See programs working to level the playing field and give girls the chance they deserve.

Female Students Explore Geography in South Sudan

Returnee children upon arrivalIn Juba, South Sudan, female students recently got the opportunity to learn how geography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) affect their daily lives. The World Food Programme and South Sudan’s Ministry of Education teamed up to support this initiative just in time for World GIS Day.

Students at the Mayo Girls Primary School participated in GIS Day celebrations by learning about how geographic information systems help shape their lives and futures in this, the world’s newest country.

Presenters from the World Food Programme spoke to students about how the agency relies on GIS software to deploy and track humanitarian aid in South Sudan, a country with a large geographic area, weak infrastructure, and a great need for aid after a long violent conflict.

Kenyang Cirr Dut, a Ministry of Education official, also told students how they can use geography in their own lives once they get older. “If you master geography, you will know when it’s the right time for planting crops and this will lead to abundant food supply,” he said.

According to World Food Programme officers, this was not just a day to encourage girls to become involved with geography, but more generally to pursue their studies and stay in school. Mayo School’s GIS Day is an example of a WFP-supported event that works to build excitement about school, and is part of a strategy to keep female students enrolled that also includes food incentives provided by the WFP.

GIS Day has been celebrated worldwide since 1999, with grassroots educational events bringing knowledge of GIS applications to schools and to the public. In addition to being used by the WFP, GIS are used to produce the maps used by humanitarian agencies all over the globe.

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University of Rwanda and USAID Announce Women’s Education Leadership Program

Farmer GirlThe University of Rwanda’s College of Education has announced a new partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with the intent of empowering girls and women through education. The $1 million partnership will run though June 2015, and includes participation from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

The newly announced program will focus on increasing the number of women teachers in Rwanda, and on developing gender sensitive and inclusive curricula and teaching methods. Officials from the College of Education noted that they hoped to develop a curriculum model that could be expanded to schools and universities throughout the country.

According to US Deputy Chief of Mission Jessica Lapenn, the new partnership is part of a larger attempt by the Rwandan government to empower women.

“We all know that the education of girls is one of the most important predictors of a nation’s economic and social success,” she told the assembly at the launch ceremony. “Yet for too long, girls and women have been barred from education or feel like outsiders in the classroom. We cannot achieve the goals we set for ourselves if only half the population is empowered. It is the goal of this partnership to ensure that all students are included, valued, and empowered in and outside of the classroom.”

A new collaboration between UCLA and Microsoft was also presented at the launch ceremony. The program, entitled The Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, also aims to empower Rwandan women through education by providing distance learning courses to the College of Education, and helping to build “a digital platform for disseminating gender-focused research and curricula.”

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Girls’ Education in Afghanistan at a Critical Point

Government Girl School in BamyanSince the overthrow of Taliban rule in 2001, women’s education in Afghanistan has made large, encouraging, and necessary strides. However, with several problems still to be addressed and many changes ahead in 2014, critical momentum must be maintained to ensure that recent gains for girls and women are not reversed.

Before the fall of the Taliban government, almost no girls attended school in Afghanistan. Today 40% of the country’s students are female. The educational situation is improving as a whole: the total number of students has risen from one million to 8.3 million, and the first national curriculum in 30 years has been established.

Despite these encouraging advances, education is still an unattainable dream for too many Afghani girls. According to Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, there are still “many millions of girls who are not in school across the country.” Many millions, he notes, “who are not able to say… I want to be a doctor.”

Additionally, many school districts have problems finding qualified female teachers. And as girls enter high school, they are often at risk of dropping out due to social, cultural, and family pressure.

Beth Murphy, reporting to the Global Post about a visit to a girls’ school in Kabul province, notes that going to school is still risky for many students. In the past few months, six attacks against schoolgirls have taken place, including a bomb explosion, mass poisonings, and a school that was set on fire.

“There is a difficult question being asked here,” she says. “Can the hard-won gains be sustained at a time when Taliban power is growing?”

Experts also fear for the stability of the region as 2014 brings several major changes. With a large-scale international military withdrawal and a presidential election scheduled for early 2014, some worry that the political climate could shift and that some of Afghanistan’s progress will be lost.

