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Why keeping girls in school is a good strategy to cope with climate change

Tawonga Zakeyu of Malawi graduated from Earth University in Costa Rica in December 2021 and now teaches women farmers how to cope with the challenges posed by a changing climate. One strategy: Drip irrigation using recycled plastic bottles is a big help during a drought.
Hellenah Khunga
Tawonga Zakeyu of Malawi graduated from Earth University in Costa Rica in December 2021 and now teaches women farmers how to cope with the challenges posed by a changing climate. One strategy: Drip irrigation using recycled plastic bottles is a big help during a drought.

Tawonga Zakeyu is the oldest of 13 siblings. She grew up in Machinga District in the southern region of Malawi, the 12th-poorest country in the world.

Zakeyu is working for an organization called CAMFED – the Campaign for Female Education – on a key, often-overlooked strategy in the fight against the climate crisis: women's and girls' education.

And her own life story is an illustration of the many different benefits of this strategy. Thanks to CAMFED, she finished high school and college, studied abroad in Costa Rica and learned Spanish, and at the age of 24, she lives on her own, does work she loves, sends extra money back home and isn't thinking about getting married any time soon.

Tawonga Zakeyu applies fertilizer to lettuce crops as part of her coursework at Earth University.
/ Tawonga Zakeyu
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Tawonga Zakeyu
Tawonga Zakeyu applies fertilizer to lettuce crops as part of her coursework at Earth University.

"It feels good that I'm contributing to someone's life," she says. "I can see the impact I'm making in a girl child's life."

Organizations like Drawdown and the Brookings Institution affirm that universal, high-quality education for all genders is key to tackling the climate crisis.

The most direct reason is that when girls are allowed to stay in school, they tend to wait longer to get married. This is especially important in countries like Malawi, where the average age of a woman at first birth was 19 in 2016, and women go on to have an average of four children. Educated girls, like Zakeyu, also become more economically empowered, which gives them more agency to access health-care services like birth control.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic was a major setback for girls' education in particular. Lockdowns shuttered schools around the world. Low-income countries suffered economically and on average took much longer to reopen schools. And girls were pushed to take on caregiving responsibilities and paid work. As a result, UNICEF calculated that over the next ten years, up to 10 million more girls are at the risk of becoming child brides.

The nexus between fertility and climate can be a tricky issue to talk about ethically. These organizations are clear that, first, rich countries are far more responsible for carbon emissions, and second, that coercive reproductive policies have no place in a climate agenda that respects human rights. Still, Drawdown, a nonprofit which focuses on solutions to the climate crisis, calculates that investment in voluntary – key word – family planning programs, together with universal high-quality education, could reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases by 68.90 gigatons between 2020 and 2050.

Education also helps women and their families survive climate disasters, which are becoming more frequent and more severe. Ruth Naylor, at the Education Development Trust, says that to take one striking example, in Bangladesh, girls weren't traditionally taught to swim. But by expanding access to swimming, the country "has really managed to turn the dial on how many women die in the floods." (In June, the country launched a massive new effort to offer swimming lessons to children 6-10).

"I don't want to put girls and women in a box as victims or as saviors," Naylor says.

"But if we think of vulnerabilities and agency, I think it's really important to think about girls education from that point of view, because ... we know that in climate-related disasters, it tends to be often a disproportionate number of girls and women who are impacted, who die, especially in flooding but also in droughts and and storms."

Climate resilience through women's education can take many other forms, like women learning to follow weather reports or choose more durable construction techniques for their homes. Or as Zakeyu is doing, to make farming more resilient and productive despite changing weather.

Tawonga Zakeyu (foreground, left) demonstrates pit planting<strong> </strong>-- which can prevent water runoff and erosion — for young women on a farm in Thekerani, Malawi. Zakeyu helps train women farmers.
/ Tawonga Zakeyu
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Tawonga Zakeyu
Tawonga Zakeyu (foreground, left) demonstrates pit planting -- which can prevent water runoff and erosion — for young women on a farm in Thekerani, Malawi. Zakeyu helps train women farmers.

Zakeyu is training other girls to be a part of CAMFED's Agriculture Guides program. This program supports young women farmers, who tend to own small plots of land, to increase their yields and practice "climate-smart" agriculture. This includes techniques like drip irrigation, which uses water more efficiently; they teach a thrifty method, poking holes in reused plastic bottles. Women are also encouraged to switch to traditional crops like cassava that use less water, and to practice agroforestry, by planting trees to shade their crops, increasing yields while reducing water needs.

Zakeyu says the people she works with need no convincing of the reality of climate change. They can see it.

"I remember last year when I was talking to my mom ... and she was telling me that it hasn't started raining yet. And then in November it still wasn't raining, and the rain came around December. I was like, wow, because before, I would say, like 10 years ago, in October, November, people have already started planting, and by January, February, the maize is ready."

And when the rain does come, often it's in torrents. In February of this year, "It was raining, I think, for like four days and we didn't have electricity the entire four days and in some places we didn't have water. And right now, people at the lowest parts of Malawi, they are homeless because their houses, they fell down. Their animals, they're washed away." She says it's unfair that they are experiencing such severe effects from climate change, because people in Malawi are responsible for just 0.11 tons of carbon emissions per person; in the U.S. it's 15 tons per person.

Despite her frustrations, Zakeyu finds a lot of reward in her work, which she says has benefits at many different levels. "We want to restore our environment and then we want these women to have food at the same time, have enough to sell, to have money, to be economically empowered and not just for them, but also for their families, for their community." With her own life as an example, the young women she is training, and the young women farmers they are training, she is pushing back against a culture where families are more apt to pay school fees for a son than for a daughter. "With CAMFED, we are trying to teach the nation that when you educate a girl child, everything changes."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.