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Placing a Value on School

Girls Help Open Doors For Peers in Mali

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page GZ03

As Mira Fleming, an eighth-grader at Newport Mill Middle School, carried her heavy load of textbooks each day around the Kensington campus, she never really considered how lucky she was.

But she would learn that in countries such as Mali, girls -- just by virtue of being girls -- don't have the opportunities she and her friends do. They can't take English or groan about math and social studies homework. No, in some countries, school is only for boys.

From left, Danielle Jones, Anika Manzoor, Emily Catanuso, Thandiwe Pope-Johns and Mira Fleming. (Rafael Crisostomo For The Washington Post)

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Now Mira is working to change that.

She and other girls last year formed School Girls Unite, a group with members from several schools and an array of places, including young women originally from Togo and Cameroon, who want to help change the lives of other girls.

Its focus is to raise money to send girls in Mali, a West African nation, to school. The girls picked Mali in part because two of the group's members are from that country. They have been selling pencils and pens, and in February they held their first major fundraiser, a variety show that raised more than $5,000.

Mira and her Newport Mill classmates were shocked when they learned that 64 percent of girls in Mali don't have the opportunity to go to school. UNICEF had identified the country as one of 25 in need of emergency action to improve education for girls. It costs $40 a year to send one girl to school in Mali.

"We all get the chance to go to school,'' said Emily Catanuso, 13. "But 64 percent of these girls don't go to school. It's bad and it's not fair, because they deserve the same opportunities we have.''

In just over a year, the 20 girls have raised more than $8,000, met Mali's ambassador, Abdoulaye Diop, at a fundraiser and rubbed elbows with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

"It's a lot of fun to meet an important person who cares about the same things you do,'' Rachel Berlage, 13, said about New York's junior senator.

The girls designed a Web site, www.schoolgirlsunite.org, with information about the group, pictures of their activities and directions on how to help with fundraising. They also have an international connection: They've partnered with a group of 10th-grade girls in Mali lucky enough to be in school to help raise funds.

"My favorite part is just knowing that I'm doing something good for someone else," said Danielle Jones, 13. "We take education for granted, and they can't even go to school."

Wendy Lesko, the group's adviser, said she is inspired by the girls' enthusiasm.

"They really do realize, 'Wow, education is important' and 'We're so lucky,'" said Lesko, who works with the Youth Activism Project, a national clearinghouse that encourages youths to participate in public policy decision-making. "It moves so far beyond a cliche. They see pictures of the schools in other places and get a sense that the world is so different in these developing countries.''

The girls are not stopping with Mali. The "Send My Friend to School'' campaign now underway is designed to raise awareness among richer nations that there is much they can do to help improve educational opportunities for those in poorer countries.

As part of that, the girls are making life-size cutouts that will be sent to President Bush as a reminder of children who don't have the opportunity to get an education.

"I like knowing I'm actually doing something, instead of staying home and watching TV,'' Mira said. "It's about sharing the wealth.''

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