Editor’s Note: This post first appeared on April 14, 2021.
Women’s History Month was definitely one for the books, especially with Jack Dorsey’s #StartSmall initiative dispersing $3 million in grants at the end of the month. This newest funding was allocated to four grassroots organizations focused on breaking down educational barriers for women in sub-Saharan Africa.
AGE Africa, Asante Africa Foundation, WISER International, and Women’s Global Education Project are the well-deserving organizations receiving $750,000 each to support their already ingrained and successful efforts. The Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance is responsible for this cohort of collaboration joining forces to eradicate female inequity in the most rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square, decided it was time to even the playing field a bit. Worth about $5 billion himself, Dorsey made history by setting up and dedicating $1 billion to his Start Small initiative focused on COVID-19 efforts, specifically UBI and women and girl’s educational philanthropy.
Now, not only is this history-making in the sense of the scope of funds and where they’re coming from, but it’s all public. There’s an easily accessed spreadsheet tracking where all the funds are going at all times. So far, $374 million has been disbursed, with over $4 billion remaining.
Fighting for women and girls’ right to learn
AGE Africa’s approach to female educational inequity in Malawi recognizes that it’s “not a straight path” and COVID has diverged that path even more. Malawi is of extreme significance, as only 6% of young girls graduate high school and half of girls will be married before 18 years of age. By completely covering educational scholarships and everything access and retention entails for each young girl, AGE Africa was already tackling education from every angle.
Their Creating Healthy Approaches to Success (CHATS) initiative addresses the socio-cultural barriers, such as child marriage, early pregnancy, and social stigma that crises only serve to worsen. These new funds will aid in scaling their scholarship reach and help reduce the COVID-specific speed bumps on these young girl’s road to education.
The Asante Africa Foundation’s work is centered in East Africa and aims to close the disproportionate educational gaps the most marginalized and vulnerable youth experience. The staggering 56% unemployment rate in Africa is one reality that drives this organization’s aim to help create the leaders and changers of tomorrow.
Their impressive “Learn-Do-Teach” approach of inclusive, pay-it-forward education is at the core of their current community progress and future strategy. Addressing specific life skills as interconnected with education and future stability allows Asante to encourage an overall positive life progression for those most in need.
WISER International’s focus is on facilitating a safe, barrier-free environment for young girls to pursue any path they choose. By addressing healthcare and essential resource disparities and promoting equitable psychosocial support, they are creating “a world where girls are healthy, educated, and in control of their own destiny – free from violence, disease, and limitations based on gender.”
Alongside their secondary school, WISER promotes community development in terms of HIV-prevention education and essential resources like clean water. By instilling confidence and empowerment into these young women and communities, they are aiding in a new generation of “indomitable” leaders.
The Women’s Global Education Project tackles educational barriers by applying their 360 degree, holistic model that’s been developed over the past two decades. Their model tackles access and retention, skill-building, and family engagement, along with addressing socio-cultural norms that prohibit education.
Their 99.3% school retention rate is supported by “tangible shifts in community attitudes in favor of girls’ education and gender equality,” states Amy Maglio, Founder and Executive Director of Women’s Global Education Project. These new funds will allow them to further support their local partners in Kenya and Senegal and expand to other areas of sub-Saharan Africa in need.
Why grassroots, community efforts are the only viable route
Women and girl’s education in sub-Saharan Africa is of particular significance in promoting overall equity and community development. More importantly, overcoming these barriers cannot come from the outside in, as is often the case. Global efforts all too often take western ideals and copy and paste them onto communities unjustly.
This not only completely disregards local socio-cultural norms, but oftentimes does more harm than good. It’s not even as simple as taking a multicultural lens towards philanthropy because even then, we’ve only put on the glasses. We’ve not listened, experienced, or lived, and therefore, have no standing from which to dictate what will break down barriers to inequity.
“When you come from a Western country and see issues, there is a tendency to think you know how to fix it and that you can “solve” the issue, but what we have found in doing this work for the past 16 years is that most of the reasons for girls’ nonattendance and drop out in school is due to social and cultural issues such as gender bias, early marriage, and teen pregnancies that can only be addressed from within that community and culture itself,” explains Maglio.
Community stakeholders and smaller organizations are oftentimes passed over by these larger funding efforts. The reasoning for this is multifaceted but really boils down to a much-needed shift in how philanthropy functions. The trust-based philanthropy the Start Small initiative allows for promotes smaller NGO collaboration, scaling of proven holistic, bottom-up models of progress, and putting the resources into the hands of those who need it most.
It seems as if the days of conglomerate charities throwing western-stained money and ideas overseas are thankfully dwindling. This is in no small part due to organizations like AGE Africa, Asante Africa Foundation, WISER International, and Women’s Global Education Project.
The complexity of educational barriers during COVID
Young girls disproportionately feel the effects of “crisis situations” and as COVID hit the rural villages of sub-Saharan Africa, a gendered ripple effect was seen. Maglio highlights that “when schools closed in March 2020, girls in our programs returned home to villages without running water or electricity. When markets closed, many families lost their ability to earn an income, exacerbating issues of food insecurity, and increasing threats of gender-based violence.”
Although FGM is just one educational barrier, it provides a backdrop from which to understand the complex nature of these grassroots efforts. According to the WHO, 3 million girls aged 15 and under are at risk every single year. The socio-cultural importance placed on FGM, and the consequent early marriage, forces young girls into a cycle of poverty, lack of education, and ill-health. Efforts taken and research conducted by the WHO and other NGOs to combat FGM have found that education is directly linked to its reduction.
WISER International’s Secondary School in rural Kenya is a prime example of how COVID affected education in sub-Saharan Africa. WISER Principal Dorcas Oyugi explains, “poverty levels increased with the decrease in socio-economic activities within the community, sinking many families into abject poverty. Starvation threatened most families because of the fact that there were additional mouths to feed. This hurt and devastated most households.”
COVID has brought other issues to the surface that the Start Small funds will undoubtedly aid in combating, such as mental health care, social distancing measures, food insecurity, and access to health services. Alongside the socio-cultural barriers that were exacerbated by COVID, logistical ones surfaced as well. Connectivity and the inability to shift to remote learning forced many women and girls to put aside education and seek other paths of familial support.
It’s clear the path towards educational gender equity in the most rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa is not a simple one. However, these four organizations have set a standard for grassroots philanthropic efforts that not only engage with local partners but put the funds and resources in their hands where they belong.
“Right now is such a critical time to support women and girls as we move into the post-COVID world and we are thrilled that Jack Dorsey, through his #StartSmall initiative, believed in and supported our vision at such a pivotal point in history,” Maglio summarizes perfectly. Global change starts locally, and the Start Small funds dispersed last month are sure to aid in this movement towards equal education for women and girls.