If Only I Get the Chance

Access and Inclusion October 27, 2015

Ann Cotton is the 2014 WISE Prize for Education Laureate

We made an unusual tableau that 1991 November morning against the backdrop of a vast Zimbabwe sky. There was the farmer, tall and barefoot, his child in a worn school blazer, the headmaster in his dark suit, and me.

The child was the reason for our meeting. She was thirteen years old and had come top of her class in her primary school exams, but her father’s poor health made it impossible to grow enough food to feed the family and sell a surplus for secondary school fees. He showed us the marks on his back where the herbalist had applied hot poultices towards a cure that never came. One family mired in poverty, unique in detail.

Many of the privileged look upon the behaviours of poor people with incomprehension, not least in the matter of girls’ education. “Why” the international development sector asks, “don’t parents send their daughters to school and reap the returns?”

Parents cannot send their daughters to school, because of poverty. So we are left with a world of girls whose lives are blighted, and who will give birth in childhood to a new generation of poor children.

The world knows that the education of girls delivers the highest social and economic dividends to a developing economy. In regions where girls face acute disadvantage, their education has transformative potential.

How then do we achieve universal access to education?

When I founded Camfed in 1993, millions of dollars were being wasted on persuading poor parents to send their daughters to school. The exercise entirely missed the point that families make calculated choices as to how to spend their limited means. Boys had a far better chance of future employment and could bring money back to the family. This lack of choice created a structural imbalance in the school enrolment of boys and girls, interpreted as a culturally-driven decision rather than one based on sound socio-economic analysis. It was the culture of poverty keeping girls out of school, not the poverty of culture. And the minority of poor girls who did go to school knew that if family circumstances deteriorated, their education would be the first casualty. Their anxiety undermined their academic performance and with it their opportunity to progress.

The education of girls is a systemic matter to be addressed systematically. It will be achieved by working with all those with the power to effect change – from civil servants at the Ministry of Education to beleaguered heads of under-resourced rural schools, from traditional leaders to non-literate grandmothers. Each stakeholder brings resources to the problem-solving table.

Camfed invites communities into a partnership with the goal of educational inclusion, through which every resource is dignified and valued. We identify these resources as social, knowledge, institutional and human capital. Much of this capital pre-exists Camfed’s partnership, is extended through it, and multiplies the impact of the financial capital that is provided to meet the educational costs for girls from poor families.

Social capital is evidenced in the leadership of community-based committees, identifying the most vulnerable children for support based upon intimate knowledge of poverty in their context, not on rigid, imposed criteria. This builds local decision-making and a social obligation towards all the children communities choose.

Institutional capital is the framework through which ideas become action. Camfed partners with 5,270 government schools serving poor communities. We work with parent support groups, which provide extra nutrition for primary school children or help with school refurbishment projects for which there is no budget. Every initiative is discussed with the chief, who is responsible for the welfare of all community members.  Chiefs have enormous power to galvanise change, whether speaking out against child marriage or celebrating educational advances.

Knowledge capital is imperative for a successful response to girls’ educational exclusion. When we respect community knowledge, it comes rushing to the table, massively extending the knowledge base and demonstrating to people who are used to marginalisation that their experience matters. The collective knowledge of students, parents, teachers and local leaders includes a deeply nuanced understanding of the roots of problems, and their solutions. When a mother in Malawi explains how she gauges the extent of a child’s hunger by how he or she eats, we are learning something profound, beyond the experience of outside experts.

Transformation above all lies in human capital, in the growth of knowledge, confidence and the collective power of young women. Just as elites consolidate and extend their power through alumni, the Camfed alumnae network – CAMA – consolidates and expands the power of young women who were once barefoot children facing a life of domestic hardship. Today CAMA numbers more than 33,000, united by a background of rural poverty and the determination to transform their communities. Camfed supports these young women on to new lives as entrepreneurs and community leaders. CAMA alumnae return to schools to train and mentor new generations of students. This completes the “virtuous cycle” and creates sustainable change. Already over 3.5 million children in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi have benefitted.

But what of the child in the field that November morning? She stood quietly listening while her father and the headmaster discussed her future. Later she wrote me and said something so poignant it made me weep:

“If only I get the chance, I will do something great.”

Education should not depend on the unlikely chance that the head of a school in Zimbabwe and a woman born in Wales meet in common cause. It is a fundamental human right.

That child is now a fully trained doctor, who told me,

“When I am at work and I see a nurse being disrespectful to a poor woman, I tell her, ‘don’t speak to her that way, she could be my mother’, and [the nurse] is shocked because she did not think that a doctor comes from such a home.”

She understands poverty because she has lived it. She is transforming her institution from within. She is married and has two healthy children. Weep for those who didn’t make it, for their children and their children’s children. Then dry your tears and act, because this is one problem that must be solved, that can be solved. If only.