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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT