Amy Maglio and Safora Deme in Senegal
Nine years ago, when I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Senegal, I witnessed a significant problem firsthand: Too many girls were not attending school.
I lived in a family compound in a rural village without running water or electricity for three years. My Senegalese host sister, Khady, was not in school because she was needed at home to help with farm chores and take care of younger siblings. But she was incredibly bright. Before I left Senegal, I helped Khady go to school for the first time. When I went back five years later, she sat me down, pulled out a book and simply began reading. She was so proud!
This was my inspiration for starting the Chicago-based Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and girls get the education and training they need to build a better life.
If Khady had not attended school, she would be like so many girls I knew in Senegal. In Africa, there are 24 million girls out of school — and 80 percent drop out before finishing middle school. Yet study after study shows that girls who receive an education are better paid, less likely to die in childbirth, less likely to be child brides and will have healthier, better-educated children. Educating girls really does have a ripple effect, creating a positive cycle of health and well-being that’s eventually felt in the community and, later, the entire country. I believe this is the core of international development.
There are many reasons why girls are not in school: lack of resources for school fees and supplies, bias in favor of boys, early marriage, female genital mutilation and underappreciation of education. These are the obstacles I deal with every day at WGEP. Our programs in Senegal and Kenya address all of these factors by providing scholarships, mentoring, tutoring, health education and after-school clubs. We also teach parents, community leaders and teachers about the importance of girls’ education.
I was in Senegal again in May, and I met up with one of our initial scholars, Safora Deme. Safora is the youngest of 12 children in her family and was the very first in her family to attend school. Her parents are rural farmers who didn’t have the money to send her to school, and initially didn’t understand its value. We invited them to attend parent workshops with other families, where they learned how to support Safora in school, what the challenges would be and how the program could help. We eventually got their permission for her to be part of our program. During my visit, she told me, “I want to stay in school and go to college. I want to help my family and someday become a doctor.”
All 650 of our scholars express similar desires. These girls understand the difference an education can make in their lives, so they walk miles every day from their villages to attend school. Some live with friends or relatives in nearby towns just to attend.
Our achievements speak for themselves. We have a 90 percent retention rate of our scholars over the past five years, and one-third of these girls are in the top 10 percent of their classes. Our program was recently recognized by the United Nations as a best practice in Girls Education at the UN Girls Education Initiative Summit.
I’m proud to say that WGEP will continue to support these girls as they gain educations, realize their aspirations and begin their paths to better lives. I’m also proud to represent Chicago in this work, as I believe Chicago must have a bigger voice in international issues. We’re one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but we haven’t done a good job of initiating conversations and ideas in development and geopolitics. We have the ideas, the people and the drive. It’s time for us to lead — and to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.
WGEP will hold its annual Ndajee benefit at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 7 at North Pond (2160 N. Cannon). To purchase a ticket ($150) or to learn more about WGEP — and about how you can help girls like Safora and Khady — visit Womensglobal.org.