To Stop Child Marriage We Need To Stop Failing Girls At School

10/10/2016 16:47 | Updated 11 October 2016

Today, International Day of the Girl Child gives us an opportunity to reflect on the perils faced by young girls living in poverty around the world.

Marginalised girls in sub-Saharan Africa are among the most vulnerable. Millions are desperate for a better life, and in grave danger of being exploited. They are the first to be failed by the system - at risk of early marriage and teen pregnancy, which can have huge ramifications for their physical and mental wellbeing.

People talk about child marriage causing these girls to abandon their education. But it's often a failing education system that's the real root of the problem. Imagine the irony of finding that transactional sex is your only means of securing funding for your education, then ending up pregnant, HIV positive or a child bride who is pushed out of school. All of these outcomes perpetuate the cycle of poverty. A quality, responsive education system is the key to breaking this cycle. That's what we need to focus on delivering.

The Girls' Education Forum hosted by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) earlier this year was a good example of the sort of galvanising activity we need. Among a number of commitments from academic institutions, NGOs and governments, DFID pledged a further £100 million to advancing education opportunities for marginalised girls.

These are strides in the right direction. But there are two big things we must get right if we are to find telling solutions for girls' education.

The first is that we need to ensure that investment supports a girl holistically, and that communities are deeply involved in making these investment decisions.

Investment needs to help tackle all of the challenges she faces as a young person trying to get an education. For example, funding a new school library is great - but we also need to think about whether she has shoes to walk to school every day. Whether she has the support of her family, her community and her government to make her believe she is entitled to an education. We have to look at the whole picture.

The second is that we must draw on the shared experience of those who have lived and tackled the extreme vulnerability of marginalised girls, to ensure we're really addressing her needs holistically. They are the experts. They know what it takes to change the context for girls for good.

I know the importance of this more than anyone. My life today stands in sharp contrast to my life as a girl in rural Zimbabwe, getting up at 4am, selling vegetables on the market with my grandmother, trying to make enough money to pay for food and my school going costs. I was fortunate to escape. With the support of my family, my community, and Camfed - an organisation committed to providing holistic, community-based support - I did well at school, went on to university, and became a lawyer. My story - of a girl struggling to maintain her grip on education - is the story of millions of girls around the world. So many of my friends in my rural village lost that grip, and my life is so drastically different from theirs today because of one thing: a quality education.

Together with the first 400 young women who graduated with Camfed's support, I helped to create the Camfed alumnae network - or CAMA. We are now helping other girls get the same chance that we had. This network of women supports the next generation of disadvantaged girls in rural Africa get the education they are entitled to, providing mentorship, developing and leading education programmes, and working with communities and schools to create quality learning environments. Most importantly, they listen to the needs and challenges faced by these girls.

Today there are 55,358 of us across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.

If we are to transform broken education systems in some of the poorest regions around the world, it's vital we start to find solutions that work. Today, on International Day of the Girl Child, I want to call for everyone - whether they are policy makers, non-profit leaders or everyday citizens looking to make a difference in the world - to listen to the real experts in girls' education. To listen to those, like our CAMA members, who know what it is to escape poverty through education.

Learning from these women is crucial if we are to deliver the change we need, and deliver it now. All of our futures are at stake.