International Women’s Day – held on 8 March – offers a great chance to reflect on equal pay in the workforce, equal opportunity in the community, and equal access in society.
But for me, above all, it is a time to reflect on the gift of education and the profound heroism of girls fighting for their right to stay in school.
This year, I will celebrate Evelyn Ishiokwu, a sixteen year-old girl in Ajegunle, Nigeria, and a participant in Standard Chartered’s Goal programme.
Ajengunle is place where, in Evelyn’s own words, “young people do not like going to school”. The local drop-out rate is high for a variety of reasons, from teenage pregnancy, to gangs and acts of violence against girls.
Evelyn fought to stay behind with relatives, so she could continue her schooling
Despite these challenges, Evelyn refuses to let anything hinder her education, or, as she describes it, the key to her future.
When a family situation meant a move away, Evelyn fought to stay behind with relatives, so she could continue her schooling. While being away from her family at such a young age is not easy, she has made up her mind to finish school and finish well.
Not content with simply looking out for her own future, Evelyn is determined to deter her peers from pursuing unsustainable and untenable pathways instead of education.
Supported by the Youth Empowerment Foundation and the Goal Programme, Evelyn has become an ambassador for education. She uses her free periods to talk to girls about confidence and self determination. She has difficult conversations with boys about violence against women, and she helps her peers with their academic and social challenges.
Evelyn’s persistence has changed the attitudes and actions of many of the boys she speaks to
Evelyn’s passion and dedication has made a significant impact among her peers. Her teachers comment that she has “been an agent of positive change and derives joy from encouraging fellow students.”
The grades of the some of the students have improved and, despite the challenge of talking to boys about their violent behaviour, Evelyn’s persistence has changed the attitudes and actions of many of the boys she speaks to.
Educate a girl, educate the world
Her school describes Evelyn as “a girl we are all proud of”. And I’m proud of her too. I am proud that she’s staying in school despite being separated from her family. I am proud that she’s trying to motivate others to pursue their education, and I am proud that she is willing to raise uncomfortable subjects with boys who are acting inappropriately.
Evelyn epitomises the ‘girl effect’ – that if you educate a girl, you educate the world – and makes me hopeful that when she reaches her thirties – the age I am now – her generation won’t need an International Women’s Day, because every day will be a celebration of equality, and no girl will have to fight for her right to study.
A version of this article first appeared in Huffington Post on 4 March 2015