The shocking kidnap of more than 200 girls in northern Nigeria has focused global attention on the dangers faced by young women in Africa. Like millions around the world, I hope and pray for their safe return.
The aim of militants such as Boko Haram, whose very name means "Western education is a sin," is to sew hatred and enmity between Muslim and Christian communities, which have co-existed largely peacefully for generations. Education, in particular the education of women, is a threat to Boko Haram's goals. That is why the group carried out this appalling act.
Over the past 20 years, I have seen the transformative effect that education has in the lives of young women, and their communities. The kidnapping of these girls reminds us how important this work is.
Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education -- the organization I founded in 1993, has supported 1.2 million children to go to school in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We have improved the learning environment for three million children in 5,000 partner schools. More than 90 percent of our scholarship students stay in secondary school.
Key to success for the education of young African girls is building a model that works with communities, schools and national Ministries of Education to build a system of protection and support around girls, ensuring that they receive the education that is their right. Financial support is provided alongside a social support system, with teachers trained in child protection, reproductive health and counseling.
When we began working in the West African country of Ghana in 1998, there were many who told us that educating girls would not work in the largely Muslim community there. But we followed the advice of Ghanaian academics at the University of Cambridge and began to work with some of the poorest and most conservative Muslim communities of the north. We evolved a close working partnership with the Ministry of Education and now we have built a program in 783 schools across Ghana. Young girls in Ghana have a passion for education. This also is true in Nigeria, where the threat of violence has not stopped millions of young women from going to school.
Such commitment is exemplified by Comfort, a girl in northern Ghana. She was in the midst of her Junior High School exams when her father died and the family lost its main breadwinner. She began to work for neighbors, washed bowls and clothes, and took care of neighbors' children. Little by little, she gathered the 600 cedis ($300) she needed to enroll in High School. To help pay for school, Comfort and her mother offered to harvest neighbors' fields and were paid for their labor in rice which they then sold. Camfed is now helping Comfort with all her school costs going forward, giving her the assurance that she can study through to graduation. Comfort is exceptional, but by no means an exception.
Time and time again, African teenagers have told me stories that carry a dignity and nobility that is rare in the West. Their stories show how they look at their world and how they can change it. One wants to be a gynecologist or midwife because she knows that women are dying in her community and that there are not enough doctors. Another wants to be a lawyer because her father was a victim of land fraud and had no means of redress, so she wants to provide a legal service that extends justice to illiterate rural farmers.
To sit with these girls and young women is to be convinced that a better world is indeed possible -- if they get the education they quite literally crave.
Across Africa, Camfed and other organizations working to educate young girls are seeing their students consistently pass their courses at higher than national averages. They are seeing faster growth in female enrolment, higher levels of school completion and improved exam pass-rates.
Once they have graduated, the girls are helped and encouraged to overcome traditional employment barriers and start their own businesses.
Our numbers provide a window on a growing trend. In Zimbabwe, more than 83 percent of Cama Alums are now the main breadwinners in their household. And those women are now putting something back into the community -- 72 percent of our graduates fund other children to go to school.
One month ago I was in Tamale, the third city of Ghana. It was just a short time after Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from a school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. I began receiving text messages from friends at home telling me to "be careful," imagining that the violence of Boko Haram could compromise my safety.
In the countless times I have visited Ghana, I have met courtesy and warmth. The vast continent of Africa continues to be defined by much of the rest of the world by its worst acts. It is the only continent that suffers this indignity.
But when you walk along the high street of Tamale, you pass an array of shops with signs that reveal the religion of the owners. Whether in Arabic or English, their message is broadly the same -- that God or Allah oversees business here. Christians and Muslims nevertheless shop without favor under signs such as "God is Alive Curtains and Interior Décor" or "Hallelujah Beauty Salon." Christians and Muslims in the north of Ghana eat together, learn together, pray together. Now, their young girls receive an education together.
Educated women can rise above the differences that divide communities, and achieve stability, safety and success.