I have a confession: when it comes to my work with youth I am biased towards girls. It is, of course, because I was once a girl and the attraction towards helping them find the path is strong, because I have walked that path, and what I know I am eager to share that others can learn from.
This sense of duty towards young girls is important to me. But why is it important to Africa? Each year, the gender gap costs $US 95 billion to the African continent, a figure that represents 6% of the region’s GDP. (UNDP) Even though girls perform at par with boys academically, women in Africa remain under-represented in the formal economy, and more so in corporate leadership positions. Many career opportunities are generally been perceived as only suitable for men. Girls are often bombarded by ambient messages that limit their dialogues with themselves about their ambitions. Giving girls the tools to aspire to and succeed as leaders is critical to closing that gap.
That is why at JA Africa we have programs that are designed for girls specifically. Every year, high school-aged girls from across Nigeria begin their leadership journeys through a at the LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment, Achievement and Development) Camp by JA Nigeria. They spend the week listening to and learning from professionals from various fields who volunteer their time to coach and inspire Nigeria’s next generation of leaders. A similar program is hosted by JA Uganda, and in South Africa, a recent project with FHI 360 and Johnson and Johnson helps girls build their interest STEM.
I’m encouraged in my work by the potential of these young girls and if my interactions with them have taught me one thing it is that they all have the potential within them to be successful, game changing dynamos. Our role is to remove the obstacles in their way.
While speaking recently at MONEY WISE 2017, an event promoting entrepreneurship, financial literacy, career development and leadership Skills to young Ghanaians, I made each student come to the front of the room and introduce themselves. They were painfully reluctant. When we started the speed coaching part of the event I went directly to the shyest girl, the one who had twisted and squirmed most in front of the room. Despite my gentle urging as we spoke she would not look directly at me; she looked above me, at my feet, to my sides but not at me. I kept gently coaxing her. After some time she stilled herself, took a breath and looked right at me. Instantly we both sensed a shift. It had taken a great deal of courage for her to do that. Her body language changed, her questions even became more thoughtful and more bold. I leaned forward, touched her hand and said “that is amazing, what you just did. There will be times in your life when you have to find the courage. When you come to those times do what you just did.” Girls are given many messages that steal their self-confidence; a phenomenon I call micro-siphoning. They carry it into womanhood. But micro-siphoning is reversible.
This month we celebrate the International Day of the Girl child. The theme is Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: What Counts for Girls. According to the UN, “the world’s 1.1 billion girls are part of a large and vibrant global generation poised to take on the future. Yet the ambition for gender equality in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights the preponderance of disadvantage and discrimination borne by girls everywhere on a daily basis.” We share a collective responsibility to empower girls to own their futures. We need to give them voices, choices and opportunities.
At JA Africa, our work gives girls the skills and tools they need to be future change-makers. By supporting our work you can become a part of this mission.
CEO, JA Africa