When I was in high school, I distinctly remember sitting at the dinner table and my mom telling my sister and me that we could pursue any career we wanted. She and my dad had limited options because they didn’t go to college. My mom is a school secretary, and my dad was a light bulb changer for a pharmaceutical company before he retired.
I recognize now what a privilege it is to choose one’s own path in life (and have support from parents and teachers). In exchange for funding my college education, my parents could have pressured me into a lucrative profession, like business, law, or medicine — but when I chose journalism, they embraced it. When I would later quit my job to run a nonprofit, they never questioned it.
Because I had the power to choose my own future when I was just a teenager, my devotion to ensuring other girls have that opportunity is unshakeable. Even during a global pandemic.
Right this second, millions of girls around the world are rapidly falling behind in their education, without access to digital learning. Financial tensions at home increase their exposure to domestic and sexual abuse behind closed doors. Local leaders note cases of child marriage as a result of school closures. And yet, COVID-19 response efforts are largely ignoring girls, threatening to unwind decades of progress.
Pre-coronavirus, 130 million girls were already out of school, and every seven seconds, a girl was forced into marriage. And due to the Ebola crisis that hit West Africa in 2015–2018, we know how bad it can get: After Ebola, when schools were similarly closed and public gatherings were banned, rates of teenage pregnancy skyrocketed by 65% in Sierra Leone alone. If school dropouts happen at the same rate, 20 million more girls will be out of secondary school after the COVID-19 crisis.
While these statistics are grim, they are not set in stone for 2020 just yet: We can still avoid these outcomes. This sense of urgency — and potential for impact — is what brought me to the issue of girls’ education more than a decade ago.
I co-founded She’s the First (STF), a global nonprofit that teams up with local organizations to make sure girls are educated, respected and heard. At that time, many people didn’t realize how girls’ education was the ultimate lever to lift families and communities out of poverty, boost the economy, and slow the spread of disease.
As a rights-based organization, She’s the First puts girls first, because too often they fall to the bottom; their unique needs, especially pertaining to their health and safety, are underfunded and overlooked. In the era of COVID-19, we must fight harder than ever for girls, so that a global health crisis does not become a “girl crisis.” We cannot afford to lose the potential of girls who are being left behind.
Sarah is one of those girls. In February, she started a new year of high school in Uganda, showing great promise to be one of the only girls to finish high school in her remote village. She loves learning, and because her dinner table is not as plentiful as mine was growing up, she relies on school to get three meals a day.
But then in March, when the president of Uganda ordered schools to close, Sarah was left hanging; all she could do was bring her books and worksheets home. Her family doesn’t have a TV or radio, so she can’t tune into the national programs that teach children during the lockdown. When she reads something she doesn’t understand, she has no one to ask for help; she’s more educated than her parents.
Sarah’s father earned his income as a motorbike driver; but now that transportation throughout the country is banned, the family has to survive on whatever their simple garden can produce — and it’s not enough. Sarah now only gets one meal a day.
Joyce Wanda, the co-founder of Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH) in Uganda, grew up in a Ugandan village like Sarah. “Our challenge is to make sure these girls are not forgotten,” Joyce says. Staff members of AAH, one of our community-based partner organizations, have resorted to climbing the hills to reach girls like Sarah at home, bringing printed learning materials. The trip takes three hours one way.
When I think of educators hiking for six hours, each time, to fight for a girl’s future, I ask myself, What more can I do?
It’s easy to feel like any small action, in the face of an impending catastrophe, won’t matter. But Joyce, and all the partners of She’s the First, continue to show me that isn’t true. If we all do something to back girls’ organizations supporting community-led change — no matter where in the world — we can change the fate of girls.
I asked Joyce what would make a difference for Sarah and the hundreds of other girls like her in the program. She tells me it would be as simple as having phones or tablets, loaded with data, so that girls could access messages and assignments. “I believe if there is additional support for girls to get back on track with their studies online, they will come out of this even stronger than in the beginning,” she says.
The cost of providing a girl with a learning tablet in rural Uganda? $25 a month.
If you have the technology to read this, then you have the tools that millions of girls would do anything for right now. Use them to speak up: Share how COVID-19 impacts girls on your Instagram Story. Donate, even if it’s $5 a month. Organize a fundraising party on Zoom. Get informed with podcasts so you can lead a conversation.
As Joyce says, “We have put girls on a path for success and we cannot stop now. Let’s keep going.”
To learn more about the She’s the First COVID-19 Response Fund, visit shesthefirst.org/covid.
Tammy Tibbetts is the co-founder and CEO of She’s the First. Her first book, IMPACT: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In, written with her co-founder Christen Brandt, will be published November 17, 2020 (Hachette PublicAffairs).