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 us for an intense three-day roundtable.
We were there to provide actionable advice on how the UK could use its diplomatic muscle to come behind 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.
It is now universally recognized that girls’ education is the closest thing we have to a ‘holy grail:’ The investment that delivers the greatest returns, vital to ending extreme poverty and meeting all of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In the imposing conference room of 16th century Wiston House, many argued that diplomacy is the ‘icing on the cake’ of girls’ education. The assumption was that we’ve got the process right. We know what we need to do to get girls into schools and learning. Now we just need to advocate at national level to make sure that the full political and financial will is behind girls’ education as the most important driver behind 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, 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, the vulnerability of girls and young women to abuse when people with power and money make decisions about who benefits from support.
There continues to be a deep lack of understanding — for those who haven’t walked five miles to school in a marginalized girl’s shoes — of the context that leaves girls exposed.
Girls’ education delivered without local accountability and a deep understanding of the local context can make girls more, rather than less, vulnerable. A lack of money, a lack of safe school infrastructure, long distances, a lack of female teachers, mentors and role models, a lack of confidence, and a lack of a sense of entitlement all conspire against girls in a context where deeply embedded gender inequality and social norms put the heavy weight of family responsibilities and household chores squarely on a girl’s tiny shoulders.
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 bursary.
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.
CAMFED Association members are working to prevent child marriage, and reach girls like Doreen (not her real name), a double orphan whose frail grandmother could not afford to send her to school, and who became a child bride at 13. (Photo: Eliza Powell/CAMFED)
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 and agency, addressing the power imbalance at every level.
Girls need psycho-social 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 act now to include — at every level of decision-making, in every education authority and school, on 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, and the tools needed 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, with which comes a lack of choice, a risk of exploitation, and a lack of agency. They understand how girls’ circumstances can lead to a lack of 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.
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 CAMFED (the Campaign for Female Education) has welcomed and tackled complexity. Its programs started with the expertise conveyed by the Tonga people in the village of Mola, who were instrumental in creating the first community-led program for girls’ education. With nuance often absent from development programs at the time, 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 support her to flourish and lead.
Fathers and traditional leaders side by side with mothers, teachers, and government officials formed the accountable, transparent committees that select those girls most marginalized, and take local responsibility for their success. Girls would be supported for the entire lower secondary school cycle. They, as clients, would 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, those well-networked, who know how to insist on their rights.The young women established a leadership network of rural educated women to rival any “old boys’ network:” The CAMFED Association, or CAMA, became a vital sisterhood, an emotional support network, and a platform for sharing knowledge, providing training and grants to support young educated women in the transition from school to secure livelihoods.
It is a network built on empathy and agency.
More than 20 years later, and nearly 150,000 strong, with a Constitution and elected officials, the CAMFED Assoication is a force to be reckoned with — not least because 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 Association members to return to their local schools as female role models and mentors — each young woman 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 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. Proving her pedigree 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 which were supported by CAMFED Association members 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 airless room in an English country estate, I felt like a fraud for not being Angie — for attempting to represent the young women who’d 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: 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 level, not only for the transparency of its programs, or the data and research that proves their effectiveness, but 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 Wiston House will host a learning summit matching high level diplomats with grassroots diplomats like Fatima, experts who can speak truth to power. Together, we truly can change the world.
Grassroots leadership benefitting girls, communities, and our planet
CAMFED is in the unique position of being able to draw on a pool of 178,000 experts — young women supported through school by CAMFED, who understand intimately the link between girls’ education, social justice, gender equality and climate action. Last month, members of our network of women leaders — the CAMFED Association — represented our movement at a number of high-profile, international fora. They highlighted the importance of grassroots expertise and action to address the urgent challenges girls face in the wake of the pandemic.
In this talk Angeline Murimirwa discusses her epiphany moment with 400 other girls supported by CAMFED in 1998 when they realized the power that they have together and created the CAMFED Association of women leaders (CAMA), which is now spearheading CAMFED's programs and leading the charge for girls' education across sub-Saharan Africa.