A BEACON OF HOPE
Ann Cotton knows that poverty is the greatest barrier to accessing education in the communities of sub-Saharan Africa.
The UK-based activist walked away with the coveted $500,000 (QR1,820,000) ‘ WISE Prize this year – a Nobel for Education – for her outstanding Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) that provides millions of underprivileged girls in sub- Saharan Africa access to education. HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser presented the award to Cotton at the sixth World Innovation Summit for Education ( WISE).
“I want to dedicate this prize to all those girls in Africa who were able to exercise their right to education and to those girls who, even as we sit here, fetch and carry water and wood and have no idea that the WISE prize is going to change their life,” said Cotton on receiving the award. In the countries in which Campfed works, success wouldn't have been possible without the passion and energy of the communities, for all of whom “education is such an aspiration”. “No family ever turns down an offer to send their daughters to school,” she says.
“At a personal level it is an incredible honour, and this is such an opportunity for girls' education and for so many more people, institutions and individuals to know about the cause. We have committed to support one thousand more girls in secondary education over the next five years in Africa. We believe that secondary education is absolutely fundamental," she said. “Just imagine these girls, all of whom are from a background of rural poverty; all who understand the anxiety and the frustrations of poverty. Just imagine them working in the education and health systems, in politics, in journalism, in law, in engineering, in science - just imagine the power of what they can do to transform our world,” she said.
In 1991, when Cotton visited Zimbabwe to find out why girls' school enrolment in rural areas was so low, she found that, contrary to the common assumption that families weren't sending girls to school for cultural reasons, poverty was the main block.
Families couldn't afford to buy books or pay school fees for all their children, so they had to choose who would receive an education. Girls were rarely chosen. “I found grandmothers at the age of 35 years, they were given in marriage at an early age due to poverty and they couldn't continue education,” said Ann. While the resistance to women's advancement has existed globally and through history, in present day Africa girls' education is a powerful unifying factor among the communities, according to Cotton. “We never overtly challenge any of the patriarchal traditions. Instead we work inclusively,” she says. In fact, it was a lot tougher to “move a family psychologically from the fear of immediate financials” and get them to invest in their future.
She returned home to Cambridge, England, determined to find a way to help girls go to school in Zimbabwe. She approached friends and family and sold baked goods to raise money and awareness about the lack of education for girls in sub Saharan Africa.
She began her campaign by helping put