Earlier this year, I met Harriet, a 16 year-old girl from northern Uganda. She is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar in secondary school who aspires to be an engineer. Harriet's path at times has seemed unimaginable as she has had to overcome great odds. One of five children in her family, she lost her father when she was only four years old and was forced to drop out of school after completing primary school because her mother could not afford the cost of her secondary education. Harriet's three sisters also had to drop out of school to help with farming.
Harriet's story is not unique. She represents a growing number of young people in disadvantaged communities around the world who are completing primary education only to find that the economic and social costs of continuing schooling beyond that point stand in the way. According to UNESCO, Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rate of secondary school enrollment in the world at 43 percent and more than 21.6 million children of lower secondary school age may never spend a single day in school.
The International Day of the Girl is a fitting time to reflect on the countless girls like Harriet who might not achieve their dreams unless we mobilize to ensure they receive an education.
Secondary school is the bridge between primary and university education and the labour market. According to the World Bank, every year that a young girl stays in secondary school, she boosts her future earnings by 10 to 20 percent. At a national level, this can trigger real economic growth -- a single percentage point increase in secondary education for young women boosts per capita income by 0.3 annually.
For girls like Harriet, the benefits of secondary school are even more profound. Staying in school delays marriage and early pregnancy which in turn lowers maternal and infant mortality and results in healthier, economically secure families.
We are close to achieving universal primary education and there is good work being done to provide secondary school opportunities to young people throughout Africa and the world. Girls have told us, however, that they need more than just schooling and books to be successful. They need support, mentoring and relevant skills that will allow them to find employment or transition to university.
This is the idea behind The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program -- a global education initiative created so young people like Harriet can pursue their dreams. At the secondary school level, we have partnered with BRAC, the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed), and the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). Collectively, they will support and mentor 11,000 students in Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda -- 8,800 of whom are girls.
Each partner has successfully demonstrated ways to promote gender equity and empowerment. Camfed has pioneered a model that puts girls at the center, emphasizing mentoring by Camfed alumnae and enabling girls to educate and inspire the next generation. FAWE uses an empowerment model that builds young girls' decision-making capacity, leadership skills, and confidence. And BRAC provides a program that enriches life and work skills, leadership abilities, community service, and internships.
While our primary objective with the Scholars Program is to provide access to education for young people, our vision is much greater. We aim to foster a 'give-back' ethos and provide girls like Harriet with the skills, competencies, and critical thinking needed to become ethical leaders.
When I met Harriet, she told me that she hopes her education helps people in her community realize the importance of educating girls, not just for her family, but also for her community, country, and continent. Harriet is a Scholar and future leader and her hope is a genuine celebration of the International Day of the Girl.
Follow Reeta Roy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MCFoundation