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Access to Health and Education

The Academy With a Famous Founder That’s Changing South African Girls’ Lives

Studies show that when girls do not have access to education, almost every aspect of a society is negatively impacted. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) — which honored its eighth graduating class earlier this year — aims to give girls in South Africa that critical access. 

We spoke with OWLAG executive director Gugu Ndebele about the academy and the importance of education.

In your experience, what have you found are the biggest obstacles for girls gaining access to education? 

From my experience, girls face a number of obstacles. While access has increased, a number of girls do not go to school because of cultural norms, where some cultures prioritize the education of boys over girls. Beyond that, if young girls do have access to school, some are not able to finish because of high numbers of teenage pregnancy, and HIV and AIDS. 

Another obstacle is that poverty has been shown to affect the education of girls more than boys. Girls are often required to either work or stay at home to look after their siblings while parents look for jobs. Finally, the lack of safety and high levels of gender-based violence prohibit girls from accessing education. 

How does education help to break the poverty cycle?

Education is an equalizer. It increases the potential to earn higher income and boosts economic growth, which in turn increases employment opportunities. It is central in increasing the next generation’s income and beyond. 

Improving human capital is extremely crucial to increase the next generation’s income. Without access to high-quality education, kids born into poverty are likely to  remain there for their whole lives. This is the vicious cycle of poverty that can only be interrupted by quality education. 

What kind of long-term impacts does investing in girls’ education have for a community?

Research shows that when you educate a girl, there is a greater possibility of positively impacting her family and society. Investing in the education of girls brings high returns in terms of breaking the cycle of poverty and aiding economic growth, because girls are more likely to return to their community. In addition, educating girls improves child and maternal health, which can be a burden to the health system and, therefore, contribute to poverty.

Other benefits include:

  • Education for the next generation: Educated girls who become mothers are more likely to send their children to school, passing on and multiplying benefits.
  • Healthier families: When mothers are educated, their children are better nourished and get sick less often. 
  • Fewer maternal deaths: Educated women are less likely to die during childbirth because they tend to have fewer children, better knowledge of health services during pregnancy and birth, and improved nutrition. 

Can you speak to what “Ubuntu” is and how the academy applies it in an educational environment?

Ubuntu for me encapsulates numerous sets of values that have their roots in various African cultures. It is about nurturing relationships with other people. It is about showing empathy and putting effort into building relationships. Most importantly it is about humanity, humaneness, generosity, and respect for others. 

OWLAG (Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls) is founded on the principles of Ubuntu, and so it is in the way we teach, learn, and interact with each other. For us, Ubuntu is our culture — who we are and how we do things. It is our belief that we must not only inculcate it to our learners, but we must act it.

In your years of experience in this space, have you seen significant change in education access for girls? Can you speak to what specific focus areas still need improvement?

Yes, there has been a significant change in access for girls. More and more girls are attending school. Introducing of free and compulsory schooling has helped increase access of schooling for girls. 

However, their access is sometimes affected by socio-economic conditions and increased poverty. This is because when resources in families decline, girls are the first ones to be pulled out of school. 

Areas of improvement in the schooling we’re able to provide include:

  • Making trauma-sensitive curriculum part of the education project
  • Responsive and gender-sensitive curriculum
  • Creating safety in schools and communities
  • Providing access to sexual and reproductive health service for girls
  • Featuring positive role models
  • Encouraging girls to dream big and to believe in themselves
  • Raising family literacy

Staff, [email protected]

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