This week, First Lady Michelle Obama is documenting her travels in support of Let Girls Learn here on HelloGiggles. Today, she describes her experiences in Liberia — what young women there are doing to become leaders in their community and get an education. Read day one here.
I started my day in Liberia, a country that has overcome extraordinary challenges – including a civil war and the recent Ebola outbreak – but remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The average Liberian family lives on less than two dollars a day, and about 90 percent of the country has no access to electricity. During the Ebola epidemic, entire communities were devastated, infrastructure crumbled, and most schools closed for six months, which left girls particularly vulnerable. Teen pregnancy rates increased, and when schools did re-open, attendance rates dropped, in part because in Liberia, pregnant girls are strongly discouraged from attending school.
But even before the Ebola outbreak, girls here faced serious challenges to getting an education. Most families are unable to afford the $20 yearly tuition, which doesn’t even include costs like transportation, textbooks and uniforms. Girls are often pressured to marry early and devote themselves solely to caring for a family. And sometimes it’s not even safe for girls to go to school in the first place. Some girls have dangerous commutes to and from school, and girls sometimes even face sexual harassment and assault at school.
But despite such overwhelming odds, girls all across Liberia are working hard and succeeding in getting their education. I met some of these girls today when I visited a local Peace Corps girls’ empowerment camp called a “GLOW” (“Girls Leading Our World”) Camp. The Peace Corps had to evacuate Liberia during the Ebola crisis, but they’ve returned, and they’re running this GLOW camp for girls from all across Liberia. Each girl is selected based on her leadership potential and need, and they learn lessons on self-confidence, health, and other life skills they need to become leaders in their communities.
We started our visit with a workshop on leadership during which we discussed what makes a good leader. The girls came up with the following characteristics: respectful, honest, trustworthy, brave, strong, visionary, caring, patient, kind, empathetic, well-educated, motivational, thinks of others, good planner, problem-solver. They then discussed how they can embody these qualities in their own lives.
Next, we did two hands-on activities. First, the girls showed me their WASH (Water and Sanitation, Hygeine) Station, and we talked about the importance of proper handwashing to prevent the spread of illness, an issue of particular concern here in Liberia because of the recent Ebola outbreak. We then practiced our hand-washing technique, singing a song with the following lyrics: (sung to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”): “backs, fronts, palms and wrists, palms and wrists…palms and fingers and fingernails, too…”
The girls then showed me how they make re-useable menstrual pads (or “RUMPs” as they call them) — which are much more affordable and available than disposable products — and we talked about menstrual health and hygiene and how girls shouldn’t be embarrassed about, or ashamed of, their periods. These pads play a critical role in ensuring that girls can attend school. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, girls in many parts of the world simply can’t afford things like pads (and sadly, this is an issue for some women and girls in the U.S. as well), so they have to stay home from school when they have their periods, and they fall behind and can wind up dropping out. But if they can make and use their own pads — problem solved!
My next stop of the day was the R.S. Caulfield Public School, which educates over 1,000 students – including more than 300 girls – in grades pre-K through twelve. I was joined by Liberia’s President, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Freida Pinto, an actress and education advocate who, along with Meryl Streep and CNN correspondent Isha Sesay, is making a CNN film about girls’ education. And I was just just blown away by these girls’ stories.
One of these girls lived in a remote forest for the first 11 years of her life, and her parents couldn’t afford to send her to school. But when her aunt and uncle visited and realized how smart she was, they adopted her, enrolled her in school, and soon, she was at the head of her class and even skipped two grades.
Another girl wakes up early every day to cook for her family, care for her younger siblings, and work in a local market – and she does all of that before she even gets to school in the morning. In the evenings and on weekends, she seeks out a local Peace Corps volunteer to get tutoring in science and math because she is determined to fulfill her dream of being a nurse.
The girls told me about the challenges girls in Liberia face — overcrowded schools, teen pregnancy, having to work jobs to pay their school fees, overcoming the loss of family and friends in the Ebola crisis. But they also spoke about how they had learned to value themselves and how their parents and teachers supported them and pushed them to succeed in school. Many of them noted that President Sirleaf was their role model and they were inspired by her example. And one young woman who’s just 17 years old told me about an organization she founded in her community to teach literacy and leadership skills. She declared: “If we are educated, the nation will be educated.”
So really, these girls will do whatever it takes to get their education – and they will absolutely use that education not just to improve their own life prospects, but to lift up their families, communities, and country as well. That’s why it’s so important that we stand by Liberia as it continues to invest in its girls, and as part of Let Girls Learn, we were proud to announce that the U.S. Government will be making major new investments to educate and empower girls all across Liberia.
The Peace Corps will be hosting more GLOW camps and other girls’ education projects – from building libraries to starting girls’ sports clubs. And you can go to 62MillionGirls.com to learn how you can support these efforts.
In addition, USAID – America’s international development agency – will be working to prevent gender-based violence in schools and to provide second-chance schools for girls who were forced to drop out because of pregnancy or rape, as well as other education and training programs for out-of-school adolescent girls.
The idea behind these efforts is very simple: We want to give every girl the very best chance to learn, grow, and fulfill her boundless promise, because we know that they will seize that promise – to benefit themselves and others – and because we believe that they deserve nothing less.
If you follow this blog over the course of this week, you’ll get a window into these girls’ lives – you’ll learn about their challenges, their successes, their hopes and dreams – and you’ll find out what you can do to help them get the education they need and deserve. So I hope you’ll join me. I’ll be posting daily here on HelloGiggles as well as on Twitter (@FLOTUS), Instagram (@MichelleObama), and Snapchat (MichelleObama). And you can go to 62MillionGirls.com to start learning more about global girls’ education today.