It’s no secret that the plight of girls and women worldwide is one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. However, while gender equality is slowly being achieved in some regions (congrats to Iceland for being the most gender-equal country in the world for 11 years!), there are still billions of girls and women who experience gender-based discrimination.
Togo, Africa has one of the highest rates of gender inequality in the world. 22% of women will experience physical or sexual abuse, 22% of girls will be married before the age of 18, and 5% of girls will be subjected to female genital mutilation.
Studies show over and over again that education is the key to breaking these systems of inequality. Togo has made tremendous progress as a country towards providing quality education; it has implemented a policy that aims to provide access to basic education to all students by 2022. Each year, more students enroll in school and return the next year, and literacy rates (currently only half of women in Togo are literate) are rising.
Educating women has proven to be one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing generational poverty, disease, population growth, and climate change.
We embarked on our mission to improve access to education for girls in 2017 after our founder Payton visited Togo on a university trip. While she was in the village of Notse, Payton asked local girls about their education. Poverty was the most prevalent reason why girls were not in school, and it still remains to be the biggest barrier to education around the world. Girls drop out of school in order to do household chores, to work, to marry, or because they cannot afford school fees.
Payton started S H E and offered school uniforms and tuition scholarships to 65 girls that first year. As the year progressed, we noticed that the problem of achieving universal education in Togo was much bigger than we anticipated.
Out of the 2 million women aged 15+ living in Togo, only 20% have completed primary school. In Togo alone, this leaves 1.6 million uneducated women who have aged out of the formal education system by 17 years of age. These women are still very young with a lot of life ahead of them. With no formal training or even basic literacy and arithmetic skills, these women must marry or enter into exploitative work in order to survive.
A popular career for uneducated women in Togo is sewing. Seamstress training is expensive but provides a stable pathway for work – at least, that is the widespread belief. In a country of only 7 million people, we estimate that over 1,000 women become seamstresses every 6 months. The market has quickly become oversaturated, which means that factory and shop owners are able to easily replace seamstresses if they do not meet harsh working demands.
It is common that a seamstress will undergo at least 3 years of “apprenticeship” before receiving any financial compensation for her work. So, shop and factory owners are guaranteed three years of free labor from every young seamstress they “hire”. Once the apprenticeship is over, owners can fire the seamstresses and bring in new apprentices. If an apprentice quits, the owner will give her a bad reputation so she will not be hired by other businesses.
Seamstresses will not receive a single penny for the work that they do; all profits are kept by the owner. Even more, owners will charge seamstresses for the “opportunity” to work in a factory or shop. The sums are expensive – about $100 USD each year – and push these vulnerable women further into debt. It is a horribly exploited system that takes advantage of women who are just trying to make a living.
Our seamstress, Abla, spoke of the barriers that exist after completing training, “Many seamstresses cannot afford to buy a sewing machine when they finish an apprenticeship, so they will decide to work somewhere in order to be able to buy the equipment that they need. Mostly during that period they get pregnant and can’t continue to work. Most become house girls so they can no longer do what they have learned.”
Wassira, another S H E seamstress, continues, “Some seamstresses are registered in the apprenticeship by their relatives and sometimes at the end, the boss has another project for the girl. The seamstress will continue to work but it becomes like a contract; she is able to use the boss’s equipment for her own business as long as she continues to work there. It turns bad. They are not able to manage all that they are supposed to manage. It’s too much. They have to share their income with the relative, and then if they mess up, the relative gets angry and won’t be interested in helping the girl anymore.”
A gifted seamstress at the S H E factory, Amono, worked as an apprentice for five years before she received any sort of salary. Amono attended school through (the equivalent of) first grade, and then dropped out because her family could not afford school fees. She told us, “School is the best thing that can happen to you. If you do not have an education, all you are good for is to get married and have children.”
Women like Amono are why we started our manufacturing facility. Talent is universal; opportunity is not. There are thousands of talented women around Togo, and millions around the world, who have aged out of the formal education system and find themselves with little earning potential. We are creating jobs so these women can rightfully earn the wages they deserve and conduct their lives as they choose.
At S H E, we are burning the candle at both ends. We provide resources for girls of school-age: school tuition, school uniforms, menstrual kits, after-school programs, and skills training in hopes to break down the barriers preventing their attendance. For women who are too old to re-enter schooling, we provide well-paying jobs and additional resources to equip them with what they have not had the opportunity to obtain: literacy classes, personal finance advice, health workshops, and more.
The Togolese education system is improving but there are still many individuals who fall through the cracks. Millions of women in Togo have been denied the opportunity to obtain basic education, and therefore have slim opportunities to support themselves independently.
Our hope is that through our sponsorship and employment programs, women and girls in Togo will have the resources they need to live free and empowered lives and create a dignified future for all women, everywhere.