Two pairs of smiling eyes are peeping at us timidly. Wrapped in their gabis – large, thick shawls used alternately as coat and blanket – Meron and Tsega patter a few steps behind us, a herd of goats dawdling in their wake. We walk together in silence. As we reach Gedegbe an hour later, a hand slips into mine. Quiet till then, Tsega proudly starts telling us, in English, that she is eleven, has been looking after her parents’ herd with her younger sister Meron since the age of four, attends the primary school in Gondar during the academic year, and knows how to count to ten in French, Dutch and Spanish. Tsega dreams of becoming a vet when she grows up. And she has the privilege of going to school.
Millions of children like her in Africa are not as lucky. On this continent studded with vast plains and craggy massifs, schools are often too far or too expensive, and the family too poor to make a living without the assistance of their children, in particular little girls. A third of girls and a quarter of boys in Central and West Africa do not attend primary school. The longer we delay offering quality education to all children, no matter where they are born, the heavier the consequences will be for future generations: When girls in developing countries have never completed primary education, or have in some instances never attended school, it can drastically hinder their chances of rising out of poverty.
Education is at the very foundation of a country’s development. It is no coincidence that extremist groups target education at large – the Shebabs’ massacre of university students in Garissa, Kenya – and girls’ education in particular – most famously Malala and the Nigerian school girls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok – to destabilize a country.
Girls’ education is not only a matter of equality; it also has direct beneficial effects on the reduction of extreme poverty and people’s freedom of choice. A young woman who has benefitted from extended schooling has more control over her life: she earns a better income, marries often later and chooses more freely when to have children. A family whose mother has attended school remains healthier, profits from more nutritious food and will, in turn, be more likely to prioritize school for their own children, thus mapping out a virtuous road to progress.
Over the course of 2015, the international community will look into the political and financial means of eradicating extreme poverty, and education must remain a priority target. Many governments have integrated the importance of education for the future of their country.
Last month, despite tight budget conditions, Burkina Faso announced that it would deploy an emergency plan of $42 million for education, employment and health policies, prioritizing measures in favor of women and youth.
Investing in education, and social sectors in general, is a political choice that needs financial backing. When the world’s governments meet in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia in July to decide upon the financial means to put behind the Sustainable Development goals, they need to remember this: to strengthen political clout, we will need a solid financial plan.
Investing in education is one of the most efficient ways of offering a life of dignity to everyone and give little girls such as Tsega the chance to, one day, fulfill her dreams for the future.