By Kate Zemlo Rivas
This year, Buddhist Global Relief has launched a new partnership with CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education), a pan-African organization combating poverty, inequality, and injustice by educating girls and supporting young women to become leaders in their communities and nation. CAMFED’s collective efforts have helped almost 5 million girls go to school in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, and the movement intends to support 5 million more girls over the next five years. For CAMFED, education is a fundamental right and a matter of justice. The organization regards girls’ education as a key to tackling our most pressing global challenges. CAMFED catalyzes the power of the most vulnerable girls and young women to create the future they imagine—for themselves, for their communities, and for Africa.
The partnership between BGR and CAMFED is focused on a project in Malawi that will support the education of 1,333 marginalized girls and young women, providing them with the critical support they need to pursue their studies. In Malawi, a majority of people live in extreme poverty; 62 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking 171 out of 189 countries in the 2018 UNDP Human Development Index. Many families are unable to afford school costs for their children, and when resources are available, they are generally allotted to boys, leaving girls without a formal education. Furthermore, when they reach adolescence, girls are pressured to marry in order to reduce the financial burden on the family.
The partnership between BGR and CAMFED delivers individually tailored support and crucial supplies for the girls to continue learning. These school-going costs are assessed on a case-by-case basis; they include food, school fees, uniforms, sanitary wear, bedding, medical costs, personal protective equipment, and remote learning resources for those without access to digital learning platforms.
CAMFED was founded in 1993 by Ann Cotton. It began in Zimbabwe with scholarships to a group of 32 girls. By 2021, the number of children served had grown to nearly 5 million. CAMFED post-secondary programs are implemented by members of CAMA, the CAMFED Alumnae Association. Established in 1998, the CAMFED Association now consists of 180,000 alumnae of CAMFED’s programs. They are women leaders who demonstrate how education can break the cycle of poverty. CAMA provides a structure for the women to continue their work and grow their activism and leadership. As CAMFED beneficiaries become professionals, they give back their time, expertise, and financial support to the association.
In implementing the BGR project, CAMFED Association members identify which girls in their communities need the most urgent support. Without this support, many girls will not return to school, especially those “invisible” school-age girls who are currently not being reached by—or falling through—existing services and safety nets. On average, each CAMA member is helping three girls go to school; this is what CAMFED calls the “multiplier effect.” Because the members live in the communities where CAMFED operates, they are uniquely equipped to identify and support the most at-risk children. Additionally, in 2017 the CAMA Fund was launched, bringing formality and structure to the Association’s initiatives. Many CAMA members also contribute directly to the fund with their own financial resources, joining a wide network of donors.
CAMFED also engages more than 300,000 teachers, parents, traditional leaders, local education officers, social workers, and magistrates known as CAMFED Champions. CAMFED’s grassroots-led approach means that communities take responsibility for girls’ well-being and success. The contributions of international donors are matched with local networks and resources for optimal outcomes.
The model used by CAMFED is highly cost efficient, as it provides individually assessed school-going costs for eligible children. The support ranges from tuition and exam fees to bedding, medical expenses, school supplies, and direct food aid, where necessary. Financially, it combines the transparency and rigors of centralized financial systems administered by CAMFED with its alumnae’s experience, insight, and activism.
CAMFED supports girls at the point of leaving secondary school, at a time when young women face a lack of opportunities. Many women are pressured to marry young or migrate to urban centers where they may be exploited and abused. CAMA provides women a six-month Transition Programme, including financial literacy, business planning, reproductive health information, and leadership training. After completing the initial training, women can gain further expert training in specialized skills, including climate-smart agriculture.
CAMFED’s studies have consistently found that the second-highest cause of school dropout for girls—after poverty—is low academic self-esteem. Therefore, CAMFED provides guidance and counseling support in every partner school by trained “Teacher Mentors.” Additionally, the “My Better World” school curriculum is designed to improve students’ confidence, resilience, self-reflection, and autonomy, as well as their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It also encourages girls to become more aware of their rights, responsibilities, and values.
“Learner Guides” are peer counselors tuned into children’s needs and social challenges in their communities and equipped with the tools and resources to support children academically and socially. The guides provide a bridge between schools, families, and local authorities, as they are exceptionally prepared to protect girls from early marriage and bring them back to school. They are able to deploy their first-hand knowledge and experience where others may lack the time, insight, or resources to persevere. Learner Guides are closely connected to school and local authorities and have child-abuse reporting systems in place. They are at the forefront of social activism and have been recognized by official agencies as essential during the Covid-19 crisis. To date, CAMFED has trained almost 11,000 Learner Guides and in 2020 there were over 4,000 such guides active in Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Beyond school, “Transition Guides” support young women to capitalize on their education to become leaders, entrepreneurs, and business owners; to obtain gainful employment; or to enter advanced studies programs. The Transition Guides themselves have access to interest-free loans in exchange for their volunteer work, allowing them to start their own businesses and earn a vocational (BTEC) qualification as a stepping stone to a teacher’s training or career employment. As a result, over 11,000 CAMFED Association members created their own businesses in 2020, notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic—a true testament to the program’s resiliency and sustainability.
Through its partnerships with schools, district, and national education authorities and networks during the pandemic, CAMFED has supported the safe reopening of schools. In addition, CAMFED has been advocating for the prioritization of the most marginalized children, including those with disabilities, and for investment in a strategic transformation of the education system, ensuring that those without electricity and connectivity are not left further behind.
CAMFED recognizes that investing in girls’ education is one of the most powerful ways to address the climate crisis. Quality education and support for climate-smart livelihoods provide girls with the tools needed to sustain themselves and their families while facing climate change. It is well documented that developing nations with higher levels of female education suffer less loss of life, injury, and displacement due to weather disasters. Educated women are better prepared to champion climate-resilient technologies at the community level. They engage in national and international leadership for sustainability and make personal choices that reduce the level of carbon emissions.
CAMFED has received many awards from different agencies and organizations around the world. In 2021 it was announced as the recipient of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest annual humanitarian award. The prize is given in recognition of extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering.
Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, said: “CAMFED has revolutionized how girls’ education is delivered, tapping into local expertise in a way that is sustainable and scalable. The Jury’s selection … speaks first and foremost to its community-led approach and to the power of investing in girls. The pandemic has had a catastrophic effect on families and girls, with estimates that 11 million girls may not return to school as a result of the crisis. The time for the global community to learn from this model is now.”
Kate Zemlo Rivas is a volunteer at BGR. She lives in California and works for the University of California, Davis. Kate is also an attorney focused primarily on assisting immigrants, workers, and children. She has been a student of Buddhism for over ten years.