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Education for girls remains a topical issue worldwide due to its critical role in helping girls lead healthy and productive lives. But despite evidence demonstrating how central girls’ education is to development, gender disparities in education persist.
However, some Black women like Oprah Winfrey have picked up the mantle to correct this injustice. The first Black woman billionaire has used her financial power to provide excellent, high-quality education and skills that prepare girls for the future.
Through her Oprah’s Angel Network, she has raised more than $80 million, established 60 schools across 13 countries, and created scholarships, among other philanthropic acts.
Indeed, Winfrey’s contributions to girls’ education are commendable, but she’s not alone in this cause. Join AMAKA to recognise several other women like her who have made it their life’s mission to endorse quality education and ensure that girls are not left out of the equation.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Known internationally as Africa’s “Iron Lady,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman to lead an African country when she became president of Liberia in 2005. A year after she took office, she led Liberia to join the Global Partnership for Education. With this move, she enacted a long-term education sector plan that focused on expanding and improving the quality of preschool and primary education.
By executive order, Sirleaf also established a right to free, universal elementary education and enforced equal rights for women, which had been routinely ignored and abused during the chaotic years of the Liberian civil war. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 for her contribution to securing peace in Liberia, promoting social and economic development, and strengthening the position of women.
Also, when the Ebola crisis struck Liberia, and she was faced with the imperative to close schools, she worked hard to reopen the schools in early 2015. Sirleaf has demonstrated her compassion and commitment throughout her career, fighting for women’s rights and advocating for education, justice, and equality.
She believes that “ensuring that every child goes to school, stays in school and learns something of value will require firm commitments and action by governments to invest in education and prioritise the education of its girls.”
Mamokgethi Phakeng is the first Black South African woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics education and the second to be the University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor. Phakeng established Adopt-A-Learner in 2004, a nonprofit organisation that provides mentorship and financial support for rural learners.
She also established the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship to empower Black women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Phakeng funds the organisation with 10% of her monthly salary. Yearly, at least five students receive 100% wrap-around funding from the Mamokgethi Phakeng Scholarship Fund.
In September 2022, Phakeng won the new Africa Education Medal, which recognised her “impact, leadership, and advocacy in the field of African education”. According to her, if she could achieve one thing for South Africa, it would be to create “a sense of urgency in our young people about succeeding in higher education.”
Five-time Grammy winner and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo is the founder of the Batonga Foundation, which focuses on empowering young African women and girls through secondary school and higher education.
Batonga strives to enhance school facilities, boost enrollment, provide scholarships, give in-kind aid and microloans to the families of scholars. The organisation also develop mentorship and tutoring programmes and promote community understanding of the importance of education for girls.
A passionate campaigner for children’s rights, climate change and girls’ education, Kidjo has travelled widely to advocate for UNICEF-supported programmes. She has been a regular feature of International Women’s Day events, and in 2013, she performed in London at the Women of the World Festival.
She is a member of the Global Emergency Coalition for Education Action. The singer dedicated her 2015 Grammy Award to women of Africa. and since March 2009, has been campaigning for “Africa for women’s rights,” launched by The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).
Filmmaker, Zuriel Oduwole, was inspired to become an activist after creating a documentary for a school competition. At age ten, she was featured in Forbes magazine for her early work in the girls’ education environment. In 2013, Oduwole launched her “Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up” campaign to get more African girls into school.
When she was 15, the young filmmaker was named an ambassador for the Sahara Foundation to stand up for girls’ rights across Africa. The Foundation partnered with her Dream Up, Speak Up, Stand Up programme to improve access to education, promote gender equality and create more opportunities for girls.
Oduwole Oduwole has used films and documentaries highlighting the plight of school children in Africa. In addition to her work on education, she focuses on climate change and how it will impact the future of girls’ education. The budding filmmaker is the brains behind the DUSUSU Awards, recognising First Ladies and gender ministers who do more to promote girls’ education.
Michelle Obama believes that a girl with an education can shape her destiny and transform her community. This ideology prompted her to launch Let Girls Learn in 2015, a U.S. initiative that provides girls with quality education and helps them reach their full potential.
The feminist non-governmental organisation works directly with communities, girls’ parents, caregivers, health care service providers, and governments at all levels to create a sustainable ecosystem for girls and young women.
Under the Obama Foundation, Michelle Obama initiated the Global Girls Alliance and started the Reach Higher endeavour, inspiring high school graduates to attend a tertiary institution. She urged international leaders to show commitment by providing education for girls. She also encouraged teenage girls to take education seriously, pointing out that girls in many areas of the world are not afforded this luxury.
“If we truly believe that every girl in every corner of the globe is worthy of an education as our own daughters and granddaughters are, then we need to deepen our commitment to these efforts,” the former First Lady said during her keynote speech held on the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly in 2014.
And true to her word, her passion did not expire after she left the White House. She has remained a steadfast champion for girls’ education worldwide.
Ashley Obasi’s motivation for creating Black Girls Graduate in 2013 came after her father’s death. She was still in college at the time, and according to her, something felt different when she returned to campus. Over time, she found her groove again, and this was when she knew she wanted to help make a difference in the lives of other young Black women like herself in pursuing higher education.
Co-founded with her sister, Ijeamaka Obasi, and her best friend, Tikkara Cooper, Ashley Obasi’s Black Girls Graduate has celebrated women of colour who graduate from colleges and universities. An online resource dedicated to improving educational attainment among Black women, Black Girls Graduate aims to be the first place Black girls and young women look to for inspiring content to motivate them to reach their full potential.
They also provide resources for career advice, scholarship opportunities, job and internship leads, and a space to revel in the accomplishment of being Black and educated.
Through her Lighthouse Foundation and in partnership with Hollywood Bets, South African actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Nomzamo Mbatha donated R1 million (about $65,400) in early 2021 to help children pay their school fees and other education-related expenses.
She also became an ambassador for the Cotton On Foundation, an enterprise that delivers education projects for children in Australia, South Africa, Thailand, and Uganda. Nomzamo Mbatha was announced as the first South African Cotton On Foundation ambassador at the official opening of the Ethekwini Primary School in the KwaMashu community,
Nomzamo Mbatha uses her experiences to drive her advocacy for young people to access quality education regardless of their financial or personal circumstances.
At the age of 15, Peace Ayo, alongside her father, co-founded Youth Advocate for Sustainable Development, an organisation to help girls in the Waru community in Nigeria attend school. She was moved to act after witnessing how poverty, child marriage, and expensive tuition fees forced her peers out of the classroom.
Her organisation helps parents understand the importance of education in the lives of children. Ayo also addresses the obstacles that keep girls in Nigeria out of school by advocating against gender biases. In addition, she champions a campaign to make sanitary towels accessible and provide girls with school scholarships.
In 2018, she took her fight for girls’ education to London, where she joined the Malala Fund at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
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