By Uzma Sulaiman

Access to education is a dream for many girls around the world. This issue was recently highlighted by the horrific shooting of 14-year old Pakistani peace activist and advocate for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai. With 9 November being declared “Malala Day”, it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves that 32 million girls, more than Australia’s population, are still denied a primary education. Lifeline Energy is working to change this harrowing statistic through radio education.

Education Inequality – the Ugly Facts

IMG_2941Education is the most powerful way to lift people out of poverty, however, gender inequality in developing countries remains extreme. Girls are less likely to access school or even remain in school, while parents may reason that it costs more to educate girls because of the loss of her labour within the household. Statistics show that uneducated women are less likely to stand up for their rights, have an influence in household or public life and are more vulnerable to early marriage, sexual violence and HIV infection.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, 65 low- and middle-income countries lose approximately $92 billion per year by failing to educate girls to the same standards as boys. A 12% reduction in world poverty could be achieved if all students in low-income countries obtain basic reading skills in school.

Despite increased demand for girls’ education, expanding access is a complex undertaking.  That’s where technology has a powerful and cost effective role to play.

Radio School is a Viable Option

Of the 32 million out-of-school girls, 50% are in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank. Shockingly, in 47 out of 54 African countries girls have less than a 50% chance of completing primary education. The figures become even more distressing for secondary school attendance where enrolment is only 36%.

Since 2000 Lifeline Energy has been working with the Zambian Ministry of Education to provide education access to tens of thousands of girls through the Learning at Taonga Market radio distance education programme. In Zambia illiteracy is 15% higher amongst girls than boys aged 15-24 despite girls having a higher attendance rate than boys at primary level. The World Bank found that there were “gender disparities in favour of males at nearly all levels of education in Zambia”.

Our solar and wind-up Prime radios and Lifeplayer MP3s provide access to this high-quality primary education directly where children live. Taonga Market programme is entirely free, unlike government schools where children have to pay a starting fee and buy uniforms. Government-trained mentors who live in the communities guide the students and the radio programming is written and recorded specifically by education and early childhood development specialists.

All of this means that the Taonga Market learners actually perform better than their government–school counterparts in school and are more likely to attend secondary school.

A Taonga Market Learner

When I was in Zambia earlier in the year, I met 12-year-old Harriet. Her father couldn’t afford to send both her brother and government school. It seemed Harriet would be another out-of-school statistic, until her father discovered Taonga market.

Harriet told me that she loved Taonga Market. “I have only been going to school for one year and I can already speak English, which is really nice,” Harriet proudly exclaimed. As for her future aspirations Harriet dreams of going to university and becoming a nurse so she can help her sick mother.

The Future of Girls’ Education

The UK’s Department for International Development alone is providing $518 million to enroll girls in primary and secondary education. These funds will go a long way to reduce drop-out rates, and make sure girls come away with core skills. However, in my opinion, we need to expand innovative, inclusive and accessible programmes like Taonga Market, not just create more bricks and mortar schools.

Access to education is a powerful tool that will improve the social and financial welfare for girls like Harriet. If the recent calls for Malala to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize are heard, it will help put girls education back on top of the agenda for alleviating world poverty. A place it deserves to be.