Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Girls on Top: the work of CAMFED in Africa

Published By: Ink Pellet - 01 Jul 2007

Think how things would be now if you hadn’t been to secondary school. You wouldn’t have a career, or much money, and your life prospects would be dismal.

For girls in Africa it is infinitely worse. Without a secondary education they face a life of grinding hardship and poverty. They have to marry early, bear many children, and often -- because Aids is so rife – face an early death.

Seventeen-year-old Nolita was sure this was to be her fate. She lives in southern Tanzania, in an area of wracked by poverty and with an Aids infection rate of 15 per cent. Her mother worked hard selling vegetables to help her through primary school, but could not afford to send her daughter secondary school. “But then,” Nolita says, “I heard someone else would pay!”

Sitting on her neat bunk, in the boarding hostel of a school high in the hills outside Iringa, her face lights up. A British charity, CAMFED International, had stepped forward to pay her fees. “I was so happy that day!”

Nolita is now doing well at school. She is seen as a leader by her classmates, and knows she may be able to train as a teacher or nurse.

And even if she doesn’t, secondary education will have transformed her life. “At secondary school,” explains Mary Mwageni, the gentle and dedicated headteacher of a nearby school, “girls gain a bigger view of life, They have life skills, a chance of getting employed, and they can cultivate their crops and do business better.”

Twenty-one-year old Maria Lyambuzi is living proof of that. She lives in the Morogoro region of Tanzania, and is well on the way to becoming a successful small businesswomen, selling donuts and rearing pigs, thanks to her secondary schooling, and a little help from CAMFED in finding her feet afterwards. She is now able to help other members of her family and says with deep emotion “I feel really, really proud.”

CAMFED supports three quarters of a million girls through school in Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It also creates school leaver networks, encourages mothers’ groups, and works on national educational programmes with ministries of education.

It knows that all this adds up to one of the most powerful ways there is to improve life in the developing world.

Because educating girls and women brings big returns. It is the only proven way of reducing Aids -- educated girls know how to protect themselves -- and mothers who have been educated to secondary level bring up smaller, healthier families, and encourage their children to stay at school. On top of this, girls are far more likely than boys to stay in their villages and help their local communities.

In fact, across Africa, 3,000 young CAMFED “alumnae” are already supporting 16,000 more girls through school -- no wonder Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard, says the health, economic and social benefits of educating girls and women are unparalleled.

But CAMFED doesn’t only pay school fees, it supports its students to the hilt. Community workers take long, arduous journeys out to rural schools to check that the girls have no problems -- an eye condition, bullying, or a sweater with a hole in it, can all cause a student to falter or fail. Since many of the girls are Aids orphans, with no-one to look out for them, this hands-on care is invaluable. “But they are our children,” says Tanzanian community worker Marry Mwakajwanga. “I am so happy to be doing this work.”

And the results are clear to see. Girls starting secondary school are often shy and withdrawn. But meet them a few years later and you meet lively, assertive young women, full of fun and ambition, and humblingly eager to give something back. Tukaeje Habibu, 27, sells clothes in the market and volunteers as a teacher of catch-up classes at her village primary school, as well as helping support half a dozen disadvantaged primary pupils through school. With a smile as broad as the sky, she says: “I am an educated young woman who can do something at last!”

CAMFED was started by Ann Cotton, a former teacher, who sold home-made cakes in Cambridge market to support 32 schoolgirls in Zimbabwe. Fourteen years on, it has just opened an office in America, won backing from Jeff Skoll, the founder of e-Bay, and aims to have a million girls in school by the end of the decade. Last Christmas, impressed by its high-quality work and the long-term value of what it does, The Financial Times chose it as its first-ever seasonal charity.

Secondary schooling changes lives, yet it costs only £6 a month to give a girl the priceless gift of education. Could you, or your school help? You can be sure that every penny of your money will make a difference.

For more information:

Hilary Wilce writes on education for The Independent and is author of Help You Child Succeed At School, published by Piatkus, price £8.99. She also gives talks to schools and parents. She would be delighted to come and talk to any group wanting to know more about CAMFED. Contact her at or 01580 754959.