Shaima Alkozai, deputy principal at a girls’ school in Kabul wonders, “What will be the future for women? Will their situation improve or become worse? It doesn’t matter to us if we have to wear a burka or not. But we want to continue with education.”

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Cameroon’s Girls Face Educational Challenges

Lil' girlsAt 88%, Cameroon’s net primary school enrollment rate is one of the highest in West and Central Africa. But behind that encouraging statistic lies the problem of gender disparity. Girls’ enrollment lags behind boys’ across the country, and the problem has the government and the international community scrambling to take action.

A 2012 study published by the Cameroonian government found that for every 100 boys enrolled in school, only 85 girls also attend. The gender disparity is even more pronounced in some areas of the country. In the poverty-stricken Far North Region only 69% of girls attend school, versus 98% of boys. And in communities bordering the Sahara desert, only 17% of girls are enrolled.

According to Plan International’s Jaïre Moutcheu, a mixture of traditional cultural attitudes and economic challenges in these regions combine to stack the deck against girl students.

“Some parents prefer to give priority to boys’ education because they believe a girl will soon get married,” Moutcheu says. “Some don’t have enough resources and prefer to focus the little they have on the education of the boy.”

Despite international campaign efforts against child marriage, 31% of Cameroonian girls are married before age 15. In addition to the numerous documented health and psychological risks associated with child marriage, their education effectively ends as well.

Compounding the issue, the risk of sexual assault by male teachers and classmates leads many girls to feel insecure and often leave school.

In an effort to address these problems, UNICEF and Plan International have begun sensitization campaigns to reach at-risk communities, and offer scholarships to female students. Some schools have been renovated to have more secure toilet facilities, and a new initiative from the government of Japan and UNICEF has planned the construction of “girl-child friendly” primary schools, with enhanced support for women’s groups and a food-handout program.

Marie Therese Abena, Cameroon’s Women’s Empowerment Minister, notes that there is much work still to be done to tackle the cultural attitudes that hinder girls’ education. Despite the challenges, she is optimistic.

“It’s not 100% yet, but we’re improving,” she says. “Each one of us has to do their own share of the work so that we can see the girl-child evolve in our society and contribute.”

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Philippines Ranks As One of the Top Five Countries for Gender Equality

Calbayog kidsThe Philippines is one of the best places in the world to be a woman, reported the Global Gender Gap Report 2013. The country ranked fifth in the world and number one in Asia, moving up three notches from its previous ranking in 2012.

Iceland secured number one out of 136 countries, followed by Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Philippines, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Switzerland, and Nicaragua. The United Kingdom ranked 18th, the United States at 23, China holding the 68th position, and India at 101st.

The study was released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), who conducts an annual report which assesses each country’s genders’ participation in health, education, politics and economic activity. The WEF said, “the Philippines remains the most advanced country in the (Asia-Pacific) region in terms of gender equality, ranking 5th in the global index. It improves as a result of advances in economic participation and opportunity, a subindex of the report, as well as having a strong score in terms of political participation.” The Philippines is currently the only Asian country to fully close the gender gap in education and health and the country.

Filipina journalist Marites Vitug reportedly said that the Philippines has a “very liberal work atmosphere” with a “fantastic support network” from household help to extended families. “Woman usually hold the purse. Even if they re not the major breadwinner, they do the budget, decide how money is spent. Thus, men don’t have a dismissive attitude toward women,” explained Vitug.

The Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) is very proud of their country’s improvement, saying “the collective hard work of government agencies, non-government and civil society organizations, academe and various stakeholders prove that the country indeed is recognizing and valuing women as active drivers of development.”

The commission still admits the country’s remaining challenges for gender equality, explaining “efforts to keep children in school… to expand economic opportunities for women and increase women’s participation in decision-making positions need to be accelerated and sustained in all spheres. PCW will not stop from performing its mandate until we enforce the necessary mechanisms to foster and promote equal opportunities for women and me.”

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Celebrate International Day of the Girl this October by Supporting Girls’ Education

Story of a Schoolgirl and her FamilyOn October 11, people around the world will convene to celebrate the second annual International Day of the Girl. Established in December 2011, this year’s theme is “Innovating for Girls’ Education.”

