President Catherine Bell at Girl’s CHARGE side event, United Nations General Assembly

President Catherine Bell on the Brookings Institute Girls’ CHARGE panel discussion at the United Nations General Assembly: Programmatic models that are most successful in cultivating leadership in girls’ education.

  1. Graduate Women International’s intentions
  2. Lessons learnt
  3. How we’ve tweaked our model over time

Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to share this panel. I would first like to say a few words about the nearly centenary organisation to which I belong, Graduate Women International, founded in 1919 as the International Federation of University Women. Our organisation was founded by local leaders, women of intellect and visionaries, who believed in the rights of women to achieve equality and education up to the highest levels. In fact, one of our founders was Dean of Barnard College from 1911 to 1946. From these foundations local leadership has thrived throughout our federation.

We are a member-led organisation, with member federations and associations in 60 countries and representatives in all regions of the world, uniting around 25,000 individual members. GWI with its national members fosters leadership throughout the organisation and in communities through projects. Our model is based on a member driven approach which is developed at the grassroots and connects the local, national, regional and international levels of advocacy and change.

We are active in international advocacy, support leading academic work through fellowships and grants, and run projects to further girls’ and women’s lifelong education.

GWI takes leadership to mean the capacity to involve especially girls and women in leading, influencing and acting to drive change, within families, peer groups, communities and the wider society towards gender equality in education and beyond. Through our programmes over 96 years we have learnt that harnessing the commitment of our volunteers, requires robust frameworks, monitoring, evaluation and recognition of the value of such tireless commitment given by our individual members. While good intentions create short-term gains, it is the robust frameworks, monitoring and evaluation that are needed to sustain these intentions and create impactful and long-lasting change. We have taken the lessons learnt from our grassroots projects, like the Aurora Project in South Africa, and created projects that can be replicated and scaled across countries, to maximise the use of resources. We know that the voices of our members and their communities, and most importantly the girls themselves, must be at the forefront of the projects we develop in order to achieve results and ensure sustainability.

GWI’s project “Girls’ Choices”, one of our commitments as part of Girls CHARGE, provides teenage girls with workshops and mentoring to support them to complete secondary school and transition to university, further education or professional work. The project provides our members with a framework to run workshops on relevant topics such as gender, leadership, self-confidence and career choices, to enable the girls to find their own solutions to these challenges so that they can stay in school. Fostering leadership is a key part of the project, and the girls learn to understand the concept of leadership and harness their own leadership skills. The project is currently being run by our members in Kenya and Ghana, who, as leaders for girls’ education themselves, are facilitating the workshops and acting as mentors. These workshops connect girls and women across the generations, to learn from each other, and as local leaders, who are part of a wider community they can influence the systemic change that is needed to achieve gender equality in education. The project began this year and our members are seeing the confidence of the girls in the project grow, and their horizons expand.

Leaders are important for girls and women to make transitions. They are people to look up to, to emulate, who inspire. In rural communities teachers are often the leaders so a dearth of women teachers, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, is a cause for low support for girls’ education.

This has led to the development of our Teachers for Rural Futures project in Uganda, which supports young women from rural areas to become qualified secondary school teachers and return to their communities as teachers and ambassadors for girls’ education. This project is run in partnership with our Uganda national association, together with the local district education authorities and Makerere University. A key part of the project is gender sensitivity training and support to raise the status of women teachers in the rural schools and communities. We know that training for the student teachers to be leaders for girls’ education in their communities will be important to the project’s success and our membership network in Uganda is a critical means of support and mentoring to achieve this.

GWI is a global platform for leadership in girls’ and women’s education. Every day we receive enquiries from around the world from women who want give back to their communities and improve access and gender equality in girls’ and women’s education. GWI’s membership gives them an avenue to achieve this through mentoring, workshops, seminars, advocacy, or simply by adding their voice to our global movement. We know that girls who attend Girls’ Choices go home to their families and friends and talk about their experiences, which is important as the news travels vertically across generations, and horizontally across peer groups. Girl by girl, we begin to change the mores and norms. We know that our members are our advocates and leaders every day in their professional, public, personal and philanthropic lives. From three women’s vision in 1919 Graduate Women has grown to be a vision shared by thousands of women worldwide, and one in which, together, we will achieve.

As Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Author: Amy Paunila

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