On Day of the Girl, Celebrating a School Program That Works

It is auspicious that the U.N. International Day of the Girl Child falls on October 11, 2015, close on the heels of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. As the U.N. sets out to attain gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030, the occasion provides an opportunity to highlight how adolescent girls are taking control of their own empowerment and setting the tone for women’s equality for the next 15 years.

The fate of girls’ equality and empowerment lies in the cultivation of their leadership. The full power of the adolescent girl must be crafted and promoted by girls themselves in order to exemplify and display their full capabilities as leaders of their schools, communities and the world. Leadership roles in schools provide a platform for empowerment and send a message to the world that girls and women are formidable allies in the quest for gender equality.

In Siem Reap province, the power of adolescent girls is recognized, harnessed and cultivated through the Student Council Program at Caring for Cambodia (CFC) schools. The program aims to promote three qualities of the students: good child, good friend, and good student. In this program, girls in grades 4 through 12 lead school initiatives such as participating in community projects, representing the student body, and providing a voice in school affairs. They work alongside boys in creating better schools and communities and learn important problem solving and leadership skills that can serve them later in life.

Girls’ leadership and success in the Student Council Program serves as an example of equality, collaboration and capability and highlights the power of adolescent girls. The CFC Student Council Program puts girls in the spotlight as capable leaders and this has an impact in gender attitudes and beliefs in these schools. An evaluation of the Student Council Program conducted by a research team at Lehigh University’s College of Education showed that members of the student council reported more equitable attitudes and beliefs regarding career options than those students who were not members.

For example, in a job that is commonly male-dominated, 36 percent of the student council members—versus 23 percent of non-student council members—agreed that being an engineer is a job suitable for both men and women. Student council members, compared to their nonmember counterparts, were also less likely to agree with the following beliefs: “men should not help with household chores—19 vs. 30 percent”; “better to educate boys than girls—19 vs. 34 percent”; “women should not have higher education—16 vs. 30 percent”; and “women should not have the rights to express opinions—16 vs. 30 percent.”

The leadership positions, such as those that student council membership provides, allows opportunities for girls to recognize their own capabilities as leaders and to show their teachers, principals, parents and community leaders the benefits of female leaders in communities.

It is possible that student council members already hold more equitable attitudes and beliefs, and are therefore more likely to lead in schools. Even this argument advocates for the expansion of such programs as a way improve gender equity and girls’ empowerment. If student council members hold more equitable attitudes and beliefs when they join the program, then the power of student council membership lies in the leadership example provided by girls as they show other students that these attitudes and beliefs lead to success. In this program, girls are at the forefront of leadership in schools, proving to themselves and those around them their capacity as powerful voices for equality and empowerment and their capacity for creating a powerful future for themselves.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, it is critical to examine not only the deficits in gender equity in education, but also to look to programs and approaches that are empowering girls around the world. The Student Council Program at CFC serves as an example of the way that leadership in schools highlights the power of the adolescent girl.

As we look to improve gender equity by 2030, it is important to remember that empowerment cannot simply be handed to girls around the world as if it were a gift bestowed upon them. Empowerment lies in the ability of girls around the world to lead the way to equality.

Kelly Grace is a graduate student in comparative and international education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Sothy Eng is professor of practice in comparative and international education program at Lehigh University’s College of Education.

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