Skip to main content

Make schools safe for girls everywhere

By Jennifer Buffett, Special to CNN
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Thu October 11, 2012
In the peaceful province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, girls attend school without fear, unlike in Taliban-heavy areas.
In the peaceful province of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, girls attend school without fear, unlike in Taliban-heavy areas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jennifer Buffett: Girls everywhere want to go to school to get a better future
  • Buffett: Sadly, pursuing an education can be dangerous as girls encounter violence
  • She says on the first United Nations International Day, make girls' safety a priority
  • Buffett: We can do our part to help girls by making sure schools are harmless places

Editor's note: Jennifer Buffett is the president of NoVo Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower girls and women worldwide and to end the violence and exploitation against them.

(CNN) -- Tuesday was a tragic day for girls everywhere. In Pakistan, 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school on a bus. Although she was targeted specifically because she spoke out against the Taliban's suppression of women's education rights, her story serves as a reminder of the obstacles that girls face in trying to obtain schooling.

In all my travels, from Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to villages and towns across rural India, I have been struck by the unwavering commitment of every girl to do one simple thing: Go to school.

Just like Malala, the girls I met know that education is their ticket to a better future: for themselves, their families and their entire communities.

Jennifer Buffett
Jennifer Buffett

Girls would beg their parents to let them stay one more year in school, struggling to juggle their household chores with caring for their younger siblings, all so they can squeeze in one more day in the classroom.

Unfortunately, girls around the world have also shared with me how pursuing an education can be dangerous, whether it's because of harassment and violence from teachers or the dangers they encounter as they walk to school.

Opinion: Girl's courage, Taliban's cowardice

Today, as we celebrate the first United Nations International Day of the Girl by marking the progress that has been made for girls, we should keep in mind that we need to redouble our effort to create a future in which all girls can safely receive an education and reach their full potential.

Malala in 2011: My people need me
Taliban gunmen shot teen activist

Violence keeps girls out of school. Globally, nearly half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls who are 15 and younger. Fear of this type of violence restricts where girls are allowed to go and when they are allowed to be out of the home. Often, parents do not send their daughters to school for this reason.

Violence in the home can also hold girls captive and out of school. For instance, nearly half the girls in developing countries are married during their teenage years, with many before age 15. They may experience profound violence at the hands of their often much older husbands.

But sadly, school does not equal safety. Even girls who are able to go to school still face violence -- in the classroom, of all places. A girl may walk up to five kilometers between home and school in the company of friends or an older brother to avoid the inevitable harassment by groups of men or boys she passes, only to receive more harassment from a teacher once she finally reaches school.

In schools around the world, teachers pressure girls for sex in exchange for grades. In Zambia, for example, more than 2,000 cases of teacher rapes were reported in 2010 alone. Of these cases, only 240 teachers were convicted. While these numbers may be shocking, Zambia is not the only country with this problem. Schools should be a safe haven for girls, but instead, they are too often a place of fear and danger.

International day of the girl: World's most remarkable women share advice

However, despite the violence that can happen in schools, going to school tends to increase girls' safety outside school. A recent study in Swaziland found that the risk of childhood sexual violence was greatest among those who were not attending school, suggesting that greater educational opportunities decrease vulnerability to violence. Girls in school have an opportunity to escape early marriage and early motherhood, and to gain skills that give them enhanced economic and social opportunities.

As part of the global community, we can all do our part to help girls by making school safe and making sure they can get to school. Here are a few ways:

-- Invest directly in girls. Less than 2% of every international development dollar goes directly to adolescent girls, let alone toward protecting them from violence. We have made great strides globally in increasing the numbers of girls in primary school, but until we make girls' safety a priority we will not advance our educational goals.

-- Ensure schools are accountable to girls by enacting and enforcing policies that prevent sexual abuse and exploitation by teachers. When a 13-year-old girl in Zambia was repeatedly raped by her teacher, the Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund supported the girl's court case against the teacher who raped her and the headmaster who knowingly allowed the assaults to occur. In 2008, the High Court of Zambia ruled that the Zambian government is responsible for protecting girls from sexual assault and providing recourse to victims. Schools everywhere must enact systems that protect girls and hold teachers accountable.

-- Empower schools and girls through provision of safe spaces. One important outcome of the Zambian teacher rape case has been the wide scale adoption of safe spaces for girls in Zambian schools.

-- Recruit, train and retain female teachers. Female teachers can reduce some of the major risks adolescent girls face in school. They can also serve as strong role models and help girls imagine different futures for themselves.

The 10x10 Campaign is uniting people and organizations around the critical goal of removing barriers to girls' education. Likewise, so is the Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund. You can join them.

The benefits of education for girls are undeniable. But until we can ensure that schools are places of learning, rather than places of danger, girls will be held back. When girls are educated—and safe—they, along with our entire societies, will flourish.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

On CNN iReport, tet us know why educating girls is #basicmath

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Buffett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT