Why I Empower Girls by Anita Erskine

Today’s woman is yesterday’s girl, her future held ransom by a uniquely designed and recurring process of social norms, traditional practices and cultural conformities. Over the years, this method’s result is the residual ghost and destructive social compact that establishes that a girl’s dream is not her own.  Her life and ambitions as a young woman may not unravel as she may have hoped; it was never hers to decide on, after all. The spasms of fear of the constant socio-economic regression of the female gender have grown deeper with new generations, in a way that has given the world a hard bang on the knee of its conscious as the shocking statistics of girls who cannot access education continues to rise. The entry into the millennium ushered in a blank check to anyone who wanted to boldly discuss socially crippling attitudes, as such, allowing the creation of a collective of advocates for Girls’ and Women’s Empowerment to emerge.

Curled up inconspicuously in the crevice between the wall in the hallway and my parents’ bedroom door, I had to muffle my excited shrills, whilst eavesdropping on their heated argument about the pros and cons of allowing me to pursue my further education away from Ghana. My mother was winning and aggressively supportive of trusting that years of her strict domestic laws, teachings of her firm African values, and the protectiveness of the Christian faith she has encouraged, should warrant their combined fearlessness of freeing me, the last of eight children to explore the world. I would humbly and honestly say therefore, that I was given a blank canvas to draw my own future. My aspirations guided me and my innate desire to conquer fueled me. Education was my ammunition.

But little did I know that despite my deep aspirations, be it on home ground or on another continent, the world was unraveling itself to me in various forms - social and professional – and was unlikely to accommodate an aggressively ambitious, bold, outspoken, confident, focused and terribly determined African woman. The realization that even educational qualifications couldn’t propel me, was shocking at best, but ultimately, weakening. As I redefined my voice as a female African broadcaster, I activated a new found passion for gender equality. My resolve was to use every available platform to highlight the barriers standing in the way of women’s advancement, and to advocate for gender parity in education. This advocacy, in and of itself, gave way to what became the starting point and activation of my journey - understanding the challenges facing girls and young women and uncovering the deeper truths and reasons behind the high percentage of uneducated girls was my charge.

In 2015, I joined forces with Discovery Learning Alliance (DLA) to use the power and reach of television to showcase the positive influence on society when girls are provided their basic human right of educated. As co-host of the Discovery + 233 program, we revealed a plethora of barriers to girls education, often fueled by severely entrenched values. Many communities held tightly to nostalgic beliefs and saw little benefit in educating girls at all. Many schools were out of reach with poor infrastructure and hardly any learning materials, contributing to parents discouragement in girls’ education. Above all else, the impenetrable and immovable cloud of poverty that hovers over so many communities would compel a girl's parents to force her into early marriage, often at ages as young as 12. She becomes isolated from her family and is imprisoned as just a child, being violated by her forever captor and spouse.  The entire experience of coming to understand this too common reality was humbling and heartbreaking. In Ghana, 21% of girls are married before they are 18, but in the northern part of the country rates can be as high as 39%.

The reality that a woman’s mind and character are built from a very young age inspired me to design and create the Girls’ Elevation Club to teach girls as young as 8 years old the importance of being confident. I adopted the use of the creative arts - film, music, poetry, arts and crafts, books and painting to help girls learn the powers of self-love, collaborating with others, watching, listening and contributing to building elements that make life beautiful in their own way. As part of DLA’s work in Ghana (supported by UK DfID’s Girls’ Education Challenge), more than 330 similar girls’ clubs have launched and given thousands of girls the same kinds of skill and confidence building opportunities.

Inspired by the girls in these clubs, I went to the grassroots level and championed girls to access education, launching the Women's Elevation Fund (WEF) and facilitated the realization of dreams, aspirations, and the ambitions of young African women. Furnishing them with the tools needed to be competitive, WEF gives scholarships and bursaries to outstanding female students, and career guidance for young women from underserved communities across Africa. Last September, WEF’s first scholarship recipient started her 4-year degree in Media Communications. At just 17 years old, she was a native of Northern Ghana and the first in her family to go to university. This September, WEF’s second scholar will begin her studies in Journalism and comes from the northern Ivory Coast.

As my purpose and commitment to women’s empowerment grew deeper, so did I become bolder, mounting stages around the world to educate and champion gender equality. In July 2017, I spoke at UNESCO’S Soft Power Today: Fostering Women's Empowerment and Leadership conference in Paris, and joined a panel discussion on the power of women and girls’ education in meeting the challenges of sustainable development. It was an opportunity to share stories about our journeys and individual efforts, with the aim of developing a realistic plan for implementing the best practices that push the gender parity agenda forward. Importantly, and resulting from the discussions, we identified the need to magnify the reinforcing dynamics between patriarchal dominance, female inferiority, and the economic impact in societies due to the exclusion of empowered women. If a failing economy excluded women’s participation, is not their exclusion a catalyst of its failure? And alternatively, would not their inclusion be key to its recovery? An estimated 17 trillion USD would be realized if the employment participation gap and the wage gap between women and men were closed, resulting in an increase of up to 76 percent for women’s’ income globally. Improving on the lives of women and girls ensures equitable global development and is the only way we can achieve prosperity and peace on this planet.

Ultimately, as advocates for girls and women, there are many sides to our work. As much as highlighting the issues and inspiring change is our aim, we must use the same platforms where we celebrate our successes to describe and understand our setbacks. We must celebrate the heroines, who, in the face of extreme adversity, stand out and stand tall as examples of the power of the feminine. For example, I started a multimedia project called Sheroes of Our Time, to encourage dialogue around the resilience that propels women forward and intrinsically grow our movement for collective empowerment. It is imperative that we show girls and young ladies what success looks like, and why their personal commitment to their own empowerment is non-negotiable! They must believe in themselves and hold steady in their own agency.

Today, on this International Day of the Girl, global leaders and persons of influence, International organizations, higher learning institutions, and leading consumer brands are amplifying their voices and coming together in chorus for gender equality. They are speaking out and up for equitable learning opportunities for girls, accessible ambitions in STEM fields for women everywhere, and for all of us to recognize that gender equality and empowerment is a major contributor to a thriving economy. In Ghana today, nearly 1 in 5 primary school-age and adolescent girls are not going to school, with 2 out of 3 girls never finishing secondary school. Around the world, more than 60 million girls are not in school at all, denied their right to education. But what about tomorrow, and the day after that? How will we use our collective voices and ACTIONS to change this unacceptable reality that millions of girls face?

It is not easy to empower all African women, but it is not impossible either. Through the platforms and partnerships I have mentioned, I am building a world where girls will be neither denied nor exploited; a new world where all girls will go to school and discover their own voice and best self through quality education. In this journey, I invite you to join me and be my sisters and brothers in this work.