Former ICRW board member Winnie Byanyima writes about how her mother, a school teacher in Uganda, used what little she had to create opportunities for her children. Today, Byanyima directs the gender team in the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
When I tell my son about my childhood in Uganda – my three mile walk to school every day, doing my homework by the light of a kerosene lamp, heading into the woods to gather sticks for my mother to light a fire to cook for us – it’s not because I want him to know about hardship. It’s because I want him to know how lucky I was.
I was lucky because my mother, a primary school teacher, knew the value of education. I was lucky because she and my father had the resources to send me and my five siblings to school. I was lucky because my family had a water tank to collect rain, which meant that only during the dry season did we have to take time from our schoolwork to get water from the river. I was lucky because we had a dining room table where we could sit comfortably and do our homework. This was a real luxury; one of my girlfriends whose family wasn’t as fortunate, liked to sleep over at our house the night before tests so that she could sit at an actual table and study.
Even when young, I knew I was lucky. There were many children in our village, often girls, whose families couldn’t afford to send them to school. Many had to fetch water from the river every day. Some were married before they were fully grown.
Much has changed in the four decades since I finished primary school, both in my country and in other developing countries. More and more children are attending school. But it’s unacceptable that there are still 64 million children of primary school age out of school worldwide, and another 71 million children of lower secondary school age out of school. A majority are girls, and almost 80 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Today, the first International Day of the Girl Child, I would like to draw attention to how many opportunities were granted to me because my mother was educated and valued education. I know the difference that an empowered woman can make to a child.
My mother used what little she had to create possibilities for her children. She made sure we went to school and had a place to do homework. She structured our environment around the importance of education and made choices at the household level accordingly. She grew bananas in our garden and traded them for firewood to ease the burden on us of having to gather firewood.
As we approach the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the world is not close to achieving universal primary education (goal 2) and gender equality (goal 3). We must continue to work toward them and focus on initiatives that recognize the mutual dependency of the two goals.
At the current rate of progress, the world will not achieve MDGs two and three. Yet we must continue to work toward these goals and keep them in mind as we form a post-2015 development agenda. We will make the fastest progress and get the best value for our investments with an integrated approach that tackles universal primary education and gender equality at the same time.
For example, we can continue efforts to abolish the school fees that prevent many children from attending school, while also focusing on delivering the modern energy services that will relieve the burdens at the household level that too often fall on girls and prevent them from being able to get the education they deserve. We can continue efforts to ensure women’s voices in the decision-making that affects their own and their children’s lives.
By empowering a woman, we empower a child. By educating a girl child, we make it possible for her to grow up to become an empowered woman.
Winnie Byanyima is a former member of the ICRW board. This piece first appeared internally at the UNDP for International Day of the Girl.