The UN has identified girls’ education, particularly at the secondary level, as a “powerful transformative force for societies.” Indeed, studies have repeatedly highlighted the value of girls’ education in developing nations, including reduced maternal mortality rates,  more productive economic activity, and the decline of HIV/AIDS, among other benefits.

Various organizations worldwide are doing significant work towards improving girls’ education. One of these organizations is Techno Girls, a program based in South Africa that teaches girls skills in engineering and science, fields that are conventionally comprised of men. Commenting on how Techno Girls has changed her career goals, one participant said “I used to think that the Science and Technology field was only for men and that a woman’s place was meant to be predominantly in the kitchen. I have however learnt that as a woman I can also be able to live my dreams.”

There are multiple ways you can get involved this year to help promote girls’ education. For ready to use lesson plans, check out our website TeachBuzz. Lessons about Anne Frank, the American feminist movement, and women’s rights are  great ways to get students excited about girls’  empowerment and gender equality.

You can also promote girls’ education by screening the 2013 documentary Girl Rising, a film that includes the stories of girls worldwide who fight to secure their education. In addition to providing copies of their documentary, the Girl Rising campaign provides lesson planning materials on its website.

Multiple events in the US and elsewhere will be taking place to celebrate International Day of the Girl. In New York City, the UN, in partnership with Working Group on Girls, will be hosting Day of the Girl Speak Out from 3:00-5:00pm, and will feature girl activists from around the world. The public is invited to register to attend or watch the streaming version that will be broadcast from In San Francisco and other locations, Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell will be screening sneak peaks of her new documentary that showcases the power of two Guatemalan girls to demand opportunities for women’s political participation. In Canada, the Didi Society will be hosting an event at the University of Victoria to support girls’ education while the government of Manitoba will have a special event featuring girls from around the province who have been identified as role models in their communities.

As International Day of the Girl draws nearer, we will be continually updating our Girl Power and Facebook pages with ways to become involved in promoting girls’ education.

Regardless of whether you are an educator or not, you too can become involved in supporting girls’ education by donating to our campaign. One of our main missions at Open Equal Free is to make education available equally, to both boys and girls, throughout the developing world.

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Malawi Muslim Leaders Promote Girls’ Education

IHH Qurbani campaign, Malawi, Eid al-Adha 2011In response to worrying statistics about school dropout rates among girls, Muslim community leaders in Malawi are campaigning to promote girls’ education. Religious leaders and education experts say they plan to engage Malawi’s Muslim community in breaking down barriers to accessing education, specifically for girls.

Sheikh Dinala Chabulika, National Coordinator of Malawi’s Islamic Information Bureau (IIB), told that girls’ education “has gone through years of neglect” among the country’s Muslim population. As a result, he says, the number of school dropouts has been rising and literacy rates are low.

According to Traditional Authority Chitera, recognized across Malawi as a champion of girls’ education, the culture often plays a large role in hindering girls from going to school. She notes that some parents in traditional Muslim communities believe that girls’ education is not important. As a result, many female children have been denied the right to go to school altogether.

Fortunately, thanks to a combined effort attitudes are beginning to change. The IIB and education groups have begun sensitization meetings to promote girls’ education among the public, and local sheikhs are spreading the message in mosques and rural communities. Additionally, the IIB has begun offering scholarships to encourage parents to send their daughters to school.

Chabulika notes that religious leaders also aim to correct any misconceptions people may hold about Islam and girls’ education.

“There is nothing in Islam preventing girls from accessing education,” he says. “Those who disapprove of girls’ education are not speaking from a sound religious perspective.”

Education activists across Malawi have applauded the recent efforts, describing the new campaign as a ”landmark” in achieving the UN’s Education for All goals.

Islam is Malawi’s second largest religion, following Christianity. Muslims are estimated to account for 12-36% of the population.

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Zambian Children Make Connections Through iSchool

School children perform during a rally in Lusaka, Zambia

Zambian children are gaining access to education and curriculum through an “e-learning,” curriculum provided via the latest internet resources. This is possible as a result of expanding internet access and emerging business strategies in developing countries such as Zambia.

