Boss Lady

International day of the girl: Who are you calling vulnerable?


A few years ago I was working in Uganda for an international NGO delivering a range of aid programs throughout the country. One day I asked our cleaner – a young woman around 20-years-old – if she was interested in applying to be our new radio operator, a crucial position which maintained regular contact with our teams on the oft-times unsafe road. I remember her face when I asked her – she broke out into a huge smile and she grabbed my shoulders and gave me a hug.

“I would be absolutely honoured to fill such an important position and gain the respect of my community,” she said. I reminded her that she still needed to apply and interview for the position, as there may be other applicants. It was then that her face fell. ‘But I will be no good at that job. I have no education. I had to leave school when I was 12 to look after my brothers and sisters.’

As an international aid worker, I have met girls and young women from all around the world who have either never attended school or were forced to drop out at a young age because their parents couldn’t afford to pay for school fees, school books and uniforms; because they were more valuable to their family inside the home, looking after their younger siblings or being married to a much older man;  or, simply, because they were girls.

I often think about my Ugandan colleague when I think about the 130 million girls across the globe who are denied access to education. Now, I am the CEO of a Melbourne-based not-for-profit called One Girl, which helps girls in Sierra Leone and Uganda overcome the barriers they face in accessing education. It makes me really proud of the One Girl scholarship program, which provides access to education for young girls who would otherwise miss out on the opportunity to become independent and powerful women who can shape their own narrative.

This Thursday, on International Day of the Girl, I choose to celebrate the incredible impact our scholarship program is having in Sierra Leone by turning the power of education into a hammer that women and girls can use to smash the barriers keeping them in poverty.

We’ll be releasing a report this week that proves that when a girl gets an education something extraordinary happens: her life, her community, her world changes. Economies grow; poverty shrinks. Families are happier; communities thrive. An educated woman has fewer children, is more likely to contribute to decisions that affect her life, will earn twice as much as an uneducated woman, and will be less at risk of physical and sexual violence.

For too long, the potential of girls has been squashed. Poverty, early marriage, teen pregnancy, violence, illness, disability and household responsibilities being seen as the priority are all barriers that have prevented girls from completing school.

A recent World Bank report revealed that only three in four girls complete their lower secondary education, resulting in countries losing between $15 trillion to $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and girls’ education advocate Malala recently summed this up perfectly by saying: “When 130 million girls are unable to become engineers or journalists or CEOs because education is out of their reach, our world misses out on trillions of dollars that could strengthen the global economy, public health and stability. If leaders are serious about building a better world, they need to start with serious investments in girls’ secondary education.”

There is already a lot of evidence that shows the incredible impact of a full 12 years of schooling for girls. For example, for every year a girl stays in school, her income will increase by 10-20%; she’ll marry when she’s ready, her children are 50% more likely to live past the age of five, and for every dollar she earns, she will invest 90% of it back into her family, impacting the wider community.

With stats like that, ensuring all girls have access to an education seems like a no-brainer. And yet there are still over 130 million girls around the world who aren’t in school, and nearly 100 million of them are of high school age.

The Sierra Leonian national high school completion rates for girls is 16%. But in our program? 88.2% in 2017. Pretty amazing right?

And it gets better. Most of the girls we interviewed for our report are already sharing the knowledge they gained from the program with their family members, their friends and their community. They want others to benefit as they have.

We also found that being in school is making girls more confident; by learning about sexual and reproductive health and being empowered to make their own decisions, girls are rejecting traditional practices such as early marriage in favour of their education and a prosperous career.

But the girls themselves are just one component of this, and we know that real change happens when the whole community is involved, so we are so excited to learn that there has been a significant shift in the way girls’ education is perceived in all of the communities we work. For example, communities are hosting study groups for girls, taking an active interest in their progress and pooling their money together to pay for even more girls to stay in school.

So often we talk about the ‘vulnerable‘ girls in countries like Sierra Leone and Uganda. But what this research shows is they aren’t ‘vulnerable’ or hopeless. They have the determination, intelligence and strength to change their own circumstances – our scholarship program is merely giving them an opportunity to unlock their potential.

And my colleague in Uganda? She was supported with additional training, became the best damn radio operator for the 12 months I was there, and the last I heard, she had been promoted again. All because of an opportunity.

So who are you calling vulnerable?

About Sarah Ireland'

Sarah Ireland is CEO of One Girl; an Australian not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the millions of girls without access to education in two of the worst places in the world to be born a girl: Uganda and Sierra Leone. One Girl raises funds and awareness through national campaigns like Do It In A Dress to provide thousands of girls and young women with access to education. Since 2009, One Girl has reached over 32,000 women and girls with access to education.

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