and preference was for boys. He pointed out that I didn’t have a uniform and I would likely miss school since I lived so far away. Moreover, he said girls were not expected to choose education over marriage. He advised my mother that I was better off learning housework.
When she insisted, he told her that if she could pay a US$5 deposit, which of course she couldn’t, he would put me on the waiting list. It felt like I was already out even before getting a day in school!
If things were not challenging enough already, the headmaster gave my mother an admission form to fill out in English, which she could not read. I have never seen a person make a case for education for so long or insist so hard as she did for me that day.
Her sheer perseverance got me into my classroom - the first step in breaking generations of poverty and gender norms.
Staying in school against all odds
Even if families like mine could send their children to school, schools were far and bus fares unaffordable where transportation was available. The recurring floods and tropical cyclones often destroyed our meager assets. Each challenge compounded on the other.
Unfortunately, in what was once an idyllic part of the world, Fiji saw numerous military coups and ethnic violence. Everything became that much more impossible. Walking to school was no longer an option and without notice schools would close with immediate curfews taking effect (unless one had parents with cars to pick their children on short notice, roads would close, and buses would stop).
Hard work and support from teachers
My love of school was the center of my world. It did not matter that I did not have books, lunch or had to walk miles, school was my favorite place to be. It is hard to describe the joy that school brought me.
School was the place where I learned that I too could have a voice and that it did not matter where I came from.
Each passing year, my role within my school and community grew. Learning was exciting and for a few hours, school made me forget the hardships that existed outside. I believe for girls, school bestows a great source of pride, confidence and empowerment. Doing well in school gave me opportunities that I never knew existed. It allowed me to study in Australia and beyond that to work across the world.
However, it wasn’t persistence alone that helped me stay in school but also the support of my teachers. They would get me in the classroom even when my parents had missed paying the school fees, gave me their books to prepare for exams, and when the threat of pulling me out of school loomed, some of my teachers would talk to my parents and praise my achievements.
Teachers were constantly talking to parents asking them to keep their children in school. But above all, I do not think my teachers ever saw any of us as poor: they simply constantly encouraged everyone to do well in school.
Educating girls is life-changing for their families and communities
Research shows that a girl is more likely to use her education to help her family and community and promote broader social and economic change. Education allowed my sister and I to get jobs and play a distinct role in decision making both at home and in community affairs.
Our earnings allowed us to lift our family out of poverty and to support others in our community. By the time my sister and I completed high school and got college and graduate degrees, we were “experts” in legal, public health, education and financial matters, having long played those roles to help our communities back home.
The sad reality is that far too many girls still don’t have access or opportunity to go to school. However, I am proof that one educated child can result in huge transformations.
The life-changing impact of school is hard to measure. But the fact is that at any scale education makes some difference, and it is worth working and fighting for. Given where I was born or the many odds that were stacked against me, and seeing how education changed my life so radically, I cannot but wonder what would happen if every child could go to school!
Today, I work at the Global Partnership for Education in Washington, D.C. I know that the work we do at GPE can give hope to a girl like me, waiting and wishing for an opportunity to go and stay in school, and to have a chance at realizing her dreams and potential.