My grandmother is reminiscing, pouring over the long, black and white school photograph she keeps in a cardboard tube. Once I have finally identified her amongst the hair bobs and freckled faces, she starts pointing to other girls: Joan on her left who went on to be a nurse; Ann on the row behind who became a teacher.
“And that girl there is Maureen,” she says. “She was my best friend, but we lost touch soon after. She left school at 15 because her family couldn’t afford the uniform.”
We pause for a moment and stare at Maureen’s picture. Despite her matter-of-fact tone, my grandmother seems suddenly aware of the enormity of what she has said. What life might Maureen have had if her family had been able to buy the blazer and tie required to attend Abbeydale Grammar School for Girls in Sheffield in 1957?
Sometimes we need to remember what happened here a lifetime ago to strengthen our resolve that something similar shouldn’t happen now, anywhere in the world. Globally, 129 million girls are out of school. According to UNICEF, only 49 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, a gap that widens to only 24 per cent for upper secondary education.
To help more girls stay in school, we need first to acknowledge gender differences. A teenager suddenly burdened with extra caring responsibilities and family financial pressures needs flexibility in how her education is delivered. Distance learning via radio programmes could be supported by teachers who travel around communities, visiting young mothers trying to re-enter education or students excluded by a dangerous school commute. In Zimbabwe, UNICEF is working with the Government and Microsoft on the Learning Passport, a platform that provides flexible online and offline educational content in many different languages.
Secondly, we must adapt where they learn. Too many schools were not designed with girls in mind and do not meet their safety, hygiene or sanitation needs. Having your period doesn’t make you dirty and shouldn’t stop you from going to school. But when you get there, you need access to sanitary products and a private bathroom.
Finally, we need to evolve what they learn – and that applies to boys as well as girls. For societies to value women and for girls to feel safe in classrooms, gender stereotypes and negative gender portrayals must be removed from learning materials. Girls need to be supported in the subjects that engage them and encouraged in their career choices, including those in which they are underrepresented. According to UNICEF, gender-equitable education systems promote the development of the life skills we all need to succeed: like communication, negotiation and critical thinking. Properly trained teachers are crucial to delivering these.
Nearly 65 years ago, my grandmother’s best friend left school before she was ready because she had no choice. We can choose to help today’s Maureen’s – and Rehema’s and Makena’s – stay in education by making it more accessible and relevant. If girls feel safe and comfortable in school, they will thrive.
This writing challenge is part of Restless Development’s Power Up Appeal, which is raising money to help girls in Sierra Leone go to school, get their education and shape their own futures. Every pound given to the Power Up Appeal until 6 June 2022 will be doubled by the UK Government. Feat
Claudia Collins is studying for her GCSEs at Benenden School in Kent. She serves on the steering committee of Amnesty International UK’s Children’s Human Rights Network, leading the subgroup on mental health.