On my first trip to Zimbabwe 17 years ago, researching why so few girls attended school after the age of 12, I met two teenage sisters, Cecilia and Makarita. They invited me to their house, a hut they had built themselves.
The hut was immaculate. A battered tin trunk held a broken mirror, two worn toothbrushes and a jar of Vaseline. Their shoes, reserved for special occasions, hung from the rafters. Hand-written English spelling lists decorated the walls.
They were living on their own in the town of Mola, 60 miles away from their family, because the cost of attending Mola Secondary School was much lower than the cost of attending school in their own village -- a critical saving for their struggling parents.
Their yearning to go to school was palpable. Yet they told me that they did not know if they could afford to return the next year.
I realized, in that moment, that Cecilia and Makarita's future hung in the balance. What would become of them if they were unable to return to school? How would they spend their days?
I recognized that their prospects would be bleak.
Girls who drop out of school are likely to be pressured into marriage at age 14 or 15 -- often to an older man up to four times their age. Young brides commonly experience forced and unprotected intercourse, they are more likely to die in childbirth, and their risk of contracting HIV increases significantly -- studies show that married adolescent girls are more than twice as likely to be HIV positive.
Girls who leave school and don't marry young must work to support their families, often at exploitative jobs. They migrate to cities where, isolated and vulnerable, they might find work as street porters, carrying heavy loads for little more than a dollar a day, or as domestic servants, working 12-14 hour days for meager wages, with no time off. Some are never paid by their employers at all, and become trapped in a life of servitude. Cut off from their families and disempowered by their limited literacy, they feel they have no recourse.
The prospects for boys who are denied the right to an education are no brighter. They, too, pass their days working in grueling jobs -- mending nets, crushing stones, hacking cocoa pods with a machete -- rather than developing the skills and confidence they need to earn a decent living and advance in the world. I am reminded of the words of Penelope Machipi, one of the young women that my organization, Camfed International, works with in rural Zambia. "Children in Africa have the same dreams and ambitions as children everywhere," Penelope once said, in a speech she made to a group of corporate executives, "but they are destroyed by poverty."
There are 45 million children in Africa who are not in school. While other children are learning, exploring, and growing in the myriad ways that children were meant to grow, these children are trapped in a life of constant struggle. Without education, how can they be expected to escape such struggle? How can their children?
Meanwhile, girls who do attend school are starting their lives on the right path. They are three times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, they earn up to 25 percent more income, and they have smaller, healthier families.
To expose the hardships experienced by children who are deprived of the right to attend school, Camfed has produced a series of films about educational exclusion. Every Child Belongs in School provides a glimpse into the lives of children who have been forced by poverty to leave school at a very young age and take a difficult life path.
They are true stories about children living in Ghana and Tanzania -- just a few among millions of children around the world who are unable to attend school. My hope is that they will remind us that all children everywhere deserve the opportunity that is unlocked for them by education -- and that it is within our power to provide them with it.