International Women's Day 2014: Small sums are changing young girls' lives at a school in Ghana

 

I have been privileged to travel to some very interesting corners of the world – whether as a student backpacker or on government trips as the "WPM" (wife of the Prime Minister).

But the village school I visited in northern Ghana was the most remote place I had ever been to. The students here are children who have been rescued from work in the gold mines, reunited with their families, and with great care and support reintroduced to school.

In a slightly less isolated part of the country, the great achievement of Kparugu primary school was the introduction of electricity. This happened thanks to the efforts of an active parent-teacher association, an engaged local chieftain and an ambitious local head of Ghana Education, who was supported by his education manager for girls (a woman).

With the help of funding from charities including Sport Relief and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), they brought proper joined-up thinking to the delivery of education. The focus was on system change and advocacy: everyone got together, agreed they wanted change and told the people who could deliver it. It sounds simple but this sort of work is often one of the hardest things to get charity funding for.

The 103rd International Women's Day takes place tomorrow and girls' education must be at the heart of the event. All children should go to school and Ghana has made huge strides, putting more than one million children into primary education in the past decade. With a growing economy based on oil, chocolate and gold, it has been one of the great African success stories. Accra, its thriving capital, extends a warm welcome to visitors and boasts modern hotels and new restaurants.

But barriers to getting girls into school and learning persist. Around 34 per cent of girls in Ghana are used for child labour, and 20 per cent are married before the age of 18. A lack of teachers and a shortage of facilities for disabled children mean that many girls miss out on the chance of an education.

Sport Relief supports projects that bring about systemic change. The ones I visited with VSO and Afrikids engage with the local community, support advocacy and go for lasting change. Now, teachers at Kparugu primary school have in-service training, local by-laws have been changed to help reduce teen pregnancies and child marriages, and new measures have been introduced to improve girls education and support disabled children.

Another effective approach is the use of role models. As the development community starts to figure out how to make health and education converge, we see that educated girls are healthy girls. Girls clubs offer a valuable way to share information about health and well-being, encourage ambition and strengthen resolve to finish school in the face of external pressures.

I spoke to Asimawu, a 24-year-old teacher who runs an after-school girls club, about what her career means to her and the important role education has for girls growing up in Ghana.

Asimawu's father died unexpectedly when she was 14, and it came down to her mother, also a teacher, to bring up her two daughters alone. It was a struggle for the widow to send Asimawu and her sister to school but she persevered knowing how important education was for the girls' future. Today Asimawu has made her mother proud. Not only is she a secondary school teacher, but she is also working with VSO to break down barriers to girls' education. As a mentor at the after-school club, where she is funded through Sport Relief, she provides the girls with the emotional and practical support they need to stay in education.

Asimawu says: "The children look up to you and confide in you with problems that they cannot talk about with their parents. Your role is to guide them and encourage them to have a successful education.

"When I became a teacher I thought that there are other young girls in society who might have similar stories to mine, similar problems, and I want to give back to the community what the community has given me."

There seems to be no shortage of people in the public eye at the moment who cite a teacher as a guiding influence and inspiration. Dame Helen Mirren dedicated her Bafta Award speech to her acting coach and asked for a show of hands from the illustrious crowd in support of teachers and mentors. Actors Bradley Cooper and Michael Sheen instantly raised an arm.

The former Manchester United football manager Sir Alex Ferguson has also spoken about his favourite teacher. I have my own inspirational teacher – and a mum who was a teacher – and so do many people. As teachers matter so much to the way we achieve our potential, it makes sense to invest in teacher training across Africa so that its teachers can flourish as role models.

Sport Relief creates lasting change for people in the UK and across the world. Find out how you can get involved at sportrelief.com

Sarah Brown is president of Theirworld and co-founder of aworldatschool.org, the digital mobilisation initiative to get every child into school and learning by 2015

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