A U.S. congresswoman from Arizona was shot. The Hollywood Foreign Press was handing out Golden Globes to the entertainment industry. The White House was preparing for a visit from China’s president. The people of Southern Sudan were announcing preliminary results of a vote for independence from their Northern counterpart.
All of these headline events are worthy of attention. One event that did not make a headline is the one that will forever be embedded in my memory. It’s a development worker’s dream come true. After years of advocating for the rights of young women and girls, of fundraising to make education accessible to females in a traditionally patriarchal society, and of dreaming about a world where girls feel free from oppression to express their opinions and beliefs with confidence, I received an important phone call.
The phone call was neither from a President nor from a superstar celebrity. The voice of the caller was that of a teenage girl. She was calling me in Tennessee from the state of Western Bahr El Ghazal in Southern Sudan. She is a sponsored student of Africa Education & Leadership Initiative (Africa ELI), an international NGO working in her country. This is what she said,
“Madam Anita, a boy wants to marry me. I told him that I need to finish my studies before getting married. I told him he needs to get organized for living with me because I am going to be a leader of my country.”
To a Western audience with freedom of speech, a more equal society and easy access to communication technology, this statement may receive nothing more than a glance. However, it is nothing short of a phenomenon for a young girl located in Southern Sudan to communicate this message across the globe. In my opinion, this should be among the top headlines of current events.
This girl lives in a location where it is standard for fathers to accept dowries in exchange for their daughters. Teenage pregnancies are the norm. Statistics about her country report that less than 7% of the female population completes an education beyond elementary school. Against this backdrop, an Africa ELI student has found her voice and summoned the courage to change the course of her future. She knows that education is the key to peace and prosperity. She understands that her leadership will bridge a gap in gender inequalities and pave the way for future young women to make her same commitment to becoming intelligent women leaders in an emerging new nation.
Africa ELI students engage in lively debates through our leadership development programs. Our Africa ELI students conduct community health clinics to disseminate practical ways of improving sanitation and preventing diseases in their villages. They plant trees in areas where land has been devastated by civil war. They appreciate the value of teamwork through organization of games and sports on campus such as volleyball, basketball, netball and soccer. They participate in the promotion of UNICEF’s Girls Education Movement (GEM) clubs. And through cultivation and tending of school gardens, Africa ELI students learn sustainable skills and how to navigate the marketplace.
Africa ELI (renamed from New Sudan Education Initiative, or NESEI) welcomed 18 young female teenagers to the first day of school on May 19, 2008. At the conclusion of 2010, we had more than ten times the number of original scholars supported. To demonstrate our dedication toward bridging gender gaps through education, we began enrolling boys. Expansion has placed us in three of the ten Southern Sudan states.
As we look toward our 4th year of educating daughters and sons in an emerging nation, we are pulling up our socks to build on the foundation established thus far. Our 201 students deserve nothing less. The additional 160 students we plan to gain in 2011 are waiting for us. And the 1000 graduates we anticipate having from all ten states by 2015 will be ready to take over the reins of Africa ELI and the work of bridging gender gaps through education as they become the nation’s young professionals and leaders.
With the World Bank Development Marketplace initiative focusing on testing early stage ideas for social impact and innovation, Africa ELI received a grant to launch our education work in Southern Sudan. World Bank DM leaders captured the vision of what could be accomplished in the East African country if resources were made available to the survivors of civil war. This is the spirit of development – combining both human capital and financial resources, establishing partnerships and taking action to improve standards of living for the world’s residents.
What we collectively do, works. A phone call from a teenager living across time zones and committed to education and leadership reminds us that it does. To those of us working in the trenches, that is worthy of a headline.
Anita Ayers Henderlight
Executive Director, Africa ELI (the new name of NESEI)