Graça Machel stands up for girls’ education at Hong Kong summit

At the Yidan Prize Summit in Hong Kong, former Mozambican education minister and a humanitarian in South Africa, Graça Machel, delivered a keynote address in Hong Kong advocating for girls’ education to be urgently prioritised.

The Yidan Prize Foundation, which hosts the summit, is a Hong Kong-based education initiative that recognises research and development in the education sector in order to help improve education around the world. It honoured two laureates — Professor Larry Hedges from the United States and Professor Anant Agarwal from India — for their work in the field.

Hedges founded a scientific methodology for analysing research studies to inform education policy, while Agarwal is the founder of edX — a free open-source online platform that delivers free college courses for all students around the world.

The foundation invited education stakeholders from across the globe to speak at the summit, which has become an annual event.

Machel was tasked with speaking about education in the developing world. At the heart of her speech was the need for children to be given proper nutrition in order to be able to learn. She said that investment is needed in child nutrition during a youngster’s first three years of development. She emphasised that there is a particular need when it comes to helping girls.

“Clearly there are few better investments we can make to ensure children reap the benefits of education provided to them, and break cycles of poverty in developing countries,” Machel said.

READ MORE: Africa’s education crisis must be a top development agenda priority

“And given that I am a women’s rights activist, permit me to emphasise that it is particularly strategic that girl children in the developing world are adequately nourished, educated and valued,” Machel added.

Machel, who is also the chairperson of the Graça Machel Trust, is considered a leading figure in advocacy for women’s and children’s rights. In her speech, she took the time to focus on child marriage and how it impacts on girls’ education.

On the African continent and in South Asia, child marriage still occurs at exorbitant rates despite international condemnation.

According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef), four in 10 girls are married by the time they are 18 in southern Africa. 

In southern Asia, three in 10 girls are married before they are 18, according to Unicef’s data collected from 2010 to 2017.

Machel said that the persistently high rates of child marriage are “heartbreaking”.

“From Cartagena to Cairo, to Calcutta, girls are victim to child marriage where they are often perceived as an economic burden, and many parents marry off their children in the hope of improving their financial security,” Machel said.

Sour Africa has struggled to deal with child marriage. The Commission of Gender Equality told Parliament in July that 91 000 South African children are victims of child marriage.

There remains a gap in legislation to legally forbid child marriages in the country. The Centre for Child Law has advocated for legislation to be improved so that children can be protected.

“Legislative reform is but one step towards protecting girl children from child marriages, the centre is of the view that the gaps in the current legislation, which still provides for different ages of marriage for boys and girls – with that of girls being the lowest — need to addressed and be supported by community engagement focused on educating communities about the harmful effects of child marriage,” said Karabo Ozah in a statement in July.

READ MORE: Child bride customs stop here, with us

Currently, KwaZulu-Natal has the highest incidence of child marriage with 25 000 girls between 12 and 18 reported to be victims. The act of ukuthwala — where girls are abducted and forced into marriage — has been seen as a reason for the high rates of child marriages. Gauteng has the second highest rate of child marriage with more than 15 000 children affected.

Machel called on governments around the world to take action to protect children globally.

“Knowing what we know, we must demand that governments fully meet their commitments to the investment in education, and work in partnership with civil society and the private sector to do so,” she said.

Education Minister Naledi Pandor who was also in attendance at the summit, she spoke about the importance of technical and vocational education training (TVET) colleges.

“That’s where the jobs are,” she said.

She added that the government is working to make TVET colleges as attractive to young South Africans as universities in the country, which are still regarded with more “prestige”. The colleges, she said, would help to upskill young unemployed people and give them access to apprenticeships to assist with finding jobs.

The Yidan Prize Summit will conclude on Monday, and Pandor and Machel are set to return to South Africa on Monday.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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