One year ago I was on an all-female expedition to Antarctica aimed at heightening women's influence as decision-makers on issues that shape our planet. It wasn't long before I discovered I was the only African-born woman on the trip. The first thing I thought was: how did I get here and how can I use this experience to benefit others?
I reflected on this over the following three weeks, even as I was awed by the beautiful wildlife, blue icebergs and the sublime awesomeness of the Antarctic Ocean. I realized then and there how my parent's investment in my education had opened up this and many opportunities in my life and I returned home determined to advance the education of girls. But educating girls does not just unlock individual opportunities like mine – it is a vital but overlooked solution to one of the biggest catastrophes Africa and the world has ever faced: climate change.
The urgency of addressing climate change is evident from Antarctica, where 25 square miles of a massive ice sheet has just crumbled into the sea, to southern Africa, where Cyclone Idai, one of the worst recorded tropical cyclones to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. Idai left at least 746 dead, over 2,390 injured and over 2.9 million people impacted in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Meanwhile, extremes of drought are also rising and, by 2020, up to 250 million people in Africa may suffer from decreased access to water, and yields from rain-fed agriculture may drop by 50 percent.
While rarely considered together, progress in girls' education and climate change are integrally connected. A ground-breaking study by the global coalition Project Drawdown identified family planning and educating girls among the top 10 out of 100 most powerful solutions to addressing climate change. Data from the World Bankshows that girls with 12 years of education or more will have four to five fewer children than girls with little or no education.
My colleagues at Conservation International in South Africa have partnered with the Local Department of Education and Department of Health to support sexual and reproductive health education and leadership training. In just under a year, teenage pregnancies at Manyangana High School fell from an average of 16 per year to just one per year, and the percentage of girls graduating high school increased from 32 percent to 99 percent in three years. Local female youth leaders are now driving activities that increase community resilience to climate change. One young woman has started a local Scouts program for 250 children – creating the next generation of field rangers and conservationists.
The United Nations Climate Action Summit that will take place on 23rd September 2019 provides an excellent opportunity for African policy makers to seize this moment and add Girls' Education to the climate change agenda.
Image: Central Asia Institute