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Students around the world were invited to share suggestions on how to help girls remain in school, in a joint competition with the charity Restless Development, as part of its Power Up Appeal to help girls in Sierra Leone go to school, get education and shape their own futures. Their edited submissions are below.

The category for 16-18 year olds was won by Roaya Ghuneim

I grew up in a small camp, in the Middle East — a male-dominated society where sexism is normalised and girls are considered the weakest of the sexes, always need protection and are exposed to intense social stress that controls their way of dressing up, talking and even walking.

A society that keeps repeating the statement “girls’ place is the kitchen” limits their ambitions and dreams. They are forced to drop out of school at an early age, creating traumatic long-term effects on their futures, increasing the level of illiteracy and decreasing their awareness about different social issues that target women’s empowerment.

In my girls’ primary school I witnessed my friends dropping out day after day because of this social stress. When I moved to a mixed high school we were prevented from interacting with our male classmate.This system created a closed community, putting us girls in a bubble.

We never talked about menstruation, sexual harassment and abuse because it is taboo. I knew even though we did not talk about them, they existed. Thus I decided to travel to the UK after earning a scholarship to attend UWC Atlantic College.

From my perspective, as a person who has experienced western and eastern systems, they had an enormous influence on my personality, making me very passionate about education for girls as a major source of empowerment and to improve the quality of education back home.

Firstly, education should not be limited to books. It should involve organising workshops inside schools to raise awareness about menstruation, sexual abuse, harassment and domestic violence, and how to tackle them.

Secondly, we should create a social service where girls can suggest projects and ideas that could contribute to their societies, strengthen their presence by engaging with their society and enhance their leadership and management skills.

Thirdly, it is important to create a safe space for girls to express themselves through empowering workshops in co-operation with feminist organisations such as the “Women’s Program Association”. Also, we should train teachers to be more open and welcoming to the girls in their classes.

Girls should be brought out of their bubbles by encouraging them to participate in national competitions like sports, providing them with equal opportunities as males, and creating a more inclusive environment. Furthermore, so many activities could take place outside the classroom such as talent shows where they can discover and express their interests.

Education should be more than “Alphabets and Maths”. It should be a tool to enforce girls’ empowerment, awareness, activities and creativity. It must allow girls in my community to leave their comfort safely and strongly with powerful voices and personalities. Only then will their place be in the world not the kitchen.

The category for 13-15 year olds was won by Claudia Collins

My grandmother is reminiscing, poring over the long black and white school photograph she keeps in a cardboard tube. Once I have finally identified her among the hair bobs and freckled faces, she starts pointing to other girls: Joan on her left who went on to be a nurse; Ann on the row behind who became a teacher.

“And that girl there is Maureen,” she says. “She was my best friend, but we lost touch soon after. She left school at 15 because her family couldn’t afford the uniform.”

We pause for a moment and stare at Maureen’s picture. Despite her matter-of-fact tone, my grandmother seems suddenly aware of the enormity of what she has said. What life might Maureen have had if her family had been able to buy the blazer and tie required to attend Abbeydale Grammar School for Girls in Sheffield in 1957?

Sometimes we need to remember what happened a lifetime ago to strengthen our resolve that something similar shouldn’t happen now, anywhere in the world. Globally, 129mn girls are out of school. According to Unicef, only 49 per cent of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, a gap that widens to only 24 per cent for upper secondary education.

To help more girls stay in school, we need first to acknowledge gender differences. A teenager suddenly burdened with extra caring responsibilities and family financial pressures needs flexibility in how her education is delivered.

Distance learning via radio programmes could be supported by teachers who travel around communities, visiting young mothers trying to re-enter education or students excluded by a dangerous school commute. In Zimbabwe, Unicef is working with the government and Microsoft on the Learning Passport, a platform that provides flexible online and offline educational content in many different languages.

Secondly, we must adapt where they learn. Too many schools were not designed with girls in mind and do not meet their safety, hygiene or sanitation needs. Having your period doesn’t make you dirty and should not stop you from going to school. But when you get there, you need access to sanitary products and a private bathroom.

Finally, we need to change what they learn — and that applies to boys as well as girls. For societies to value women, and for girls to feel safe in classrooms, gender stereotypes and negative gender portrayals must be removed from learning materials.

Girls need to be supported in the subjects that engage them and to be encouraged in their career choices, including those in which they are under-represented. According to Unicef, gender-equitable education systems promote the development of the life skills we all need to succeed like communication, negotiation and critical thinking. Properly trained teachers are crucial to delivering these.

Nearly 65 years ago, my grandmother’s best friend left school before she was ready because she had no choice. We can choose to help today’s Maureens — and Rehemas and Makenas — stay in education by making it more accessible and relevant. If girls feel safe and comfortable in school, they will thrive.

The category for 7-12 year olds was won by Nicole Tadiwanashe Mutambu

In this story, I share my learning experience and that of my friends, and how I think education must change for more girls to stay in school. I learn at Mother Touch Junior School and I am in the fifth grade. My school is half a kilometre away from my home, so I walk to school. After school, my friends Yvonne, Tumelo and Mutsa will be waiting for me so that we study and play.

Yvonne learns at Dzivarasekwa Primary school, a high-density residence in Harare. Her mother cannot afford to pay fees for her at our school. Her school is 4km away from her home and she walks to school. She is always too tired to play, so she sits and rests most of the time.

Mutsa, my other friend, does not go to school any more. Both her parents died of Covid-19. She now lives with her grandmother who does not work. I try to teach her some things I would have learnt at school but I have little time and sometimes I am also not sure. She spends the mornings selling vegetables and doing chores.

Tumelo goes to Tynwald Primary School. She goes to school by bus and her school is expensive. They get served with lunch at school and she likes it at her school.

I wish the four of us could all go to the same school where we could all learn and have fun. The school should be close to home and because of Mutsa, it would be better if it can be free. Then we can all walk home, study and play after school. If education could be free and there are more schools, that could help more girls to stay in school.

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