By Dr. Helene D. Gayle, CARE
Last week, I traveled to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees. I knew I was about to hear gripping stories of families fleeing violence and destruction. I also knew that I'd see firsthand how Syria's civil war has impacted girls. What I didn't know was how poignant one girl's story in particular would be. Her name is Hanan.
My organization, CARE, has been helping Hanan's mother, a young widow who fled the violence in Syria and brought her five small children, including eight-year-old Hanan, to neighboring Jordan.
Though safe from harm, Hanan still faced a bleak future. Her family was told that the local public school was full and could not accept any more students.
Hanan's father was killed in Syria, the victim of a bomb blast. Her seven-year-old brother survived a separate explosion but can no longer walk. Her grieving family moved into a bare apartment in Amman, Jordan, where the cramped quarters left little room for normal childhood activity.
Hanan recently drew a picture that, along with smiling faces and cute little houses, included a tank and dripping objects she called "crying eyes." Like so many girls caught up in war and poverty, she was struggling with how to process so much loss. It seemed unfair that she should have to lose out on an education, too.
On the International Day of the Girl, it's hard to feel like celebrating when girls face so many challenges around the world. Attacks in Kenya, the war in Syria, and continued unrest in many parts of the globe can make it hard to focus on helping girls at all. But we must. Girls are a critical resource -- and we must commit to keeping them in school.
The United Nations estimates that out of 2.1 million Syrian refugees, nearly 328,000 are school-aged girls. Worldwide, 20 million girls in conflict zones do not attend school, according to the International Network for Education in Emergencies. In addition to the disruptions that war causes for the entire population, girls face distinct challenges: high risks of child marriage, exploitation, abuse, or trafficking.
Going back to school can help insulate girls from many of these risks. It helps provide a stable environment for children affected by conflict. Girls in school are less likely to face exploitation and abuse, and schools provide spaces where trained adults can help them heal. If they are attending classes, girls are less likely to be forced to marry early. Gaining an education helps them chart a path out of crisis and into a healthy adulthood. Consider that for every additional year of school, a girl will increase her lifetime earnings by 10 percent, and significantly decrease the infant mortality risk for her children.
Yet living in a conflict zone further compounds the situation by restricting girls' access to education. Parents fear for their daughters' safety both traveling to school and in the classroom, and so they often keep girls at home. As families struggle to get by financially, girls are often pulled out of school to help care for siblings or to work for extra income. Schools can be overcrowded or non-existent for refugee children -- the very situation Hanan faced.
I've seen how it's possible to overcome these challenges, however, by educating students in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp and rebuilding schools in places such as Haiti and Afghanistan. Although the international community's support has not kept pace with the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis, host communities and humanitarian groups are partnering to help some out-of-school girls beat the odds and enter the classroom.
I'm happy to report that Hanan is one of them. Through a CARE visit, a community member learned about her situation and was able to intervene. By the time I reached Jordan and met her family in person, Hanan and one of her brothers were enrolled in school. She eagerly showed me her schoolbooks and told me all about her favorite subject: math.
A schoolgirl's smile and laughter spoke volumes -- Hanan's family, desperate for hope, had recovered a critical piece of their daughter's future.
Ultimately, as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl, let's do more than make promises. Let's ensure that girls like Hanan have access to an education, are able to stay in school, and gain the skills they need to flourish for generations to come.
Dr. Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of the poverty-fighting organization CARE. To learn more about innovative solutions that help girls overcome barriers to education, check out www.care.org.