Friday, April 11, 2014

Fighting for Girls' Education

Want to push a region's development and reduce poverty? Educate the women. Want to increase public health? Educate the women.

It's been proven: studies have linked education of women with reduced child and maternal deaths, improved child health, and increased income for families. The World Bank reports that a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult. Educating girls can break cycles of poverty that have kept their families spinning uselessly, stuck in a rut and seeing no way out. Educated girls are less likely to marry early and more likely to send their own children to school.

Despite these facts, a gender gap in education still exists today, with girls around the world struggling to receive the same access to quality education as boys. Women’s literacy rates are significantly lower than men’s in most developing countries.

In Senegal, the literacy rate for adult women (age 15 and above) is 39%, while men are at 62%, according to UNESCO. Many girls drop out in middle school, often due to early marriage or pregnancy - or simply because in a poor family, limited resources almost always go to the boys' education before the girls'.

The Peace Corps Michele Sylvester Scholarship (MSS) Program is our effort to help close that gender gap in education and encourage young girls to remain in school. The scholarship provides money for the school fees and supplies for 9 girls at each middle school working with a volunteer.

This will be my first year doing the project, and I've already approached my local school - Sikilo Ouest Middle School - and they're very excited to be involved! The girls will be nominated by school faculty members, and finalists will be selected based on their personal essay, their grades, financial need, an interview with the volunteer (me), and teacher recommendations.

This is an issue I really care about, on a deep personal level. Not just because I'm a young woman myself with strong opinions on gender equality, but because I've lived and worked and joked around with so many young girls here in Senegal who could have such bright future if given the chance! But so often, society doesn't give that to them. It hits close to home, too. One of my own host sisters (a family cousin) never finished school, falling victim to early pregnancy twice and deciding that she had no academic future. Even though I disagreed - it's never to late to try again - she left our house a few months back, and no one knows what she's doing now. It was sad and frustrating, and I hated that everyone dismissed her as a lost cause. No one is a lost cause.

But there are bright spots. I've met young women who stuck it out and completed their education, found jobs, and now radiate success and purpose. Recently, I was able to interview a young woman here in Kolda who received the Michele Sylvester Scholarship in 2002. Listening to how much she's been able to accomplish in her life was like a breath of fresh air!

Aissatou Diallo, now 28 and working as a community health agent at the NGO Child Fund, is a staunch supporter of girl's education. She says the scholarship motivated her to keep studying, and now's she able to give back to the community by focusing on child and maternal health.

"My friends who didn't finish school, their lives are very different," Aissatou told me. "They've been married since middle school."

Check out the quick video I made of Aissatou's story:

As you can see, these young ladies are real - they exist - they are right in front of me, every day. This scholarship program may seem small, but it can be just the little bit of help that a struggling family needs to keep their daughter in school.

To bring this program to my local middle school, I need to raise $180. Donations would be greatly appreciated! Just $20 provides a scholarship to one girl and ensures that she can attend school next year and purchase all her school supplies. (That's a lot of money here, believe it or not!)

Anyone interested in contributing can donate here, through the Peace Corps website. Please be sure to note: “For MSS scholarships in PCV Lauren Seibert’s site of Sikilo Ouest Middle School, Kolda.”

Thanks for helping us empower girls and women in Senegal!