There are countless women’s issues you could draw attention to this International Women’s Day. You could point to the wage gap or pervasiveness of child marriage or lack of health care access. At the core of all of these inadequacies, though, is education (or, to be more precise, a widespread lack of educational tools provided to young girls). In fact, 130 million women and girls from around the world currently lack access to education. That number is overwhelming, which is why advocacy organization ONE has launched its #GirlsCount campaign with the goal of getting 130 million people to demand equal access for women and girls.
On Wednesday, three young women from northeast Nigeria will join ONE members in staging a walk-in at the United Nations to formally demand world leaders take action to get girls in school. Despite experiencing the horrors perpetrated by Boko Haram and cultural pressures to stay in traditional roles, these three incredible young women continue to pursue their academic dreams and advocate for policies that allow other women to do the same. They are living proof of how rapidly the world can change once girls are given a chance. Here are their stories.
In April of 2014, the Nigerian militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, kidnapped 276 female students from a boarding school in Chibok. On the night of the kidnapping, Sa’a managed to escape by jumping off a truck and hiding in the woods overnight. To this day, 195 of those abducted schoolgirls remain in captivity. Sa’s is currently studying to be a doctor.
“The Boko Haram tried to stop me from getting an education because they believe that we’re not supposed to go to school … Today, I’m here because I was able to escape.
“Whenever I become something in the future, I’ll be able to be an example to others, to the parents, to some girls who maybe wanted an education but couldn’t, and to the Muslim families in that area who believe women are not supposed to get education except high school. I mean, I can be an example to them and an inspiration to them.
“If you stay in that area without getting an education, being poor, you will stay being poor. Because if you don’t get the education, how would you get the money to provide for your family? How would you help your people? I feel like being here getting an education will be an example to others back there that might change their perspective based on what they think about women’s education.”
If the mother is educated, the child will also be educated.
After being forced to marry as a young girl, Suzie escaped in order to pursue her dream of going to school. Now that she’s accomplished that dream, she’s set her sights on becoming a lawyer. She’s the first in her family to go to college.
“I’m here to support Women’s Day because I believe that education is the best thing you can give to a woman… Growing up, when you realize you’re not educated, what else do you expect? You think, my parents are not educated, therefore I’ll be like them. You need someone to motivate you. If you don’t have that person, how can you motivate yourself to become what you want to be?
“The problem starts with the family. If you’re in the village, you live where there’s no light, no electricity. You have to even go without shoes. And you realize your parents only know how to farm, so when you say I need this for school, they don’t really do it for you. If you try to go to school, they’ll say no let’s go to the farm. There’s no one to motivate you and encourage you. Even if you have the passion for it, you end up giving up. I think it has to start with families, so therefore families begin with women. If the mother is educated, the child will also be educated.
“Today, I can actually write, I can speak. I mean, it’s just amazing.”
Educating a single woman is educating a whole generation.
Before Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, they attacked Zai’s town, killing her father and shooting her in the head. Thankfully, she survived and she currently goes to college in the United States where she’s earned a 3.8 GPA. She, too, is studying to become a doctor.
“I know quite a few girls in my area who always wanted to go to school, but there are a lot of things that are stopping them. For some, it’s because their parents are poor. They couldn’t afford to send their daughters to school, so they prefer the guys to go to school because the guys will always be there with their dads, but the girls will get married and have to stick with their husbands. Some parents believe in educating guys and not girls. So the highest education girls can get in my area is only high school, and when you’re done you either get married or stay at home. So there are a lot of girls who wanted to go to school but (don’t) because of either the money or the belief that girls are not supposed to go to school.
“I feel like growing up here in a place like America, you will never understand what is happening in other places. So for us growing up in Northern Nigeria having all this experience, we know what a lot of girls are going through and how many girls are not getting an education. But someone growing up here because men and women go to school without any problems. So people here will never understand what’s happening back there until you go there and see it with your eyes or hearing it from someone who has the same experience. So I feel like the only way you’ll know what’s happening in other places is by visiting the other places or hearing from other people. Think about it and decide ok, what can we do to improve girls’ education? What can we do to change the lives of those people suffering?
“Statistics have shown that 130 million women and girls are not educated, which is very bad because educating a girl is like educating a generation. Because she’s going to get married; she’s going to give birth. Educating a single woman is educating a whole generation.”
For their protection, all three women used pseudonyms.
To learn how you can support women like Sa’a, Suzie, and Zai, check out ONE’s #GirlsCount campaign and add your voice to the growing numbers of voices.