Four years on from Malala's first speech at the United Nations, calling for universal access to education, we celebrate Malala Day 2017. On this day, we recognise the courage and strength of young women who have fought for their education, and continue to fight on behalf of others.
"We cannot hope to achieve peaceful and prosperous societies without unlocking the potential of millions of girls denied an education. Girls' secondary education is an investment in economic growth, a healthier workforce and the peace and prosperity of our planet." - Malala Yousafzai
Amongst Malala's achievements, there is one that many young women share. This month Malala will graduate from high school, and no doubt she will face the same anxieties as any other young woman starting university or a new life away from home.
In rural Africa, many girls are celebrating being the first high school graduates in their family, even in an entire community. However most of these young graduates lack the resources to take up university places, and often feel that they now represent an additional burden on already strained household incomes. All too soon, the relief and excitement of high school graduation gives way to a period fraught with tension and uncertainty. Young women feel a sense of responsibility to start contributing to the household, because now, unlike when they were at school, they are constantly faced with the daily struggle for survival. This pressure for graduates to start earning is combined with a lack of guidance and meaningful role models. In addition, the youth unemployment crisis is felt acutely in rural sub-Saharan Africa, where there are few job opportunities and schools do not adequately prepare young people to become successfully self-employed.
So a huge number of young people enter the informal economy. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population form the 'working poor', describing those who work but still live in poverty. We have a powerful resource of motivated young people who, due to a lack of opportunity, are wasting their incredible potential in low paid, unfulfilling positions.
How can we improve access to quality employment for young people?
Two weeks ago, I was thrilled to attend a Council for Foreign Relations event in New York, where I shared the panel with Nora Fyles, Head of the UN Girls' Education Initiative Secretariat, and other education activists. We discussed "Reducing Poverty through Girls' Education", with a special focus on the all-important transition from secondary school into employment or higher education. At this extremely vulnerable time for young women, increased investment in girls' education and transition guidance are proving extraordinarily effective methods in tackling unemployment and poverty.
CAMA, the alumnae network of young women supported by Camfed, is responding to these issues in a powerful way. In 2016, Camfed trained the first CAMA Transition Guides, each helping school leavers transition into entrepreneurship, employment and further study. CAMA members use their own education and experience to guide 10-20 graduates through this precarious period, delivering mentorship, knowledge and skills development, sexual and reproductive health training, financial guidance, and supporting the development of income generating schemes.
"Modern economies need educated women" - Malala Yousafzai
A remarkable example of one CAMA member who is multiplying the employment opportunities for young people in her local area is Dorcas, an entrepreneur, CAMA leader, and changemaker from northern Ghana. Dorcas is in her third year of an undergraduate program in Development Planning. In her free time she volunteers as Vice Chair of her university's CAMA chapter, and leads an NGO she founded with a group of likeminded community stakeholders two years ago - Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls' Education (ASIGE).
Dorcas explains that it is because of poverty that many girls in rural Africa are unable to complete their education, and are therefore excluded from participating meaningfully in the workforce and gaining independence. ASIGE therefore focuses on the provision of income generating skills training in basket weaving, tailoring and shea butter production for women in the community. Working in tandem with a financial literacy training initiative, Dorcas hopes that women who were previously dependent on subsistence farming or their husbands' incomes can take steps towards financial independence and entrepreneurship. Educated women like Dorcas have the power to turn the tide of poverty, opening up opportunities for girls across Africa.
The risk of young women being pressured into marriage to make ends meet, or into exploitative labour arrangements far away from home, is greatest in between secondary school and higher education or employment. That is why Camfed's Transition Programme, delivering mentorship and skills training for graduates, is critical for the 2030 Global Goals Agenda. With this support structure in place, young women thrive, becoming business owners and entrepreneurs, financing their further education and the education of younger learners, creating job opportunities, and reinvesting their returns into furthering development and prosperity for entire communities.
This is how young women take control of their futures, and the future of global development.