What The Students From Chibok Can Teach Us, By Margee Ensign

Mary Katambi, one of the Chibok girls who graduated from AUN with AfDB president, Akinwumi Adesina, and AUN founder, Atiku Abubakar.

Two more of the women who were abducted from Chibok in April 2014 have just been rescued. This is wonderful news for them, for their families, and for Nigeria. Now they will need to be supported, need to be lifted up, and education is the most effective way to do this.

I had the great privilege, this week, of addressing the CHOGM Commonwealth Women’s Forum in Kigali, Rwanda. This was part of a meeting of the Commonwealth member states. The theme of the meeting was “Delivering a Common Future: Transforming for Gender Equity.” I was asked to focus on the key drivers of change in society, and on the evidence that these drivers can, and do, deliver real and lasting benefits.

The global research on female education over the past few decades is unequivocal; it is the best way to transform the lives of girls and women and to transform society as well.

When girls are educated through secondary school, we see the most significant improvements in their lives, as well as in society. Infant and child mortality and malnutrition all decline, and family planning improve. But this is just the beginning of the benefits of female education and gender equity.

Countries that promote girls’ education, women’s rights, and better access to economic resources grow faster, diminish inequality, and see less corruption than countries that do not support women’s rights. Increasing girls’ and women’s access to education and health care, and increasing women’s participation in politics and government are so interlinked that research shows these are the key elements in building successful, sustainable societies and democracies.   

So, where are we with girls’ education, this most important intervention?  There is good news and bad news.

There has been tremendous progress in the past few decades in improving primary school enrollment rates for girls in most countries: Globally nine of 10 girls complete their primary education. In low-income countries, however, only about a third of girls complete secondary school. 

We often forget those who aren’t visible: The children, the many children, who are out of school. In Nigeria, far more than half of these are girls.

Worldwide, there are 258 million children of school age who are out of school – which is one-sixth of the school-age population. 130 million of them are girls. Most of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria has the largest number on the continent and in the world.

The data on female enrolment is mixed. The good results for primary school enrolment show that when governments and policymakers support and fund education, more people enrol. The progress is far less encouraging for secondary school, where the most substantial gains for individuals, and for society, actually occur.

But what does mere enrolment tell us? Very little, it turns out. Governments need to collect data on what really matters — actual learning. Simply sitting in a classroom is not enough. Universities around the world can play a major role in the effort to collect such learning data and help governments begin to address quality. That is what we are doing at the American University of Nigeria with large-scale regional projects focused on learning and teacher training.

The data are critically important: They guide us, they give us the dimensions of progress and problems and guide us to go forward with the policy.  But it’s really the stories of individuals that help us understand the transformational power of education.

Unfortunately, we have lost our sense of urgency, in Nigeria and around the world, about the power of education to transform lives and countries. We must listen to the stories of girls.

We are privileged at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) to have as students many of the Chibok girls who escaped or were released from captivity. Their support comes from various sources. Enormous thanks must go to the AUN founder, Atiku Abubakar. This is not a political statement: His sustained generosity toward these women, and during the entire history of AUN, has made all of this possible. His commitment, passion, and investment in education and building social capital are unprecedented in Nigeria. I thank Robert Smith in the United States for his extended support, as well as the Ministry of Education, which has provided generous support for these young women.

So, what kind of lives are possible for the Chibok women who have just been rescued? The Chibok women at AUN are the most inspiring students I have ever worked with. I listen to their stories. One of these students, who just graduated, summed up the transformational power of her AUN education.  As Mary said to me: “Education gives me the wings to fly, the power to fight, and the voice to speak.”

Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria, was a resource person at the just-concluded Commonwealth Women’s Forum in Kigali, Rwanda

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