Letting girls learn: Empowering communities to overcome barriers to girls’ education

The launch of a new effort on the Let Girls Learn initiative at the White House today will put grassroots solutions front-and-center in the struggle to overcome the challenges to girls’ education around the world.

Recently, I was talking with a colleague who was recounting how difficult it was, as a small non-profit organization, to get funding for her work. This is not an unusual story: most small non-profits here in the U.S. and abroad face an on-going and usually uphill battle to keep their work going. But it is a particularly poignant situation for girls’ education leaders, like my colleague, who are living and working in communities that are hostile or at best skeptical of their work. The culture of philanthropy that is so strong in the United States is relatively nascent in other parts of the world and the faith-based networks that do a great deal to help the poor often do not prioritize girls’ education, at least not in many communities where girls’ rights are daily under threat.

I have heard stories from many girls’ education advocates around the world who are from the countries and communities where they are now so tirelessly working to improve the lives of girls. These advocates, almost always women, usually have a unique story to tell because they “got out,” meaning they somehow were able to choose a different path in their lives than most other girls they grew up with. Stories of refusing to be married before finishing school, secretly studying at night to continue learning after her husband is asleep, or openly encouraging other girls’ to go to school even in the face of community condemnation. Or worse. We all know the story of Malala and her father and the truth is there are thousands of Malalas around the world.

As adults these girls’ education advocates have a powerful role to play in advancing girls’ rights. They understand the complicated dynamics within their communities, dynamics of culture, of power, and of economic uncertainty. And they can help craft strategies to promote girls’ rights that fit their particular context. But all too often, their programs and initiatives are unable to scale, overlooked for financial and technical support in favor of larger, usually international, organizations. Organizations that are internationally networked and able to navigate complicated grant applications and have excellent English-speaking capacity.  By and large, in the world of non-profit organizations, the big fish fares best. For example, a global survey of civil society organizations found that engagement with large intergovernmental organizations is “monopolized by well-resourced and well versed [civil society organizations], whilst under-representing grassroots activists.” (CIVICUS, 2014)

This is one of the reasons why we have included the support of developing country leaders as one of the top five priority actions the education community can take to address the “second-generation” girls’ education issues. In research conducted over this past year, we have argued that it is time for the education community to raise the global ambition it has for girls’ education from one of just getting girls’ into primary school to making sure  girls finish secondary school with the skills they need to be successful. We outlined key priority issues to do this, from safety to quality learning to focusing attention on girls’ education hotspots. In consultations with girls’ education leaders on this agenda, time and again the issue of better supporting developing country girls’ education leaders was raised as imperative to tackling these second-generation issues. It also features as a core element to CHARGE, a joint initiative we have undertaken with No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, that brings together more than 40 organizations to help tackle these second-generation girls’ education issues.

It is for this reason that we are especially pleased that First Lady Michelle Obama is championing an initiative that will do just this. Let Girls Learn seeks to support community-level action on girls’ education and bring these advocates into a global network of support.  This is particularly exciting because U.S. government education efforts often work at the level of national programs and policy, working through international NGOs and businesses. By joining this initiative, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings will conduct research and convene thought leaders to design this network of support for developing country girls’ education leaders. CUE will also provide the network with essential information, such as tools, best practices, training materials, and evidence on what is working.

It is not that policy change is unimportant—it is and will continue to be crucial—nor is it the case that international organizations cannot drive large-scale change, because they can and do. It is the promise of complementing these macro-efforts with supporting a second generation of grassroots leaders whose voices on girls’ education strategy will be so crucial to national policy direction if we are to be successful in getting all girls in the world to leave secondary school with the skills they need to be successful in their lives and livelihoods.