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As I returned to Johannesburg from the World Economic Forum in February, I was met by a familiar sight—row upon row of shacks where people live in poverty, in complete contrast with the world class facilities available to my country’s wealthier citizens. In these shacks live many girls and young women who, like I once did, yearn for a way of escaping their circumstances and offering their future children a better life than they were afforded.
At Africa Teen Geeks, the organisation I founded in 2014, we also yearn for a way for these girls to escape poverty. The question we ask ourselves each day is how do we empower them—and indeed all young Africans—to do this? We believe the solution starts with education.
Not only does educating and empowering girls have a multiplier effect on a country’s economic growth and development, but doing so has also been shown to have a direct impact on reducing poverty.
But it’s not only about educating African girls; it’s about what we teach them. My love for the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—is well known, but it’s also not enough. What’s needed is for girls to be exposed to innovation, taught how to innovate, and given the mentorship and skills they’ll need to overcome their circumstances. Only then will we be able to break the cycle of poverty and create an equitable, prosperous future for all.
One of the main reasons why educating girls is vital is because in Africa they are often the primary caretakers and providers for their families. Better education leads to better paying jobs, which in turn gives rise to higher household incomes and improved living standards, not just for them but their entire family. Educated girls are also more likely to acquire the knowledge they need to make good decisions. They are more likely to have smaller, healthier families and to invest in their children’s education, creating a cycle of virtuous growth and development.
Also on the Forum Network: Gender Equality for a Sustainable Tomorrow: How closing the STEM gap can support climate action, by Kadie Ward, Commissioner, Pay Equity Commission, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development
Women appear to be more action-oriented and solution-driven when it comes to climate change. But for climate action to be impactful, inclusive and meaningful, we must address the systemic barriers that prevent women from entering careers in STEM.
However, while there are many reasons why African girls should be educated, there are also significant barriers to them achieving this goal. These include a lack of opportunity due to poverty, pervasive social norms and logistical barriers to attending school. As a result, many girls are forced to drop out of school early or never attend school at all. This not only limits their own opportunities and potential, but also has far-reaching consequences for their families and communities.
There is no better example of innovation in action than the use of mobile technology to increase access to education for African girls.
How do we overcome these barriers? One way would be through encouraging innovation in education. This can take many forms, whether it’s using technology to deliver education to remote areas; providing more flexible and tailored learning opportunities; or developing new pedagogical approaches, ones that are more inclusive and responsive to the needs of girls and other marginalised groups.
There is no better example of innovation in action than the use of mobile technology to increase access to education for African girls. Mobile learning programmes can deliver educational content and resources directly to girls’ mobile phones, allowing them to continue to learn even when they can’t attend school in person. Mobile tech could also be used to connect girls with mentors, peers and other support networks, boosting their confidence and helping them build their resilience.
Another form innovation in education can take is in providing flexible, tailored learning opportunities for girls. This could mean flexible scheduling, such as evening or weekend classes, which can help accommodate girls’ responsibilities at home. Or, it could mean online or blended learning programmes, which can help to overcome barriers such as distance and lack of transportation.
In our quest for innovation in education, it’s also vital to develop alternative education models that are more responsive to the needs of girls and other marginalised groups. This would encompass more culturally sensitive teaching methods, gender-responsive curricula, and teacher training programmes that focus on paying more attention to gender and inclusion.
What is also needed are programmes that focus on developing girls' leadership skills, critical thinking abilities and problem-solving skills, so we can empower them to take charge of their own lives and to innovate themselves out of poverty.
While education is the foundation of empowering Africa’s girls, it’s not where their journey towards prosperity ends. We need to provide opportunities for them to practise and apply their knowledge, through access to capital, mentorship programmes and networks to support each girl on her entrepreneurship journey. We need to do this not only for their own sake but also for the sake of their families, their communities and their countries.
Investing in African girls is an investment not just in them but in the future of the entire African continent—and, indeed, the world.
The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. To learn more, check out also our website which monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries, and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
Africa’s sustainable economic and social transformation is a global priority. The OECD support the implementation of the African Union’s strategic vision at continental, regional, national and local levels by co-producing cutting-edge data and analysis with our African member states and partners, and facilitating an open dialogue on policies to accelerate that transformation. Learn more!