Building Schools for Girls

Circle of Women helps girl’s education come full circle

The topic of educating girls in developing countries has recently gained much-deserved attention. Governments are finally starting to realize the economic payoffs of educating the half of their workforce that was previously pushed aside. Not only will educated women be able to provide income for their family, but education also helps lower fertility rates, reduce the infection rates of HIV/AIDS, and create a virtuous cycle of women sending their kids to school. Thirty years ago, girls represented only 38 percent of children enrolled in primary school in low-income countries. Today, that number has grown to 48 percent. Even though educating girls has moved center stage, there are still great strides to be made. For example, in Pakistan, the literacy rate of girls is only 35 percent and female enrollment drops nearly 90 percent from grade one to grade 12. Circle of Women, an organization founded by three Harvard undergraduates in 2006, has a mission to bring education to girls in places where gender inequity is high and opportunities for girls is scarce.  Its ideology is that “the best way to affect positive change is by addressing the gender gap in education.”

Though only founded five years ago, Circle of Women has already funded the building of a school—Project Wonkhai—in Afghanistan in 2009 and the renovation of a school—Project Keiri Reki—in Pakistan. Circle works closely with local elders, government officials, other NGOs to make sure the schools are located in areas where there is a need for secondary education for girls. They also work to make sure the school will sustain itself a few years after starting. For Project Wonkhai in Afghanistan, sustainability has come from Circle’s relationship with B-Peace and its small business collaborator, Afghans 4 Tomorrow.

There are currently 60 women involved in the Harvard chapter of Circle, and 10 other chapters exist. While the organization is currently working on an Ivy League expansion initiative, it already has existing chapters in middle and high schools. Its mission in these chapters is to raise awareness of the importance of ensuring all girls around the globe have equal access to education and the tools they need to succeed.

On a trip to Bangladesh with her parents last year, Farha A. Faisal ’12 noted that in a village she visited outside Dhaka, there were many girls walking around, but no school for girls in sight. “Because of the lack of infrastructure they don’t have access to education,” Faisal explains. “The low socio-economic standards coupled with government corruption prevent education from being attained by little girls.” Faisal also points out that in the conservative culture Bangladesh, events that are insignificant to us like little girls walking to school by themselves are considered taboo. As a result, it is hard to find quick solutions to girl’s education. In Bangladesh, 74 percent of females attend primary school; however, only 29 percent of girls attend secondary school (which is less than half the rate for boys). Additionally, out of Bangladesh’s 9190 schools, only 1336 are for girls: In such a traditional Islamic society, gender segregation in education is standard. When Faisal got back, she decided to take up her idea with Circle of Women. They have eagerly taken on the project, just bought land to build the school, and once they come up with a sustainability mechanism (members of the Princeton chapter of Circle have proposed a rainwater catchment and treatment program as a possibility), the building of the school will begin.

Key in the success of the schools is community involvement. To achieve this, Elizabeth C. Cowan ’12, co-executive director of the Harvard chapter, says “In our projects in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, we have collaborated closely with men such as the village elders or respected community leaders, and engaged them in the process of building, staffing, and overseeing the school. This, she says, helps “establish a sense of ownership over and comfort with both the concept and reality of educating young women in their community.”

Circle hopes to expand to take on five to six schools in the coming years, and has a goal of branching out to upwards of 50 middle, high school, and university chapters. “This was so impressive because it was an NGO started by students, run by students,” Project Team Manager Gresa Matoshi ’13 proclaims.  “It is really incredible to see the amount of work that gets done by students.”  This young organization has already done so much. Girls involved in Circle see a need, have a vision, and work hard to provide a change—a change that will hopefully one day lead to girls everywhere accessing the same educational opportunities that we are lucky enough to possess here.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier house. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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