Helping girls realize their potential

Helping girls realize their potential

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Originally published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  

Saturday, I will join hundreds of people in Atlanta’s Historic 4th Ward Park for a rally to mark International Day of the Girl. We will participate in a symbolic demonstration of solidarity with girls around the world — pounding grain in mortars or carrying jerry cans of water. Too often, these chores mean girls are not given the opportunity to go to school. We will learn about the barriers that keep 62 million girls out of the classroom globally, and walk down the Beltline’s Eastline Trail in celebration of girls overcoming extraordinary barriers to lift up their communities.

They are girls such as Nasra Ahmed, 18, who I met on a bright, clear June day in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia but is not internationally recognized. Nasra proudly showed me the school library established after she and other girls led a fundraiser. I watched her star in a play challenging traditional beliefs about girls’ place in society. “I want to be a role model for my peers,” she told me.

Incredibly, Nasra is the only one of six girls in her family to attend school. Her two older sisters were married off early, and her three younger sisters stay at home because her parents can’t afford school fees. But thanks to an aunt who spotted her sharp intellect and strong will, Nasra defied the odds and now walks 90 minutes each morning to Waran’ade Secondary School, which nurtures the hopes of girls in a region plagued by civil conflict and frequent droughts.

Many parents here keep their girls at home to protect them from violence and help with chores. Others marry them off to older men they believe can provide for their daughters. Somalia is one of 26 countries where girls are more likely to enter a marriage before age 18 than a secondary school classroom, according to a report released this week by CARE. The countries detailed in our “Vows of Poverty” report are running a devastating deficit — in opportunity for girls. Consider that for each year of school a girl completes beyond fourth grade, her future earnings rise by 20 percent.

The Obama Administration recognizes this. First Lady Michelle Obama has championed the U.S. government’s Let Girls Learn initiative and demanded an end to child marriage. Now, CARE and other organizations are calling on the administration to take the next critical step and establish a strong inter-agency global adolescent girl strategy that helps all girls reach their full potential.

We’ll sound that call again at Saturday’s rally, in the name of all those indomitable spirits, like Nasra, who are reshaping their communities’ perceptions of girls. Tragically, Nasra’s father died last year from cancer she says could have been treated with better medical facilities nearby. Now Nasra wants to be a doctor.

She’ll have to beat long odds – again. So as I walk down the Beltline on Saturday, I’ll be thinking of Nasra and what we can all do to give her and millions of other girls the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. They can and will change the world — if we just give them a chance.

Less than half of Somalia's children are going to primary school. Somalia has one of the lowest enrollment rates in the world. CARE supports schools in Somaliland and Somalia by providing trainings for teachers, providing teacher's material, constructing class rooms and building girl friendly spaces. Since CARE has supported the school the total numer of students has risen from 300 to 450. Most of the new students enrolled are girls. Photo: CARE/Johanna Mitscherlich