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Sep. 20, 2018, 3:10 PM UTC

The lottery of birth shapes the lives of so many children — and seals the fate of millions of girls

Alongside the challenges that come with poverty is a lack of education.

Comcast-NBCUniversal and MSNBC are the premiere media partner of Global Citizen. Global Citizen is a non-partisan organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty worldwide. The following is an opinion piece by Davinia James.

As a young woman born in a developing country, Jamaica, my life could have easily taken a different path. At three months old, born to a late-teen mother with limited funds, I became extremely ill and was left in the care of a community activist whom my mother thought would be able to provide better care for me.

Life for my mother, a pregnant teen, was challenging. A single mother to three children, she was only able to complete a partial high school education. This was not only her reality, but that of her sisters and a majority of the young women she grew up with. Alongside the challenges that come with poverty is a lack of education.

The simple skills of reading and writing are those that children should be acquiring during their early childhood development. Over 100 million young women living in developing countries are unable to read a single sentence, according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I witnessed the challenges my mother faced with limited reading and writing skills. Fortunately, the community activist that looked after me was able to teach me beyond these basic skills. Thanks to my mother’s agonizing choice to provide me with a better alternative outside of my community, the generational cycle of poor literacy ended with me.

At age 12, I ultimately lived with my mother, but in a new community that was different from the one I had known. It was at this time that I had my first period. It was something I felt incredibly embarrassed about and at the time, made me want to disappear. I didn’t understand what was happening to my body and I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it.

Even with limited means, I had support, between my home and school, providing the knowledge for me to effectively navigate through this new chapter of my life. There is a great deal of stigma surrounding menstruation, especially in developing areas of the world. There is also a lack of access to feminine care products, which increases the chance of girls being absent from the classroom — because it’s easier to hide at home. Their education is compromised as a result of their biology.

In sub Saharan Africa, 75% of girls start school but only 8% finish (UNESCO). When girls are on their period and don’t have access to sanitary napkins, they become resourceful using mud, leaves, newspaper, dirty socks, magazines and anything they can find. While many girls around the world have the luxury of buying female sanitary items as needed, this is a farfetched hope for millions living in developing countries.

To help girls in need, I have collaborated with the Hope and Dreams Initiative, a grassroots, not-for-profit helping Nigerian girls who are absent from the classroom due to their period, return to and stay in school with WASH libraries and sanitary products.

When I was a preschool teacher, I incorporated global issues into the learning curriculum. I shared with my students the fact that girls around the world were not attending school. In response, they asked me the tough, brutally unfiltered questions that kids often do:

  1. How do girls grow up?
  2. How do girls become mothers?
  3. How do girls do things they want to do?

Simple questions, yet so profound and complex to answer. And part of the damning answer is just, "It depends on where you are born." The lottery of birth shapes the lives of so many children - and seals the fate of millions of girls.

According to UNESCO, 131 million girls are out of school: 32.1 million at primary level, 29.1 million at lower secondary school level and 69.1 million at upper secondary school level. Girls’ education is at risk and without quality education, girls remain trapped in a life that I narrowly escaped — one that doesn’t offer them a chance at becoming anything more than just another statistic.

I was lucky. I was adopted after my mother passed away when I was a teenager, by a well-off family in Maryland, and my adoptive mother was my mother’s best friend. She never denied me any opportunities and I completed adolescence — and my education.

But I carry my life experiences with me. Witnessing the challenges young women face every day in gaining an education, and having lived through many of those, are what inspired me to become a catalyst of change for other women. My initiative, the Pennies4Girls Project, has collected 2 million pennies and has sent over 300 girls to school in developing countries.

One way to end global poverty is through quality education for girls worldwide.