TIRANA/WASHINGTON - Romina Kola’s family moved from a village in Albania, where the closest school was two hours away, to the northern city of Shkodra so she could get an education.
“Many of my friends can’t attend school because of distance and poverty, she says. “Schools are too far away from the village where we live.”
Sixty-two million girls around the world are not in school. Susan Markham, a Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says distance and, in some cases, risk of violence are only some of the barriers to a girl’s education.
“Whether it’s child marriage or economic pressure because of school fees, we want to address those,” she says.
The Obama administration has now embarked on a high-profile initiative, called "Let Girls Learn," to empower girls through education, saying the inability of girls to attend school worldwide should be a foreign policy priority.
First lady Michelle Obama is championing these efforts through new public and private sector commitments, cooperation with other governments and community-led solutions. Poverty, lack of resources, and cultural norms prevent girls from many areas of the world from going to school.
"Let Girls Learn" is building upon a public-engagement campaign that USAID launched last year. Obama went to Japan and Cambodia in March to promote the initiative. The director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, traveled with her.
“The First lady is incredibly passionate about this topic," Hessler-Radelet said. “She looks at her own life and her husband’s life, President Obama’s life and they see how important education was in them achieving their life goals. And they want to make sure that every girl has the same chance that they had.”
The map of the countries where the initiative will be implemented, mirrors that of the more than 60 countries where the Peace Corps operates, including in Europe, Africa and Asia. In the first year, the Peace Corps is targeting 11 countries: Albania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Georgia, Ghana, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Togo, and Uganda.
“Our volunteers are at the community level, have a unique window into the lives of those girls and their families, and are in a great position to be able to help those girls dig deep into themselves and determine their own unique potential,” Hessler-Radelet said.
She added the volunteers can work with families to help them understand the importance of investing in a girl’s education and they can work with community leaders to help them look at barriers that girls face in achieving a quality education and then work towards improving that.
Some of these volunteers gathered recently in Tirana, Albania’s capital, for an event. Usually, they work mostly in remote areas, where they organize and lead such initiatives as “GLOW” (Girls Leading Our World) Camps, to promote gender equality and empower young women.
“If you provide the opportunity they will come,” said volunteer Mary Quandt. “And I just think that it is wonderful and it is about starting a dialogue and increasing expectations of these girls; let them know that they can achieve this and they can grow in their sense of self and their capabilities of leadership and experience and as soon as you plant that seed in them, they are going to nurture it and it’s going to grow.”
When another volunteer, Emily Fesette, talks about the difficulties she encounters, she echoes concerns about barriers facing girls worldwide.
“They have responsibilities at home,” she said. “They also have to tell their parents where they are at all times. If they leave school, they have to go right back home. If they live in the villages they have at least a 20-minute walk from the town to the village and that means that my group has to meet at a very convenient time.”
But Fesette says the girls who showed up for the camp she organized, displayed the passion and desire to learn everything and do more.
USAID’s Susan Markham points out that educating girls benefits the entire society.
“Women who stay in school, young girls who stay in school till womanhood, are likely to be healthier," she said. “They are more likely to get married later, bear children later and they are more likely to keep their own kids in school for longer. So it has a great ripple effect across the whole community.”
These ripple effects are important, especially because there is a recognition that this kind of change will take a long time, maybe a generation, says Hessler-Radelet.
“The true beneficiaries of this program may in fact be the children of the young women and men that we are reaching right now,” she said. “It is a long-term commitment because it takes a long time to change norms and behaviors.”
Romina Kola of Albania is a perfect example. Her situation shows that when family, community and powerful global forces rally together in investing in girls’ education, it makes the difference between a future of hope or of hopelessness.