WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)—I was 2 years old and innocent and never really understood why my four older siblings would leave me every morning even though I cried to go with them. My parents thought it was a childish prank on my part. But with time it finally dawned on them that I was also ready to get an education.
No one understood why I would be interested in going to school as a toddler, but at that age I felt I was already an adult living in a crazy world. I was born in Liberia in 1990, a country “brought to its knees” after more than 14 years of civil crisis.
I took my first steps in a jungle and I am certain that my first few words were military jargon. The level of destruction and desperation I saw and lived through was enough to make me grow up.
My family was poor and our future looked bleak. It was sometimes difficult to hope. But somehow I always knew with education there would be hope. With education I could dream again and envision the world I wanted to live in. No wonder I wanted to get on with it as early as possible.
Education has done so much for me. It has made it possible for me to break the shackles of fear, pain and trauma and it has given me a new energy to give back to a “crying society.”
I am the first member of my family to attain a master’s degree from the United Nations mandated University for Peace, and there is no turning back. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but through it all, I have come to realize that despite the many challenges girls face in Liberia and around the world, when they are educated they can transform their own lives, their families as well as their communities.
Education has given me the passion to give back to my community, which I now do through my advocacy and an organization I founded, Right to Read Liberia, providing access to quality education to children.
The secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, writes on LinkedIn: “Educating girls and giving them the tools to shape their own future has an incredible multiplier effect on economic growth. It leads to increased prosperity not just for individuals but for their communities and their societies.”
Advocates for girls’ education are telling the truth when they link education to social and economic development.
Too many girls do not yet have the educational opportunities that I enjoyed.
Melka’s story demonstrates this. She grew up in a town in Ethiopia where being a girl is considered bad luck or an omen. In a documentary shared by Girl Rising, Melka explains how she was married at an early age to a man old enough to be her grandfather. When she refused to sleep with him, Melka was beaten and ended up in a hospital for almost 30 days. She managed to escape and even though she missed out on a chance for education, she now teaches young girls in her community about their rights.
There are millions of girls who have been in the same shoes as Melka, but not many are lucky to escape their husbands. A UNICEF report in 2013 says more than 140 million girls will marry between 2011 and 2020.
Many girls are still denied of education simply because they are girls. About 62 million girls are still out of school, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. These are startling numbers.
Malala Yousoufza, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was nearly killed because she was advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan. This kind of violence against girls has to stop.
‘Real Radical’ Change
Our advocacy should start in our daily interactions with friends and families, in our communities and countries. It is only when we continue to make our voices louder that we start to attract “real radical” change.
As the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of the period of social transition is not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Education has paved the way for me to meet with leaders and policymakers from around the world. In 2014, as a Mandela Washington Fellow, I got the rare opportunity to interact with President Barack Obama and make a presentation to first lady Michelle Obama on the challenges and opportunities for girls’ education in Africa.
I love to think her recent initiative, Let Girls Learn, which she launched in London to improve girls’ access to education around the world, may have come from our interaction.
Her initiative will pay special attention and portions of the funds will be devoted “to countries affected by conflict and crisis,” with the Democratic Republic of Congo set to receive $180 million over five years, benefiting “more than 755,000 girls aged 10 to 18,” according to reports.
One girl who will benefit is Senna, whose story is similar to mine. She grew up in la Rinconada in Peru. Senna tells her story in the 2014 “Girl Rising” documentary. Even when it was impossible to dream, she was confident education was the only way she could move ahead in life.
While in secondary school she became a leader, a poet champion and an advocate. Now she is attending a university. She plans to study business administration and some day run a company that will create better paying jobs for people in Peru.
BIO: Laura Golakeh is the founder and executive director of Right to Read Liberia. She was a Mandela Washington Fellow 2014 and was part of the 2014/2015 Gender and Peacebuilding class at the United Nations mandated University for Peace.