There is a famous African proverb that says, “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation”, and every Youth Day, June 16, South Africans come together to acknowledge the importance of education for young South Africans and especially for the girl child. Education provides opportunities where young women are able to break cycles of poverty, become empowered and groomed as next future leaders in their communities and professions.
Young women make up 23 percent of the South African population, and as such their voices and perspectives are essential in playing a role within their communities. Women are often more collaborative and empathetic when interacting with people which lends them to be very effective problem solvers and leaders.
Here, Becky Sykes, Head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy Foundation (OWLAF), provides insight into how young women can be empowered to become future leaders.
What are the challenges of educating girls specifically?
Many young South Africans lack access to quality education and are not being trained in skill areas that are highly required in the job market. Even after spending 12 or 15 years studying some young women and men are not employable. There are still girls in South Africa who cannot attend school for several days each month due to the lack of sanitary products. Also, especially in poorer communities with challenges around social pressures and the lack of supply for contraceptives, girls are becoming pregnant and having to drop out of school. Young women need strong role models but even more so, they need active mentors who have faith in them and encourage them through the challenges they will inevitably face in life.
How can youth provide a positive impact on the communities and the economy?
Youth bring their hope, enthusiasm and energy to their communities and can envision change in ways that we older people often have lost the passion to do. Young women from a traditionally male-dominated society are generally more comfortable to be nurturing and more open to helping people through their problems by providing positive change.
What change does OWLAG hope to bring to every student?
Since inception, OWLAG has been committed to developing young women to be contributing citizens, by exposing them to the necessary skills they need to become effective leaders. Because our girls come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, many arrive having experienced multiple traumas. This year we have launched an educational approach that recognizes the particular needs of young people who are trauma survivors. This approach involves positive, nurturing, developmentally sensitive interactions and a belief in Carol Dweck’s “Growth Mindset,” or the view that our ability to learn is not fixed but always changing and growing with the exposure to new knowledge.
What can be done to change the state of education, especially in rural communities?
The first thing that needs to be done is to get leaders in these communities to believe that their children’s education and to invest resources in well-trained teachers and adequate facilities with proper sanitation. Whether children are in rural, urban or suburban communities, they need the same respect and support. Adults need to assure that they can learn in safe, clean, well-outfitted classrooms, that the teachers are present both physically and emotionally, and that the parents give children time to do their primary job as learners.
Studies have shown that 80 percent of jobs created in the next decade will require some combination of STEM skills, yet women remain a minority in these fields, illustrating the critical need to educate girls in these areas early. Young girls who are exposed to education that incorporates STEM skills will be empowered to become our future leaders.