July 20, 2011

Forging a New Path

Girls and women around the world are becoming educated and building skills.

In Liberia, a country ravaged by war for almost two decades until 2003, more than 40 percent of women remain illiterate. A mother of three named Josephine was one of them.

“I was going to school before the war, but after everything settled down, I started farming just to feed my children,” says Josephine. “I never knew that, even at my age, I could still go to school to improve my children’s living conditions.”

In the developing world, nearly one out of every five girls does not complete her primary education. And yet, educating girls has been shown to boost economic productivity, reduce poverty, and increase per capita income. EDC programs such as the HP Learning Initiative for Entrepreneurs (HP LIFE) and Core Education Skills for Liberian Youth (CESLY) work to broaden girls’ horizons through education and skills building.

CESLY offers an alternative basic education to Liberians who were unable to attend school because of the war. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program offers literacy, numeracy, life skills, and work readiness training to Liberians, ages 10 to 35.

In 2006, Josephine watched as another mother, gender equality advocate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, became Liberia’s new president and Africa’s first elected female head of state. Johnson Sirleaf’s election paved the way for programs such as CESLY, which also aims to narrow the gender gap in enrollment and performance.

“Since President Johnson Sirleaf was elected, she’s created a national gender action plan and girls’ education policies,” says EDC’s Simon James, head of CESLY. “She has given women like Josephine a primary education and a chance to obtain a secondary education.”

In 2009, Josephine completed the three levels of CESLY’s accelerated learning program and passed the sixth-grade equivalency exam. “I will not stop going to school until I graduate from high school and college,” she says. “I want to help the youth, especially the young girls, in this town follow my example.” She is now involved in a local women’s organization and works to encourage female participation in school.

“The reading and math skills Josephine learned will allow her to build on a career of selling produce in rural markets, where there are more opportunities now, than ever before, for women,” says James.

Education is also paving the way to opportunity for women in Asia. There, EDC’s HP LIFE program partners with local nongovernmental organizations to help women entrepreneurs develop their computer skills. In India, the Association of Women Entrepreneurs of Karnataka (AWAKE) provides business counseling, entrepreneurship development training, needs-based skill training, computer literacy, and other services to women.

After attending HP LIFE classes at AWAKE, Chaya Umesh Chandra successfully expanded her candle-making business through a computer training curriculum. In four months, she learned how to e-mail customers; create an online digital photo album; and scan, edit, and print her candle designs. She gained the marketing, financial management, and computer skills to increase her profit margin by 20 percent, to $1,200 a month. She now exports her products to the Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria.

“Chaya saw so much growth in her business that she had to hire two new full-time staff and six part-time staff during the busiest seasons of the year,” says EDC’s Angela Chen, who represents EDC as a member of the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), which works to improve the quality and availability of girls’ education worldwide.

Just as Josephine works to spread the word about the benefits of education, Chandra also finds time to reach out and mentor other women. They hope their dedication will be an inspiration to other women and girls. “EDC continues to raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education,” says James. “These women can serve as role models to lead a younger generation of adolescent girls to pursue basic education before they begin raising children and taking on economic responsibility.”