AfriConnect Development and Cambridge University are creating initiatives to use e-learning across the African continent. The result, iSchool, aims to improve the standards of education, increase the degree of internet connectivity, and increase access to quality education and teacher materials among the urban and rural poor of Zambia. According to iSchool statistics, 85% of teachers in Zambian community schools are untrained. iSchools address obstacles including a shortage of learning materials, unavailable educational infrastructure for a growing population, and an insufficient amount of trained teachers. In addition, the iSchools provide a solution for young girls that have been unable to access education due to common cultural or societal limitations, early marriage, or pregnancies. Zambia’s iSchool program includes 5,500 primary school lessons, a one-year training curriculum for teachers, and an adult literacy program available to anyone who purchases a tablet. The business strategy is to establish a sustainable model that will supply funds for commercial interests and re-investment into the ongoing development of the iSchools.

The iSchool startup, founded in 2011 by British serial entrepreneur Mark Bennett, is the first in the world to bring e-learning to vernacular languages (iSchool curriculum is available in eight local languages as well as English for grades 1-7). According to Bennett, “We’ve taken the entire Zambian primary curriculum, mapped every single subject and every single grade, and created a very detailed lesson plan for the teacher for every single lesson.”

With the growth of iSchools, as the demand for access to the internet and educational resources increases in Zambia, the potential for the children of the African continent is limitless.

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Pakistan’s Burka Avenger to Fight for Girls’ Right to Education

A girl studying in Pakistan's flooded area.

Pakistan’s newest animated series will star the Burka Avenger, a compassionate teacher who combats gangsters trying to close down the girls’ school in which she works.  The show portrays this avenger as a burka-wearing ninja whose only weapons are her books and pens and whose sidekicks are three students from the local village.

Pakistan’s first animated series, Burka Avenger, presents a struggle relevant to Pakistan’s current battles with education, as the nation’s northwest area is a front for the Taliban’s attacks on education for girls. The Taliban is believed to have bombed countless schools, attacked Pakistani educational activists, and shot 15-year old Malala Yousafzai for campaigning for girls’ educational rights last October.

A group of orphans who were shown an early screening of the series gave encouraging reviews; Ten year-old Samia Naeem said she liked the crusading heroine “because she saved kids’ lives. She motivated them for education and school.”

The idea for this Urdu language series was conceived by one of Pakistan’s biggest pop stars, Aaron Haroon, who sees it as a way to emphasize the importance of girls’ education. Haroon’s goal was to combine Pakistani culture with an educational message; he hopes Pakistani girls will be empowered by the avenger’s use of the burka. It will premiere early August on GeoTV.

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US First Lady Encourages Female Students in Senegal

Michelle Obama in Reno—October 3rdStudents at an all-girls high school in Dakar, Senegal, welcomed American First Lady Michelle Obama when she stopped by to speak to them. Mrs. Obama was visiting Senegal with President Obama and their daughters as part of a three-country tour of Africa.

Mrs. Obama visited Martin Luther King School with Senegalese First Lady Marieme Sall, and spoke to the students on the theme of girls’ education.

“When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous,” Mrs. Obama told the students. “By making this critical investment in your education- and in the future of your country- you all are serving as role models not just for girls here in Senegal, but for girls in the United States and around the world.”

In Senegal, only 27% of secondary students are girls, UNESCO reports. Many girls, especially in rural areas, drop out to help with housework and raising siblings. The youth literacy rate for Senegalese girls is only 56%.

Mrs. Obama encouraged the students to work hard, and shared some of her own experiences.

“My parents had to work hard every day to support us, so they never had the chance to get the kind of education they wanted for themselves,” she said. “But they had big dreams for me. And more than anything in the world, they wanted me to graduate from secondary school and attend a university.”

Students and teachers applauded Mrs. Obama’s speech. Afterward, she hugged and shook hands with many of the students.

“Many of us can relate to the obstacles she spoke of,” said student Yaire Mbengue. “So it was good to hear you can still succeed in spite of that.”

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