Campaign for Female Education
During a sweltering week in July, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University London brought together a diverse group of education actors for an intense three-day roundtable. We were there to provide actionable advice on how the UK could use its diplomatic muscle to support the global effort to get girls into school. As we poured our passion into each session, I realized something often overlooked: grassroots diplomacy is at the very heart of a successful girls’ education program.
We can’t make lasting change without bringing empathy, promoting agency, and addressing power imbalances at every level.
It is now universally recognized that girls’ education is the closest thing we have to a “holy grail” of investments, delivering the greatest returns and offering the most hope for ending extreme poverty and meeting all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In the imposing conference room of the 16th-century Wiston House, many argued that diplomacy is the “icing on the cake” of girls’ education. The assumption was that we know what we need to do to get girls into schools and learning. Now we just need to advocate at the national level to make sure that the full political and financial will is behind girls’ education as the most important driver for achieving the SDGs in just 11 years.
However, those of us working directly with grassroots movements felt strongly about the need to “reconsider the cake mix.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 52.2 million girls of primary to upper secondary school age are out of school. As we work to address this crisis in both access and learning, we have seen, again and again, how girls and young women are vulnerable to abuse when people with power and money are making decisions about who benefits.
A deep lack of understanding persists among those in positions of power regarding the contexts that marginalize girls and leave them exposed.
Without local accountability and a deep understanding of the local context, girls’ education interventions can make girls more, rather than less, vulnerable. In places where deeply embedded gender inequality and social norms put the heavy weight of family responsibilities and household chores squarely on a girl’s shoulders, girls’ access to education is further hindered by lack of money; lack of safe school infrastructure; long distances between home and school; lack of female teachers, mentors, and role models; lack of confidence; and lack of agency and a sense of entitlement.
Enter a man with enough money to buy you the shoes and books you need for school.
Enter a man who will decide whether an NGO will provide you with a scholarship.
Enter a man who will take the burden of your future off the grandmother struggling to look after 10 children.
Enter sexual abuse, early pregnancy, early marriage, HIV/AIDS.
Enter a future curtailed.
This is the reality for too many girls, and every diplomatic effort must aim to change this context. We can fix the infrastructure and we can bring the money, but we can’t make lasting change without bringing empathy, promoting agency, and addressing power imbalances at every level.
Girls need psychosocial support networks that address psychological exclusion, as well as networks of authority that work to address gender inequality. And the only way to achieve this is to include — at every level of decision-making, in every education authority and school, in every court, in every law enforcement agency, and in every medical establishment — those young women with lived experience of the barriers imposed by their poverty and their gender. We also need to identify and employ tools to unite, rather than polarize, individuals in a network of mutual and extending support for girls.
These women know how to bridge the yawning gap between the burning desire for education and deep material poverty, and the accompanying lack of choice, risk of exploitation, and lack of agency. They understand how girls’ circumstances can prevent a sense of entitlement to a quality, safe education, free from physical, emotional, or sexual violence. They have experienced the deeply entrenched alienation from government systems among parents who only had a few years of primary school education.
We need to identify and employ tools to unite, rather than polarize, individuals in a network of mutual and extending support for girls.
So for a high-level diplomatic approach to succeed in addressing multi-dimensional local challenges, it needs to meet a grassroots approach half-way, and learn from grassroots movements as it supports the development and implementation of policies that protect and empower those most marginalized. It takes a multi-pronged approach to address a deeply systemic issue.
Yes, it’s complex, but for 25 years the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) has welcomed and tackled this complexity. Its programs started in 1993 in the village of Mola, Zimbabwe, where the expertise of the local Tonga people was instrumental in creating CAMFED’s first community-led program for girls’ education and likely to have been the first community-led program implemented in partnership with an international NGO. At the time, nuance was often absent from development programs and so CAMFED started by understanding the context of the most vulnerable girl, and building up a local infrastructure of support around her to protect her, educate her, and provide opportunities for her to flourish and lead.
Fathers and traditional leaders work side-by-side with mothers, teachers, and government officials on accountable, transparent committees that select the most marginalized girls and take local responsibility for their success. Girls are supported for the entire lower secondary school cycle. They, as clients, understand that they are entitled to their education — not indebted to anyone for the chance to go to school.
Critically, CAMFED supported the first graduates to come together for peer support. After all, it is the well-educated, those with resources and who are well-networked, who know how to insist on their rights. The young women established an alumnae network of rural educated women. The CAMFED Association, or CAMA, became a vital sisterhood, an emotional support network, and a platform for sharing knowledge and providing training and grants to support young, educated women in the transition from school to secure livelihoods, and into leadership positions.
It is a network built on empathy and agency.
Twenty years later, CAMA is 120,000 members strong, with a Constitution and elected officials. It is a force to be reckoned with—and these women are now at the forefront of CAMFED’s programs, making up 25% of its executive leadership, including the Executive Director-Africa, Angeline Murimirwa from Zimbabwe.
Angeline (or Angie) became CAMFED’s first grassroots diplomat, working to connect young women after school, and organizing CAMA members to return to their local schools as female role models, mentors, and leaders — each young woman is an ambassador for girls’ education, a beacon of hope for this generation.
Setting up CAMFED’s fifth national office in Malawi, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Angie worked to secure the trust and engagement of a rural community defeated by poverty. When she first came to say that CAMFED would bring the financial resources to match the ambitions families had for their daughters, she was met with disbelief. The village challenged her to “pounding maize,” a highly coordinated communal grinding of corn only a rural girl would master. By proving her pedigree, she opened the door to a program that has, in the past eight years, supported 292,549 Malawian children at primary and secondary school—160,125 of whom were supported by alumnae and their communities alone, a testimony to a new sense of agency and empowerment, to sustainability, and to the multiplier effect of girls’ education.
In the warm conference room in an English country estate, I felt the absence of Angie—who represents the young women who had taken up the challenge to change the status quo in their communities. So I brought her and another great grassroots diplomat into the room with me through a video taken at an event we had attended a few months prior:
Angie tells the story of 19-year-old Fatima in Malawi, turning the local chief from a detractor to a champion as she explains the psychological scars caused by the gender norms in her community.
Young women like Fatima are the most successful ambassadors for girls’ education because they don’t just advocate, they take concrete action for long-term change: mentoring, fundraising for more children, providing literacy classes for adults, setting up social enterprises, setting up Parent Support Groups to provide school meals and infrastructure, and protecting vulnerable children by challenging those in authority to listen, learn, and do better.
Their success is underpinned by a whole community of activists, all working to change the status quo. They are what makes CAMFED a movement respected at village, national, and international levels, not only for the transparency of its programs or the data and research that proves their effectiveness, but also for the simple truth that everything we do is about being accountable, first and foremost, to the girl.
One day in the near future, I hope that everyone working to secure girls’ right to a quality education considers carefully, and daily, where financial resources and power meet. And I hope that future learning summits will prioritize the voice of grassroots diplomats like Fatima, experts who can speak truth to power. Together, we truly can change the world.
 Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS, 2018)