Speak Up! Education Alone Is Not Enough

Everyone says, "Empower a woman, and she brings the whole village with her." But when the girls in the village marry instead of going to high school and have their first baby before girls in the U.S. have their first date (ages 12-14), how do you break the cycle of poverty? There has been a lot of global conversation on how to produce the next generation of women leaders in the developed world by focusing on education -- both in academics as well as health and reproduction. This is imperative, but we must also focus on leadership training. Leadership training gives women in the village a voice they have never known in their culture, and sparks sustainable social economic transformation that will create even more opportunities for other girls.

Many adolescent girls in my generation are taking roles and striving to be the next role models and leaders. When I think of global leaders, the following names instantly come to mind: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and the late Prof. Wangari Maathai, among many others. As much as we celebrate these noble women, the big question is how can we produce more of these names? Education alone cannot produce leaders who will transform societies.

Three months ago, 24 adolescent young girls and I attended a one-week leadership summit organized by the international organization iLive2Lead in conjunction with the Georgetown University School of Business. All the attendees were between the ages of 15 to 23 years old, from diverse backgrounds and full of experiences and ideas that we wanted to share with each other. Listening to the delegates share their ideas of how they would like to be the next leaders and the different causes that they want to champion in their communities, it was evident that young, adolescent girls are interested in leadership roles, but they need to be guided and mentored on how to turn their ideas into action.

As far as women have come, we still belong to a planet full of diverse cultures that dictate how women should behave or even where they belong. For a long time in the U.S., women belonged "in the kitchen," but not today. As Sheryl Sandberg would say, we are in the age when women are expected to "lean in" and sit at the table with the male partners. To me, to lean in will mean to acquire skills and use the knowledge to create an impact in our community. Creating a leadership-training program that enables girls to participate effectively -- speaking up in the village when the elder is accustomed to silencing her -- is something that many organizations still tangle with.

I recently interacted with an inspirational young woman, Kerubo Mokaya, who is a junior at University of Pennsylvania and a scholar at the Akili Dada organization, which cultivates high-achieving young African women from underprivileged backgrounds. Kerubo is organizing a small leadership program for the girls in her community to help tackle the issue of early pregnancy and marriage and is one of the many talents that Akili Dada is nurturing. Kerubo constantly seeks guidance and feedback from those close to her on how she can better herself. For most of us, getting feedback from people is the last thing we want to do, but in leadership training it is essential. If women have historically never spoken, then we need mentorship from women who do have a voice, in order to find our own voice and the personal confidence to use it, no matter how loudly the village leader might scream trying to prevent us from speaking.

Effective leadership training allows the girls themselves to come up with ideas for the projects that they want to undertake in their communities. They come from the village and best understand what is needed to transform the culture. Paying it forward should always be well articulated and emphasized in any leadership program. The village has a stake in the girl's success, too, but only if they are seeing a return on their investment. If she leaves the community, and never shares her gifts, then she is a loss to the village. If she gives back, everyone in the village receives a return on their investment and the culture begins the long, arduous, but essential process of transforming. Leadership training empowers the girls to develop a voice of their own and gives them the confidence to speak up. And it reminds them that one of the most important stages for them to speak is the village they came from.

Some of the forgotten people who are constantly creating the next generation of leaders are teachers, especially those in rural areas in most developing countries. During my numerous visits to rural areas in Kenya, I realized that many adolescent girls want to be teachers when they complete their studies because they often view them as second parents that they look up to. If teachers are empowered, trained and supported to offer life and leadership skills to their girls, the girls will aspire to all professions -- seeing themselves as capable doctors, presidents, policymakers, architects, etc., not just as possibly the village teacher. Most girls will never watch Oprah, or have the internet bandwidth to see Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg or J.K. Rowling speak, but with empowered teachers reminding them of the power and potential each has -- through education and having a voice -- the same message of owning their lives and speaking up in the culture and community is conveyed.

Leadership starts with the girls, and girls' empowerment starts with leadership, not just education. We have smart, educated girls who are still not speaking in their villages, worried that if they discuss using protection against AIDS, they'll be ostracized as corrupting innocent minds. In villages where the elder (always a man) dictates everything from what you wear to whom you marry to when you speak, how do these educated, smart girls choose to become a pediatrician who never marries and likes stilettos over saris? A girl is empowered when she is confident in herself and is able to lead without fear of anything.

Girls should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, schooled to understand that you don't have to be perfect to lead. Cultural change requires risk-taking and courage.
It is critical to educate women in the developing world in order to break the cycle of poverty. When we include leadership skills, mentoring and professional development for the teachers, then we teach these young women how to become the voice of the village. When she learns to speak out loud, above the elders but with respect, the culture will change.