Kathy Coskran (right) with an Ethiopian girl she sponsored.
Kathy Coskran (right) with an Ethiopian girl she sponsored.

At a Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis titled “Can We Save Our Planet,” the former executive director of the Sierra Club was asked, “What can we do to halt the population explosion that threatens the planet?” The speaker’s answer: “Educate girls.” I nearly jumped out of my chair and shouted YES!

I had recently returned to Minnesota from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I had attended the first gathering of 130 girls who were able to finish secondary school and go on to college because of Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL). According to The Girl Effect, when a girl gets at least seven years of education, she marries four years later than average and has two fewer children on average.

I was attracted to REAL because it was founded by Tsehai Wodajo, an Ethiopian woman who knew firsthand what was needed and what would work. She had been helped by a Swedish woman to resist early marriage and complete her education. By the time Tsehai was living in Minneapolis, with a masters degree in Social Work, working for Hennepin County, she had the vision and skills to pay it forward. She found a perfect partner in Ann Jensen, who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. They founded REAL in 2005 as a sponsorship program that supports the education of Ethiopian girls.

The secret of REAL’s success is the model. At each site, a committee of local people — all volunteers, the majority of whom must be women — identifies girls with academic potential, but who are unlikely to complete high school because of poverty. A local woman, supported by REAL, mentors each group of 15 girls in grades 6 through 12. The family receives a small stipend as an incentive to let their daughter finish school, to buy school supplies, and for the girl herself to open a savings account. By the time they graduate from REAL, the girls are ready for university, have developed a practice of saving for the future, have the bank book to show for it, and have a supportive sisterhood to fall back on.

By connecting the girls across sites, they see they are part of something bigger than their local sisterhood of 15 — and that together they are strong and capable.

Graduates at the Ethiopian conference talked about their university experience and their jobs as midwives, engineers, teachers, accountants, hotel managers, doctors and nurses. Afterward, a woman from Kotobe wrote: “In this conference I learn that woman is not less than man.”
Another girl said, “We are not poor. We have a vision.”