I first visited Togo in March of 2017 to research girls’ education. I was gathering information on the challenges girls face in their daily lives and the obstacles they have to overcome to get an education. I wanted to make sure our approach to getting girls in school was culturally relevant to their needs and see if we would be a good fit in Togo.
While in country, I interviewed as many young women as possible to gain a better understanding of their daily life, their reasons for valuing an education, and brainstorm methods for reducing barriers to education. And let me tell you, these were some of the most profound, inspiring teenage girls I have ever met.
On the list of daily challenges were the distance traveled to school, with some girls traveling nearly 20 kilometers (roughly 12 miles) round trip each day. Affording something to eat was difficult, so many students go hungry at school. But the strict requirements for school uniforms resonated with me. Some of the major expenses in going to school are the cost of tuition (roughly $10), textbooks, and a school uniform (roughly $12) so in most cases, a school uniform can be the most expensive part of going to school.
School uniforms are required in most schools in Africa, and if a girl cannot afford a school uniform, she will be turned away from school. If her uniform is ripped or torn, she will be sent home. If her uniform is dirty because she can only afford one and cannot wash it frequently, she we be asked to leave. In speaking with junior high and high school students, it became clear that this is an all too common occurrence. In a room of 15-20 girls, every one of them had been sent home for their uniform not meeting standards.
A $12 required school uniform is often all that stands between a child and her education.
A lot of people will ask “Why don’t you just get rid of the requirement for school uniforms?” But it’s a little more complex than that. School uniforms provide many positive benefits to students. They create equalizing effects in an environment where socioeconomic status plays a large role in social rankings. They promote positive student behavior in the classroom. But arguably one of the most impactful benefits of school uniforms is that they create a sense of belonging for students. So our response to this is:
“Let’s make it so school uniforms are no longer a barrier to getting an education, but instead are an opportunity for increased learning.”
When girls learn to sew their own uniform, they learn much more than how to sew. During an interview a group of girls at a local orphanage, I finished asking all of my questions and briefly explaining the SHE business model. I then asked them if they had any questions for me. Expecting them to ask me questions I had received from previous groups like “how do you get to school?” or “what is school like in America?”
I was a little taken aback when the first question was “Can you even go to school and learn a skill at the same time?”
These girls have been conditioned by their environment to think their potential is vastly limited, to think they are incapable of determining their own future, and to feel like they are predestined to the life they currently live.
“By introducing an after-school program where girls learn sewing and entrepreneurial skills in an environment where they are encouraged to explore their potential, and by establishing a connection to a global support system, we hope to open their eyes to a world of possibilities far beyond our imagination.”