In certain parts of the world, how many things have to go right in order to get a girl into a classroom?

And what type of life can that education can provide her?

As the senior gender coordinator for USAID, these questions fill my mind constantly as I seek to carry out my mandate – helping empower women and girls to participate fully and benefit from the development of their societies.

Last month, I traveled to Zambia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Dr. Jill Biden, USAID administrator Raj Shah, and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell where I was able to see them answered firsthand.

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia

Girl students at Shalom Community School, Lusaka, Zambia / Susan Markham

The decision to allow a child to go to school is fraught with obstacles. Some are material: uniforms, socks, shoes, notebooks and pencils. Some reflect the economic and cultural realities of poverty-stricken families. But these concerns also often pale in comparison to the serious danger that many women and girls face every single time they step out of their homes to pursue an education.

In the eastern part of the DRC, I met a young woman who was kidnapped from her own home and taken into the jungle for six months by an armed militia. She had no idea where she was, who had taken her, or if she would ever see her family or home again.

In Sierra Leone, I met two younger girls from a rural area, around 10 years old, who were given to an “Auntie” in the city with the promise that they would attended school. Instead, they were held hostage in her home and made to do all of the household chores with little food and water. They suffered for months until they finally managed to escape.

But in Zambia, a young woman named Martha, orphaned by HIV/AIDS, was still trying to find a way to stay in school. Despite extreme poverty, little existing educational infrastructure, and the loss of her parents, she explained how her greatest goal was to finish her education.

In the DRC, Therese, an incredibly talented local entrepreneur who worked in restaurants for years, managed to save enough money for engineering school. With her degree, she created several surprisingly effective traffic robots that have become functional icons around Kinshasa. The robots are the centerpiece of her company, Women’s Technologies, that she runs alongside several other women. As if that weren’t enough, she also owns a successful chain of local restaurants.

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden

Girl students at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone await the arrival of Dr. Biden. / Susan Markham

Everywhere I went, people seemed to intuitively understand that educating their daughters was the most important thing they could do for their future.

They might not know the statistics:  That an educated girl has a “ripple effect” in many ways. That a girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 percent more as an adult, or that a girl who completes basic education will invest 90 percent of her earnings back into her family. These effects might be invisible for the time being, but women, children, and community members are still willing to take great risks and make incredible sacrifices to stay in school, or to help their friends, daughters, and wives do the same.  Whether or not we can see it now, these benefits amplify across families, towns, cities, countries and generations.

This is why, in line with our mission to end extreme poverty and promote resilient democratic societies, USAID invests $1 billion every year on education programs around the world – on programs like WASH, designed to improve clean water and sanitation facilities in schools, and EAGLE, to help girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo make the transition from primary to secondary school. And to help raise awareness on the importance of girls’ education, we launched Let Girls Learn earlier this year with the help of our friends from the arts and entertainment industry.

Ultimately, it is stories like the ones I heard throughout my trip that drove home the necessity of programs like these. We do this because around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia, individuals and families understand that both the risks and the payoffs to women’s education are huge. Despite putting themselves in the line of fire, sometimes quite literally, mothers continue to send their daughters to school, and their daughters keep going. Teachers continue to show up everyday to pass on their hard-won knowledge and expertise to the next generation. Communities, on their own and with our help, continue to build the infrastructure, even though it risks destruction.

The resilience and bravery of the girls and women that I met is humbling and inspiring. They certainly keep me going, and I’m glad that we are here to help turn that determination and perseverance into a lasting reality.


Susan Markham is USAID’s Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. She tweets from @msmarkham