#WeTheWomen: Invest in Education and Empower Women and Girls to Lead

International Women’s Day Statement by Education Cannot Wait Executive Director Yasmine Sherif

Across much of the world, women have endured thousands of years of oppression, subjugation, and systematic denial of reaching our human and economic potential.

Women’s education and leadership have been denied, delayed or destroyed. While progress has indeed been made, millions of women around the globe continue to remain shackled by discrimination and deprivation of their rights and their potentials.

Yet, the world needs nothing more today than its equal share of a highly educated and empowered women leadership. 

This year, as people everywhere come together on International Women’s Day, #WeTheWomen say no to oppression, say no to the denial of girls’ right to a quality education, and say no to entrenched patriarchal systems.

Today, we say yes to girls’ education and yes to empowered women’s leadership. Awareness and affirmative action must be strengthened globally if we are to truly “Invest in Women to Accelerate Progress”.

Overt and covert oppression of all forms, including gender-oppression, undermine our global efforts to deliver on the promises in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the UN Charter and other binding international accords.  

To empower young girls and an entire future generation of women leaders – and to right the wrongs of thousands of years of subjugation – we must invest in a holistic quality education for the girls and young women today. Only by doing so now, can we empower them all the way towards leadership in all areas of work and life.  

It will be an uphill battle. The world is off track in our efforts to achieve our goals for gender equality and quality education by 2030. According to analysis from the United Nations, at our current rate of progress, it will take 300 years to end child marriage, and 140 years to achieve equal representation in leadership in the workplace.

Every young girl has a right to genuinely solid education and life-long learning. Under no circumstances can this right be denied due to her gender. Indeed, through affirmative action and guidance by parents, teachers and society, every girl should be encouraged to reach her full potential and have the option of pursuing her professional path, not as a follower, but as a leader.

We must do so now. Today, 129 million girls around the world are missing out on school. For girls on the frontlines of armed conflicts, climate change, forced displacement and other protracted crises, the challenges are the most severe. Without an education, crisis-affected girls face increased risks of child marriage, human trafficking, slavery, economic marginalization, forced and unpaid labour, as well as stifling dependency on men and patriarchal systems. This kind of dependency is not only a violation of their rights as human beings, but also unhealthy and economically untenable for any society wishing to advance.

Yet, in the face of adversity, there is hope.

On my recent mission to Nigeria, I met with girls and young women who had been abducted by Boko Haram and splinter groups. Despite the horrifying experiences they endured, they were able to heal through a holistic education, including mental health and psychosocial services, and reclaim their power. Stronger than ever, they now empower other young girls by serving as inspiring role models of resilience and determination.

With support from Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and our global strategic partners, they empower girls who have escaped from Boko Haram. While some are learning valuable trades in vocational schools, others study to become teachers, lawyers, doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs. The have gone through a very dark era in their young life, but darkness no longer owns them. They own their lives and are captains of their destiny.

Working through a coordinated joint programme with UNICEF, NRC and Save the Children, ECW provides access to both formal and non-formal education in North-East Nigeria. An innovative new investment with the Global Survivors Fund also supports education as a form a reparation for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in the region. It’s a first, vital and highly successful educational approach, as they find their identity and prepare for their lives ahead.

In Afghanistan, an entire generation of girls continue to be denied access to quality education, and an entire generation of women are being denied many of their basic human rights. A country that has suffered so much for so long, Afghanistan needs its girls and women to be educated to rebuild this war-torn nation. For this reason, we continue to advocate for equal rights for all girls and young women in Afghanistan – especially the right to a quality education through our global #AfghanGirlsVoices campaign. And, through local partners, we continue to enrol girls into community-based learning programmes.

On our mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met with a 15-year-old victim of sexual violence, caring for her two children, both conceived through rape, while also studying and mentoring other girls. There, in Tanganyika Province where inter-ethnic violence, gender-based sexual violence and forced displacement continue to put women and girls through sexual abuse and constant dangers, as much as 49% of girls are married before they turn 18. With ECW support, this young girl and about 250 other girls in her displacement camp are back learning in the safety of their classroom and provided with collective support to also care for their children. They are true heroes, not only to all girls in camp, but to all of us.

By providing girls like them with access to a holistic quality learning, we enable them to heal and learn, hope and realize a better future. By teaching girls about science, technology, engineering and math, we are building the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. By providing access to school counsellors and mental health services, we help an entire generation deal with the impact of war, forced displacement and sexual violence. But much more needs to be done. In Eastern DR Congo, 200,000 girls have reportedly been raped. With significantly more financial investments in their healing, recovery and education, far more can be achieved.

So, let us not stop at the commemoration of International Women’s Day. Instead, let us start now with a significant increase in financing such proven solutions. Education Cannot Wait urges public and private sector donors and high-net-worth individuals to urgently mobilize $600 million to reach our target of US$1.5 billion in funding.

With these new resources, we will reach 20 million crisis-affected children and adolescents, including 12 million girls, with inclusive and continued quality education. This urgently needed increase in funding will provide a significant leap forward for our collective efforts to build a more equal world between women and men – through education that overcomes generational discrimination and builds leadership for humanity in the 21st century.

Yasmine Sherif
Yasmine Sherif
Yasmine Sherif is the Executive Director of Education Cannot Wait, the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises. Follow ECW and Yasmine on Twitter at: @EduCannotWait and @YasmineSherif1.