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[OPINION] On educating girls

I had the privilege of going to a private girls school from a co-educational government school. What I learned was that you don’t have to be academic or super sporty to attend a private school. This was clear as I was an average student who was taught at school how to swim. What you need is access. What you need is support and guidance.

We need to focus on raising girls who are not from positions of access, but who can provide leadership and add value to their places of study, work and our country. These are not the same qualities of the top academic and sport performers who are selected and recruited on potential for academic and sporting excellence, but more on aptitude and attitude.

I didn’t realise that we as a family had a little until I was introduced to people who had a lot. My definition of a lot and a little was discerned and redefined as I navigated my way through the passages of privilege. I had white and coloured friends who were all at different levels of have and have not. It was interesting but it didn’t have any bearing on how they showed up for me.

The interest it promoted was on how as people we measure success and abundance by counting things. What I realised being among my classmates was that we were peers. My parents and some of their parents had taught us that we may all appear different from each other but we are equals as people. There were no perfect families, there were no model scholars, and whether we dealt with it or not, we all had our own complexities.

Materially the things we had relative to that which we were introduced to through play dates and school outings were nice to have, but not necessities. We did not have a swimming pool, we had one car and one bathroom, my sisters and I shared bedrooms. With the guidance and support of our parents we had no shame, judgement or feelings about having less; instead we appreciated the privilege of education. We had what we needed and what most of South Africa still doesn’t have. We were always in the middle, I guess.

I find in South Africa, the newest version, if you have a rags to riches story it makes news. If you grew up middle class, you are open to being judged. To some, we were not poor enough to understand. My impression is that you don’t have to be poor to be curious and aware and useful in a community where a lot of the people are poor.

I feel strongly that the educational opportunities created for us by our parents should be created for hundreds and thousands more South African girls. I feel strongly that not enough emphasis is being placed on the education, development and nurturing of girls for leadership and opportunity in our country. We teach our daughters about Malala Yousafzai, but how many of them have been supported to have her courage, her love of learning and her commitment to girls everywhere. Why should Oprah Winfrey invest in South African education for girls, why can’t we also do it?

I have learnt we are all always in the middle. When we look around we will see people who have more than us and people who have less than us. Again, this is not only related to material things. For me the measurable in life includes the quality of relationships. Relationships between parents and children, children and friends, teachers and scholars, role models where parents are functional and giving children access to a support system where they feel heard, seen and acknowledged.

Only at our 30-year school reunion did we get to discuss the types of things we dealt with as adolescents. Some girls were being sexually abused at home, some had alcoholic delinquent parents, some had blended families which did not gel, and some did not know how their school fees would be paid each month, some of the top performers were also materially the worst off in the group. It gave a great perspective to how things still work today.

I recently had the privilege of meeting with a young girl selected from many girls to attend Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls. My family and I supported her with all the clothing and odds and ends she needed and I am available to her as a personal mentor if and when she needs me. This opportunity will change the life of a young girl whose mom died when she was 4 and whose dad has a new family. It will also make a difference to the grand-aunts and uncles who have raised her to be the fine 12-year-old she is.

I also met a woman who fostered the 8-year-old daughter of the lady who worked in their home. They educated her through a well-known model C school, gave her access to dancing and music lessons and she is now a UCT trained engineer off to Johannesburg to pursue a career for which she was headhunted.

I find myself clear and sure that our country will be saved by measurable acts of restitution, not kindness. If we can all find that spot in ourselves to give back to society, not our extras or don’t needs but of ourselves, of our hard-earned money, valuable time and social conscience that there is more we can do.

Focussing only on those who are at the top of their game academically and athletically is one way, I am encouraging us to find a medium that has a further reach.

When we educate girls, we really extend ourselves and embrace the possibility that men and women can be treated as equals everywhere, in a measurable and visible way. Boardrooms, bedrooms, classrooms, corporate ladders, as voices and leadership icons.

It’s been said, “Mothers raise their daughters and love their sons” - I say we should love and raise our children equally. While the playing fields are unequal we should create and support equity.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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