By Tracey Cormack
United Nations data shows there are economic, cultural and safety-related barriers to impede about 130 million girls around the world from realising their right to education.
One nation where female education is particularly limited is Afghanistan where the Taliban banned education for girls when it seized power in 1996.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh is the President of School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), an Afghani school she co-founded while still a teenager. She was in primary school when the Taliban came to power. Despite the Taliban banning girls’ education, a network of secret schools for girls opened up around Kabul. Ms Basij-Rasikh attended one of those schools, dressing as a boy to get there each day. This year SOLA will educate nearly 80 girls in grades 6 to 10.
It encourages us to take a holistic view of combatting global warming – there’s no such thing as a single solution. Electric cars won’t do it alone, solar panels won’t do it alone, girls’ education won’t do it alone … but we’re going to see change happen when we invest in all these solutions, as well as others.
In 2018, Ms Basij-Rasikh wrote a piece on Ted.com on the subject of fighting climate change by educating girls. She spoke of a 2017 project where a collection of researchers, scientists and policy-makers came together to identify the most substantive solutions to not just halt global warming, but to actually cause an annual decline – a “drawdown”. The effort was named Project Drawdown which resulted in 80 immediate and practical measures and 20 near-future concepts being identified. Educating girls was listed at number six.
Ms Basij-Rasikh spoke to LawTalk about her background and her thoughts on the potential impacts on climate that educating girls can have.
What has driven you to be involved in climate change and the education of girls? What direct impacts have you seen from the founding of SOLA?
“I was born and raised in Afghanistan, and I spent six years of my childhood living at a time when it was illegal for girls to be educated. I know that education changes lives because it’s changed mine. And even though times have changed in Afghanistan, Afghan girls who want to be educated must still confront challenges that just don’t exist for women in the West.
"I co-founded SOLA so that girls would have a safe and secure place to grow into the confident women who will lead our country to a peaceful and prosperous future. I see the change in our students even now. Society tells them that their education is less important than their brothers’ and that their role is to marry and bear children; at SOLA, they learn to see the entirety of possibilities life holds for them.”
Can you explain the relationship between education and the fight against climate change?
“The relationship is two-fold: preventive and responsive.
"On the preventive side, educated girls marry later, have fewer and healthier children, are employed in higher-paying jobs, and can be expected to direct a significant percentage of their incomes back to their families. Taken together, all these factors yield stronger family units with smaller environmental footprints, and these families create self-perpetuating cycles in which educated girls grow to become educated women who raise educated girls who become educated women …and on and on.
"On the responsive side, an educated girl – and woman – is far better prepared to manage, and overcome, climate shocks. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, for instance, have reported on the positive relationship between girls’ schooling and a country’s resilience to climate disasters, while on a more local level, educated girls can support their families during economic downturns caused by climate change – which is something we see even now in Afghanistan.”
Do governments accept the Project Drawdown solutions – why isn’t this a topic of worldwide government policies or media coverage?
“I’ve wondered that myself – you may have read my piece on TED.com that touches on this very question. Part of the answer, I think, is this: the climate change discussion is largely led by Western nations, and in these nations, whether they be New Zealand or the United States, girls’ education is a given. Westerners, perhaps, can overlook the extraordinary power of girls’ education because it’s not a new ‘technology’, so to speak, in the way that solar panels or electric cars are. But to overlook it is a mistake that all nations pay for.”
What else is being done currently? And what should be done?
“I feel that Project Drawdown is a tremendous wake-up call to the world. It encourages us to take a holistic view of combatting global warming – there’s no such thing as a single solution. Electric cars won’t do it alone, solar panels won’t do it alone, girls’ education won’t do it alone … but we’re going to see change happen when we invest in all these solutions, as well as others. What troubles me, of course, is that the world-changing power of girls’ education seems to fly under the global radar.
"I think things are changing, though. We’re seeing leadership on climate issues that we’ve never seen before – and it’s no small thing to say that one of the most compelling leaders on the world stage is a teenage girl: Greta Thunberg. She’s inspired millions of people, and I’m one of them.”
What simple things can people do to support the education of girls?
“You’re doing it right now. I’m talking directly to you, the person reading these words – I don’t know your name, I don’t know your age or your gender or your background, but I know that if you’re reading this, you care about girls’ education. You care about its potential to create a better world that benefits all of us: men and women, young and old, all of us.
"So keep reading! Read articles like this one, and search out others. Go online and talk about what you’ve read; get together with friends and do the same. Powerful ideas need powerful ambassadors, and I hope you’ll decide to be one.”
Have you had much pushback or disagreement that this is a valid strategy?
“It’s hard for anyone to honestly disagree with a strategy strongly backed by both quantitative and qualitative data. Improving girls’ access to quality education yields benefits to families, communities, nations, and the world – this is, quite simply, the truth.”
Educated girls receive higher wages and have fewer and healthier children. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. Their agricultural plots are more productive, and their families are better managed.
Key strategies include:
- making school affordable,
- helping girls overcome health barriers,
- reducing the time and distance to get to school,
- making schools more girl-friendly,
- providing uniforms.
Lawyers for Climate Action New Zealand, which was formed last year, is a group of practitioners and academics who want to use their legal skills and experience to ensure a better future for everyone. It says it accepts that the scientific evidence shows that climate change will cause global catastrophe unless we cut emissions now and achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
“It’s great to see diverse and innovate initiatives that focus on addressing climate change,” says committee member Emily Sutton.
“It’s true that there’s no single solution to addressing climate change, and it requires a holistic and varied approach. We are working to mobilise the legal profession on climate action.
“We want to make sure that New Zealand meets its obligations under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions and that it does so in a way that is evidence-based, effective, and consistent with the rule of law, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, international law, and with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.”
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