One morning, when I was only a few years old, I disappeared from home. My parents looked at me high and low. Eventually, I was found sitting in a classroom at a nearby preschool, ready to learn. The same thing happened the next day. My father asked the teacher what could be done because I was too young to enroll in school, but I had a temper tantrum if I was taken out of class. The teacher replied that it was illegal for my father to pay to educate a minor child, but agreed that I could stay for free. So every morning I went to school, and I finally got enrolled, a year earlier than I should have been.
I was obviously thirsty to learn, and I’m very lucky my parents stood up for my education, especially as a girl, and worked hard to make sure they had money for the fees. of schooling, even in some lean years. My mom pointed out that there was no future for me if I didn’t study and gain the expertise and skills to be able to earn my own income. For her, and for me, the financial independence of women, whether married or not, is essential.
My father was just as pushy. His dad had done his best to get him and his siblings to school, and he wanted the same for us. Like my mother, he saw how the lack of education limited the prospects of children, especially girls. He wanted to empower my two sisters and I to become strong women who knew their rights and could assert them to achieve a better position in society. Like me, he graduated from MUBS.
My parents’ passion for education extended not only to their five children, but to three of our cousins, whose school fees they contribute, and whose education and prospects are as close to their hearts as they are. ours. As for my siblings: my sister Clare is studying at university to become a veterinarian while Joan graduated from high school in 2019 and got government sponsorship for the university. Paul Christian graduated in the last two years of high school and Trevor is in his sixth year of elementary school.
Girls’ education is not a high-tech or new idea, and has been a mainstay of global development policies for decades. In fact, you will probably have heard from many leaders, women and men, the importance of girls being in classrooms on an equal basis with boys. Uganda has mainly achieved parity between girls and boys in primary education. It’s an achievement, of course, but thousands of girls and boys are still out of school, and many girls, like my mother in her generation and other members of my extended family now, drop out of school before. to have completed high school. This means that relatively few Ugandan girls will go to university. When I was a student at MUBS, I saw a lot of young women in my classes. Even though there were a lot of women in college, there are a lot more who aren’t.
Of course, I also care about the education of boys and with two brothers I have to. But across sub-Saharan Africa, at least 33 million girls who could attend primary and lower secondary school are not (equivalent to elementary and middle school and the first two years of high school). Over 50 million girls in the region are not receiving upper secondary education (the equivalent of the last two years of high school in the US or sixth in the UK). Globally, more than 130 million girls are out of school and should be. If given the opportunity, how many of these young women could be teachers, lawyers, doctors, NGO staff, parliamentarians or climate scientists?
I think of it like this: Girls and women make up more than half of the world’s population. If we are to successfully address the climate crisis, we need women in the rooms where decisions that affect the climate are made (and almost all decisions do now). Girls’ education brings them to these rooms and expands the number and approaches of decision-makers and possible solutions.
At the moment, neither access nor the positive outcomes that would result from it are happening fast enough. This reality is partly the result of the disempowerment of girls. I’m sure there are tens of millions of girls – and there are countless across Africa – who would love to study through high school and even college. But many others doubt their prospects and their own abilities: My mom didn’t even go this far to school, they say to themselves, so what makes me think I can reach this level, or even further? You are a country girl, the voice whispers, you probably won’t get anywhere in life, even with a little education. Why continue?
If you don’t get married, if you don’t have children, and if you are content with a life of motherhood on a farm, in search of food and fuel for your family, what options await you? You could move from your village to Kampala and work as a maid in the house of a richer family.
Perhaps it is the young woman’s life that passes as we hold our signs to a strike. What do they do? she might wonder, with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment. But there is no time to think more; she’s probably in a hurry, looking for the fastest ways to secure household items her employer wants. So she goes into a matatu (public minibus) and return to prepare dinner, wash the floors or clean the family’s clothes. Honestly, I don’t see her paying much attention to us at all.
Could someone like her, not to mention a young woman from a village, become a climate activist? How would she have the time? In practice, she would probably only have a flip phone, not the smartphone that many of us now carry. It would make internet access difficult and expensive so that it would be disconnected from what is going on in the world. At twenty, she would probably look for another job. Her employer, fearing that her husband would now look at the young woman with sexual interest, would fire her. It’s something that happens all the time. It would then be difficult for her to find a new source of income and some stability.
It might not be the worst fate, but is it really all we want for these girls? For me, these are “survival” lives. Would these young women have chosen these futures if other avenues had been open to them, such as completing high school, perhaps earning a university degree, then finding a job and achieving financial independence, or even engaging in life? activism?
It is a depressing reality that the Covid pandemic has exacerbated situations such as the ones I have described, and in the same parts of the planet where the climate crisis is a daily emergency. Covid and the consequences of climate change have intensified pressure on household incomes in Africa, Latin America and Asia. School fees, especially for girls, have become a luxury that must be cut from the family budget, as for Hilda Nakabuye. Millions of girls, along with many boys, may never return to school once they are fully reopened, and the hard-won gains in girls’ education over the past decades may be diluted. We may never know for sure how many children and adolescents have been affected, nor can we add up all the costs of the pandemic to them, to society and to the climate.
From A BIGGER PICTURE: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate. Copyright © 2021 by Vanessa Nakate. Reprinted with permission from Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
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