By Priyanka Pruthi
NEW YORK, United States, 22 October 2013 – A portable, hand-cranked radio receives texts and transmits lectures or tests from teachers to students in South Sudan, where Internet access is a rarity and schools can be distant and difficult to reach. In Rwanda, sanitary pads made of banana fiber, produced locally by women for women, tackle the lack of affordable, eco-friendly menstrual products and help keep girls from missing school. And in Uganda, a system that uses text messages to connect students and schools with UNICEF allows them to report on the quality of education, teacher attendance and violence in their schools.
These are some of the innovations showcased and discussed at UNICEF House in New York on the International Day of Girl Child. The big idea is how innovations are paving new roads in the educational landscape, and how fresh, creative perspectives can push girls’ education forward.
“Innovation isn’t simply using new technologies. It is also finding new ways of doing things,” said UNICEF Executive Director of Anthony Lake at the event marking the day. “I think the ultimate innovation is to get into people’s minds so that they think differently. Innovation is the key in getting to girls who live in the most disadvantaged and hardest to reach areas.”
No time to wait
More girls are attending schools than ever before, but too many are still denied an education. In 2011, nearly 31 million girls of primary school age and 34 million girls of lower secondary school age were not enrolled in school.
Actress and Global Ambassador for Plan International Freida Pinto was a guest speaker at the event. “I fight for education because I had it all. I had a great education; I had great family support,” she said. “We all have the right to education, and we’ve all had it, so now it’s time to fight for girls who are not in school.”
Even a single year of secondary school for a girl has been shown to correlate with a notable increase in her future earnings. Overall, girls who pursue education face a lower risk of sexual violence, have higher self-confidence, marry later in life and have fewer children.
“Girls can’t wait – it is their moment, and our obligation is to ensure that they have a fair chance and a fair share to claim an education that they value,” said Nicholas K. Alipui, Director of UNICEF Programmes.
Time to take over
In the twenty-first century, where knowledge and learning are keys to success, girls who don’t have the necessary skills will miss out on opportunities.
Reshma Soujani, founder of Girls Who Code, talked about closing the gender gap that persists in the technology sector. “In the US, we have 1.4 million jobs that are open in the computing-related field, but less than one third of our workforce and less than 20 per cent of women in our workforce are prepared for those jobs,” she said. “When I started Girls Who Code, people told me you can’t teach girls how to code – they’re not smart enough, they don’t have the aptitude, they don’t have the passion. We showed them wrong.”
UNICEF and Intel have also partnered on a series of programmes with a related aim – to use technology to connect girls globally and help them develop ideas and inventions to build the world in a way that girls and women see it.
“That is a very new thing, and that is true innovation,” said Wendy Hawkins, Executive Director of Intel Foundation. “We’ve had decades of innovation for the world as men see it. It’s time for the girls to take over.”
As a symbolic gesture, Plan International put up a mural that showed an image of girls working in a factory. When erased, the picture turned into an image of girls studying in a classroom. It stood for the hopes and desires of millions of girls who wish to erase the barriers holding them back – being kept from going to school, being married too young, being told they can’t do what boys do.
“It’s going to be all of us working together to wipe out those obstacles, to enable girls to have the education they deserve,” said Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International. “Small acts can grow into big ones. One voice can grow into millions of voices. Erase a little bit of that fresco and we all begin that symbolic journey to transform their futures – those girls’ futures – and make their dreams come true.”