In the 21st century, it is shocking to realize that health and well-being are aspects of human life in which gender inequality is strongly manifested. Physical health is often linked to other social indicators of status, wealth, and civil rights. Especially in poor, developing regions of the world, vulnerable populations of women and girls have the most to gain from social interventions, with implications for both maternal/infant health and human rights. Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between the way international organizations initiate clinical, technical health interventions and they way they promote social interventions of equality and empowerment. The Batonga Foundation is one nonprofit organization that has championed the groundbreaking idea that educating girls is an effective means of improving the health, wealth, and well-being of entire communities.
The Batonga Foundation is based on UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Grammy Award-winner and founder Angelique Kidjo’s vision that through education, African women and girls can be empowered to be the leaders of change in their countries. Unfortunately, prohibitive cultural norms and lack of basic necessities such as transportation, school materials, and adequate facilities are barriers to education for many girls in rural, poor regions of the world. Batonga works with the most vulnerable populations of girls in Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, and Benin – building schools, granting scholarships, creating academic mentoring programs, and ensuring that women have the resources through microloans to send their daughters to school.
For Batonga, education is a practical way to link, both in the theoretical and institutional realms, movement toward the physical health of women in addition to their social, human rights. It is one thing to look at economic, mortality, morbidity, and fertility numbers and develop the statistically sound theory that “educated” women are actually beneficial to society as a whole. Putting this theory into institutional practice, however, is a difficult transition to make in the face of certain cultural norms and practices such as early marriage, genital cutting, and other gendered customs that place men and women in categorically different social profiles.
It is not practical, realistic, or beneficial to make a leap from the simple, theoretical statement, “Women should have access to education,” to “…so we’re going to go out and educate them.” This is why Batonga’s mission to promote girls’ education involves infrastructure to keep girls in school, in addition to support systems of community members as the girls’ mentors. Just like any health or social initiative aimed at the advancement of human rights, education is best thought of in the terms of the specific cultures involved and is best implemented on the local level.
One girl named Anastasie in Batonga’s program in Benin is a good example of an educated girl’s potential to transform her community. Anastasie is in school and determined to help decrease the burden of disease and child mortality in her village. After her father’s recent passing, her family was unable to continue supporting her education. Batonga is able to provide mentoring and the necessary financial assistance so that Anastasie can continue her education and one day fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.
Anastasie’s story is indicative of how education can have cascading benefits as a health and social intervention. She dreams of affecting change on the local level, in her own community. Building schools is important, but empowering women to be active in human rights and the leadership of their community can have truly lasting effects. External forces such as international NGOs can often help advance women’s initiatives, but communities themselves must be invested in the change.
When it comes to the ground-level structures of women’s education as a human right, a holistic approach is most beneficial. Not only do there need to be physical schools and teachers willing and able to help children (boys and girls) learn, but young women need to be healthy and structurally supported throughout their schooling. Through the combined efforts of organizations like The Batonga Foundation and educated women such as Anastasie will one day be, better practices of girls’ education can be implemented community-by-community.