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A dynamic African woman lives up to Michelle Obama’s call to give girls the chance to go to school

When Michelle Obama called out “I’m in!” to the leaders of the organizations working to boost girls’ education around the world, the audience gathered at the Brookings Institution on Friday erupted.

What better way to put the issue of girls’ education on the front burner than for the first lady of the United States to give it a public shout-out?

Obama focused the bulk of her remarks on how local leadership and community-based solutions can help overcome the barriers that prevent many girls from getting an education.

She recalled the well-known risks that many girls — notably 17-year-old Nobel peace prize-winner Malala Yousafzai — face in order to attend school.

She also referred to less well-known risks for girls. She told the story of a young woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mireille Muhigwa, who was 9 years old when she saw her friends and neighbors attacked by rebel invaders. The trauma led Muhigwa to vow to help educate girls and protect them from violence. That girl is now one of the fellows in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative and plans to open an organization that, as Michelle Obama said, “will encourage girls to take out the fear and to take up pens and books.”

Obama concluded: “If they risk their lives just to go to school, then surely we can do our part to provide for girls’ education.”

The first lady spoke at a forum titled “Mobilizing for Children’s Rights, Supporting Local Leaders and Improving Girls’ Education” sponsored by the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The report, “Raising the Global Ambition for Girls’ Education” by center director Rebecca Winthrop and research analyst Eileen McGivney, provided additional information.

The day before the Brookings forum, I sat down with one of the panelists, Angeline Murimirwa, in a coffee shop at George Washington University to talk about how education has changed her life. The charming, confident Zimbabwean is the regional executive director for Camfed’s programs in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana and Malawi and a co-founder of Camfed’s 24,000-member alumnae organization.

Camfed stands for the Campaign for Female Education, a nonprofit charitable organization founded in Britain in 1993 that helps the most disadvantaged and marginalized girls in five African countries not only to go to school, but also to gain a quality education while there and eventually become leaders who will return to their communities and help other girls step into this virtuous circle.

Murimirwa is a tremendously successful woman, and her story is featured in “Half the Sky,” a book by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists about how to turn oppression into opportunity for women.

But, if Murimirwa hadn’t met another charming, confident woman, she probably wouldn’t be making her first trip to the United States and seeing snowflakes fall in Washington while preparing to participate in a panel with the first lady.

You see, Murimirwa’s story is intertwined with the story of Ann Cotton, a young Welsh woman who returned from doing graduate research in Zimbabwe some 22 years ago wondering why families in rural districts were sending their sons to school but keeping their daughters at home to till the fields and mend clothes. Was it because girls weren’t smart enough? Did society think that girls shouldn’t be educated?

The answer turned out to be something else: economics. Because boys were more likely than girls to get good jobs after graduation, many families decided that it was better to invest their scarce dollars in their sons’ education than in educating their daughters.

As Murimirwa told me, “the issue isn’t that girls aren’t academically talented, it’s that they’re poor.” Families couldn’t afford the school fees, and the schools couldn’t afford to educate the girls for free.

Overcoming this economic barrier, Cotton figured, couldn’t be all that difficult. All she needed to do was to raise some money back in her native Britain. She left Zimbabwe confident that the money would be there to pay for the girls’ books, supplies and fees. And it was. She raised enough money to send 32 girls from rural Zimbabwe to school.

Two years later, Cotton founded Camfed. Over the past 20 years, Camfed has financially supported some 1.2 million marginalized girls and provided educational support to more than 3 million students. And it isn’t finished.

As part of the Clinton Foundation’s Girls CHARGE (Collaborative for Harnessing Ambition and Resources for Girls’ Education) Initiative, Camfed chief executive Lucy Lake announced that it would help another 1 million girls in sub-Saharan Africa finish secondary school, get good jobs and become leaders themselves.

But, that’s Camfed’s story, not Angeline Murimirwa’s. It’s her story that shows what a big difference an investment in a small girl can make.

Back in the early 1990s, Angeline had completed primary school and was working with her four younger siblings on her parents’ farm in a rural village in the Chikomba district, a four-hour journey from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Earning barely enough money to put food on the table meant that continuing on to secondary school was out of the question. The money just wasn’t there.

At this point, Angeline paused to tell me about Zimbabwe’s educational history.

In the years following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the country formerly known as Rhodesia embarked on an ambitious program to make education more accessible in rural areas. The government of President Robert Mugabe planned to build a primary school every five kilometers and a secondary school every 10 kilometers. Almost all children attended primary school. Education was subsidized for a while until, as Murimirwa explained, some studies came out showing that such subsidies weren’t sustainable. The government cut back on its financial support for education, and families had to shoulder much of the cost of schooling.

That plan made secondary school unaffordable for many rural children, including Murimirwa, who said she had not only earned the best score on the primary school graduation exam but also earned one of the highest scores in the entire country. She clearly had the brain power to go to school. Yet, education was out of reach. Her parents could barely scrape together enough money to survive, much less pay for books, supplies and other school fees.

“My parents sold their maize to pay for my school supplies,” Murimirwa said. “And, I felt so guilty because I knew that there was no food at home. But my teachers told me to stay in school and focus on my studies, knowing that I would be able to help my family later.”

That, she said, “was a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. I learned to draw strength from the barriers I faced.”

By luck or whatever, Ann Cotton appeared, and soon Murimirwa was being supported by Camfed. A few years later, her teachers spotted her leadership talents and made her the head student in her “A level” high school, a predominately male, white, elite school.

She initially felt uncomfortable in this role. “I was scared of being seen as perfect and being treated like a punching bag,” she explained. “Yet, I was determined not to tolerate the bullying and jeering that came from students who felt they were superior. Education taught me that I can do something about inequality.”

Through Camfed, Murimirwa has done exactly that. By the end of last year, Camfed was directly supporting 140,000 students in more than 5,000 partner schools in 115 rural districts.

“Camfed is merely the vehicle that helps the girls drive to success,” Murimirwa said. “It’s the girls themselves who have to tackle the obstacles that may be in their way.”

She laughed and added that the girls have developed a social education network to do this. “All of the girls are using ‘What’s App’ to communicate with one another.” Brooke Hutchinson, who is the director of Camfed USA and who joined us at GWU, added that Camfed provides the phones.

Murimirwa is passionate about having women be part of the decision-making process. She’s a member of a learning task force and insists that when education issues are being discussed, a Camfed woman must be included. And, she chuckled: “We’re not there to serve coffee or to take minutes! We’re there to make sure that key issues are raised. “

She’s also working to involve the community in developing a curriculum that will prepare students for the 21st century. “We went out and asked people: ‘What do you wish to have learned in school?’” she said. “We found that people wanted to learn how to think critically and demonstrate empathy, to become financially literate, to develop entrepreneurship skills and to understand technology.”

We ended our conversation by talking about the role of women in government. Murimirwa sees the important role of mentors and having women in leadership roles.

“I’m a leader, and I want people to see that my success is their success,” she explained. People shouldn’t see girls as a problem that needs to be fixed.

“Poverty is the enemy,” she stressed. “And it’s not something anyone chooses. I had nothing to do with who my parents are or where I was born. Why should I suffer over something I had no choice in?”

With an education, the 35-year-old mother of four concluded, “I can become the mother that I want to be. School teaches me that I can succeed.”

And succeed she has. The next day, as Angelina Murimirwa shared the spotlight with Michelle Obama, she embodied her own words: “Education doesn’t alienate you, it allows you to become a shining light for your community.”