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“I felt there was a new world opening for me”: In conversation with Aissa Traore and the Brookings Institution’s Rebecca Winthrop

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132 million girls around the world are out of school. Early marriage, teen pregnancy, and forced labour prevent girls from being able to access a quality education, and a chance at a better future.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 49 million girls are out of school; even when they do enter primary school, only a very small fraction of girls graduate from secondary school.

That’s what makes Aissa Traore’s achievements so extraordinary. Born in Bamako, Mali, a country that ranks 176th out of 187 countries in the UN’s Gender Equality Index, Aissa not only finished secondary school, she also went on to earn a Master’s degree, and to found Femme Pluriel Mali, a non-profit that empowers Malian girls using sports as a gateway to help them learn about their bodies and build their confidence. She’s also an assistant coordinator at the UNHCR. She credits supportive parents and her participation in Right To Play programs for her success.

The COVID-19 crisis has made accessing education even more difficult. Education experts and non-profit organizations are very concerned that many children – girls in particular – may never be able to return to school.

We spoke to Aissa and Rebecca Winthrop, senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution and Right To Play board member, about the barriers girls face in accessing a quality education and how to dismantle them, the effects of the COVID crisis, and the transformative effect of education on a girl’s life and future.

Rebecca, why did you think global education policy was the most effective way to make a difference in the world?

When I was a university student, I interned with the UNHCR in Latin America. We were trying to move some of the protections the UN was providing to refugees there into government.

One day, we were talking to a group of refugee women who were in really difficult living conditions -- living with very abusive husbands, and sometimes fathers or brothers. We were looking at how to create legal protections against domestic violence. I was very young and naive and thought this would be the best way to address the issue.

But what the women told us was, That's great sweetheart, but it's going to take a couple of years before the legislation has passed. It's going to take a couple more years before the police are actually trained on the laws. We’re hurting now. So, thanks for your nice intentions, but what we really need is to learn to read. Since I don't know how to read, I can't go to the clinic by and get medicine and talk to the doctor and figure out what I need. I can't earn money by myself. If I just knew how to read, I could go into the community. I could go into the market, make some money and be more independent and leave this situation.

That was my real a-ha moment. I'd never really thought about what it would be like not to be able to read, how small that means your world is. You can be the wisest person in the world, but you still can’t have an independent life. And that’s what led me to go into global education.

Aissa, your story has been quite different than that of many girls in Mali. Can you share how being able to access education affected your life?

Mali is a patriarchal society. Women are told how they have to be in the society. I was lucky to be able to go to school at a very young age. And I was also introduced to the Right To Play program. The coaches in the program taught us how to get self-confident, how to talk, how to take positions and also stand for our rights.

The program also taught me about sexual health. The coaches saw me as a person who can support my community. They see me as someone who can bring something new to the family.

This was interesting for my mom, because when I come home, I talked to my sister and told her, this is your body, this is the change. My mum was very happy to see that someone is bringing this information. Perhaps she didn't have permission because she hadn’t been exposed to the information where she grew up. She didn't have this chance to reach her dreams. So that’s how they also supported me.

I felt like there was a new world opening for me. I learned that I have a choice, that I don't have to be how this society taught me to be. I can choose, I can be who I want to be. And that was a really big eye-opener for me. And helped me to be the woman I am today. I'm working. I have a family where we make equal decisions.

I believe we need to sensitize parents to why giving girls an education is important. We need to show success stories, stories of women who are doing something in life, who succeeded.

"I felt like there was a new world opening for me. I learned that I have a choice, that I don't have to be how this society taught me to be." - Aissa

What’s the best way to empower girls?

Delaying child marriage is one of the best bang for your bucks for girls’ empowerment. And the best way to delay child marriage is to keep girls in school. There’s direct evidence that every year of schooling, especially at the secondary school level, means girls have a much later age of marriage and smaller number of kids.

Child marriage is a coping strategy for economically distressed families. It's not necessarily that the mom and the dad are bad people, it's that this is an option for economic security. I talked a little while ago to Right To Play’s country director in Tanzania, who is seeing big spikes in a range of female genital mutilation, and child marriage. And that makes use worry about the number of girls who will be able to return to school after the crisis is over.

Rebecca, what’s the current state of access to education globally?

So, take Nigeria as an example. Girls and boys who are in the top 20% socioeconomically and who live in cities have on average 10 years of school. Most go through primary school, and they make it onto some form of secondary school. If you take a girl and a boy living in a rural area of Nigeria who are in the bottom 20% socioeconomically, boys and girls have on average four years of schooling. Now, if you’re a girl who's part of an ethnic linguistic minority, you have on average three months of school for your whole life.

This pattern of inequality is replicated in country after country. And the pace of change is slow. To try to close the education gap and make sure that the richest 20% of boys and girls and the poorest 20% of boys and girls have the same opportunity educationally -- if we do everything the same as we are now, it's going to take 100 years to close that gap.

What do we have to do to accelerate the work of closing the education gap?

What we want and need is for all kids to have a breadth of skills. They need academic skills, they need to be literate and have numeracy skills, and they need 21st Century skills. And that's as true for kids in Mali for my kids here in D.C.

We’ve looked at how we can get all kids 21st-Century skills given the wide inequality. We researched 3,000 education innovations around the world. And we came up with a recipe for how to do it. And one of the ingredients is around transforming the teaching and learning process – something Right To Play has been doing for a long time.

Aissa, when you look at the COVID-19 crisis, what worries you about how it’s impacted children and girls in Mali?

What worries me most is that a lot of people don’t know a lot about this crisis. They don’t worry about washing their hands.

If they don’t have access to education, girls and children don’t have access to important health messaging that can save their lives. They can’t bring that information home to their families. Public health messages are missing. Education plays a big role in health and in safety, and when children don’t have access, it is a big problem.

Programs like Right To Play are important because they teach children health lessons and how to stay safe. About hygiene, but also about the dangers of child marriage.

Now it’s good that they are integrating them into radio programs, so that children and parents can hear.

If they don’t have access to education, girls and children don’t have access to important health messaging that can save their lives. - Aissa

Rebecca, what worries you?

Every single time in a crisis, we see that gender-based violence increases, child marriage rates increase, and girls are pulled out of school first before boys.

Many families don’t have access to internet, and many don't have a TV at home. So we know we’re going to have learning loss, and it's going to hit the most vulnerable kids the hardest, and that's in every country in the world, Mali included.

Parents who can afford a tutor or who have some sort of internet connection can continue to have their kids learning. But for those who don't, or who aren’t literate, or don't have books in the home, it's going to be very hard. We’re very worried about that in the global education community.

The approach for a long time has been to bring the girls to the school. But frankly, a lot of girls are just not going to come to the school. They're too far away. They don't have enough money to buy books. School isn't free, you know. People have to buy books, they have to pay exam fees. Small fees can be a huge barrier.

Rebecca, can you talk about online learning as an example of a leapfrog innovation that can help access to education over the long-term?

Interactive radio instruction initiatives are very interesting because they’re a great example of leapfrogging to close the equity gap. Everyone has radios, they're putting education out on radio. They’re bringing the education to the girls and offering really good, well-designed interactive radio instruction program. It's not a replacement for school, but it can get you pretty far. My silver lining is that there'll be more innovative leapfrog approaches that education systems are taking now that will stick around and increase access to education over the long-term.