A Bold New Path To Educating Girls

10/10/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In my office I have a meticulously drawn poster. The artist is a young girl from the suburbs of Dar es Salam, Tanzania. The poster shows the artist walking through what is, in effect, the map of her life. She strides along a road that goes from her thatched roof home to the local school. To her, the school is the gateway to success. She even has a drawing of a desk with books piled high labeled "University." But the map also details all the things that can distract her from this path.

girls education

Along the road, she passes a corner labeled "wazushi camp," where idle men smoke marijuana and call to her. The artist has printed the words "kiss" and "love" above their heads. At the bus stop, a well-dressed sugar daddy labeled "fataki" beckons to her beneath a ribbon marked "HIV." A death's head symbol is drawn to remind us that for a girl who wants an education, submitting to men with money can be tempting, but the risks are dire.

As difficult as these obstacles are, they are often matched by what she may face at home. The artist lists chores such as fetching water and firewood, tasks that her parents may consider more important than her education. She has written the word "poverty" in faint gray pencil, but the word looms large in her life: In a world where secondary education is not free, families often choose to send only their sons to school. A girl, no matter how academically gifted, may be valued only by her ability to do chores. A woman, no matter what her potential, may be valued by her husband and family strictly for her domestic and child-rearing responsibilities.

To change the map of a girl's life, much must be done to change the attitude of the child as well as her parents and even the community. For the past seven years, Johnson & Johnson has supported FHI360, a leading NGO, in a program of mentoring, parent engagement and career development at schools in suburban Dar es Salam--a program we are proud to support because of a core belief that educated, empowered women lead to healthier families and communities.

The program allows teachers to be trained as mentors to lead weekly sessions in communication, career counseling, and life skills. Female role models, from elected officials to local entrepreneurs, share their personal stories. Sanitary napkins are provided, which improves attendance and gives girls the confidence to participate fully in class and at play during their menstrual cycles. Girls went from almost painful shyness to effective and assertive communicators. One girl proudly said, "Now I can talk about school, even with boys."

Most importantly, among the 850 girls who have participated in the program, 95 percent continued on to secondary school. This compares with a regional average of approximately 67 percent.

Parents and community members have also been engaged, but to gain their long-term commitment, parents needed to see that education truly opened doors and led to opportunities for their daughters. As Andrea Bertone, director of the gender department at FHI360 said, "They won't feel committed to girl's education if the educated girl does nothing more than the girl who dropped out."

FHI360 conducted a workforce study of local employers and proposed that scholarships in nursing, teaching and university prep be provided to the highest performers. A much larger group of girls were assisted in pursuing vocational training and internships. Several became entrepreneurs. Among the 20 girls who received additional formal education at colleges for teaching and nursing, 100 percent satisfactorily completed their studies. Among those who completed their vocational programs, the percentage of girls who found jobs was 97 percent--in a nation where 20 percent of youth with a secondary education is unemployed.

As International Day of the Girl Child approaches, I think of these girls and wonder what maps their own daughters will draw someday. I envision better homes with electricity and plenty of clean water. I imagine that their chores will always be less important than their education, and that their communities will not tolerate "wazushi camps" or "fataki" men. I imagine things the way they should be, with them attending university, speaking boldly and confidently (even with boys), and being valued by all of us for the full spectrum of who they are.