09/10/2015 5:16 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

When You Educate A Girl, You Educate A Nation

While we've been preoccupied righting the gender wrongs at our doorstep, we need to ensure that we don't leave our sisters behind. Our sisters who would give anything for an education, to lift themselves, their families, communities, and even their entire country, out of poverty.

Ami Vitale via Getty Images
KENEMA, SIERRA LEONE - JULY 22: (FEATURE STORY - CONFLICT IN AFRICA 4 OF 7) A Sierra Leonian girl stands outside her house July 22, 2002 along the border of Liberia on the eastern border of Sierra Leone. This area has experienced some of the heaviest fighting during the war in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Sierra Leone, known for some of the decade's worst war crimes, is keeping a fragile peace as its neighbor Liberia spirals into more intense fighting. Liberia's rebels have waged an insurgency for three years, but have stepped up attacks recently against President Charles Taylor's government. Taylor, a former warlord who won presidential elections in 1997, says he is being targeted by some of his rivals from the 1989-96 civil war. The heavy toll on civilians in the fighting poses a threat to the stability of other countries in the region, including Sierra Leone. There are about 50,000 refugees in Sierra Leone now according to the World Food Program and 100,000 internally displaced people within Liberia. Sierra Leone, which has the U.N's largest peacekeeping mission with 17,3000 troops, is recovering from a ruthless 10-year-old war. (Photo by Ami Vitale/Getty Images)

I was almost ashamed to look directly at her. She stared at the ground, but that couldn't hide her two bruised eyes, a cut lip, and an abnormally swollen face. You could see the shame she felt. And while the naïve 27-year-old part of me wondered why she didn't just leave her husband, it would take me some time before I realised she had less choice than most.

Violence against women has been pushed into the spotlight in Australia over the past few years. From Jill Meagher, who was violently raped and killed after walking home from a night out with her friends, to Rosie Batty, an extraordinary woman who has turned the murder of her son into a national campaign against domestic violence.

We're shining a light on something we've been too afraid to talk about. Something that happens more often than we'd like to admit, and when it does happen, it's behind closed doors. We're taking action to combat it, and that makes me proud to be an Australian.

But then I think back to that woman I met three years ago, the one who refused to lift her head to show the damage her husband had inflicted on her face, and I realise we still have a long way to go.

She wasn't Australian -- she was African. I met her in Sierra Leone, one of the worst places on earth to be born a girl.

Sierra Leone is a country where a girl is more likely to be sexually assaulted than to go to high school. Where almost one third of girls are sold into marriage before they turn 15. During my time researching and working on the ground in West Africa, I've met girls as young as 11 who were engaged to men old enough to be their fathers. Violence against women is so common it's almost part of the culture.

I remember meeting one girl, Fatu, who was sold to a 55-year-old blacksmith when she was just 14 years old. She was pulled out of school at 14 when her family couldn't pay for her fees. She was married and pregnant at 14 with her first child at 15, and second at 16.

Fatu told us that when she had her second child, she fell into a deep depression and began to grieve. She wondered, "What kind of world am I bringing these girls into? What opportunities could I possibly give them?"

And she was right to ask that question.

I've met other girls in Fatu's situation who were beaten so often that trips to the ER had become a weekly occurrence. And yet they still stayed, mostly because they had no other option. They stay with their abuser, or they risk their young family starving. They lacked the one thing that could change everything for them -- an education.

But Fatu was one of the lucky ones. After joining a teenage mothers' club she learnt that there are laws banning child marriage. She was taught the skills to start her own business so she wasn't entirely dependent on her husband. Education wasn't only opening doors for her, it was opening her mind as well -- to the possibility of a better future.

And that's where things really started to change.

Fatu started her own small business selling cakes in her community. After realising she wasn't reliant on her husband for food and shelter, Fatu made a promise to herself that she would leave her husband and find a way back to school.

While we've been preoccupied righting the gender wrongs at our doorstep, we need to ensure that we don't leave our sisters behind. Our sisters who would give anything for an education, to lift themselves, their families, communities, and even their entire country, out of poverty.

Education is one of the strongest weapons we have against gender inequality. An educated girl will marry later, and have fewer children. For every year of schooling, her income will increase by at least 10-25 percent, and she'll reinvest 90 percent of the money she earns back into her family. Educating a girl has a multiplier effect -- when you educate a girl, you educate a nation

For me, meeting girls like Fatu changed everything. After my first trip to Sierra Leone in 2008, I decided to sell my apartment and set up an organisation that would provide education to some of the most vulnerable women and girls in the world.

That's a drastic example, but the truth is that we ALL have the ability to make a difference. It costs just $300 to give a girl access to education for a year. We have to stop asking why the problem is so large -- and start thinking about what small actions we can take, today, to contribute to a solution.


Chantelle Baxter is co-founder of One Girl -- an organisation dedicated to giving 1 million girls across Africa access to education by 2020. She has been recognised as one of Mamamia's Most Clickable Women (2013), Cosmopolitan Magazine's 30 Influential Aussie Women Under 30 and Melbourne's Top 100 Most Influential People (The Age).