10/11/2014 06:29 EDT | Updated 12/11/2014 05:59 EST

How #DayoftheGirl Can Help Prevent Ebola Outbreaks

Women and young girls hold up their fists during a protest against the Egyptian military's ouster of president Mohamed Morsi at the Place de l'Obelisque in Dakar on August 22, 2013. More than 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt the past week in violence following the forcible break-up of two pro-Morsi camps in the capital. AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU (Photo credit should read SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

It's #DayoftheGirl, and I won't see my 14-year-old because she was up at dawn to head out for a day of ski training. Fine by me. Girls tend to know what they want, what they need and how to get it.

Any doubt of that will quickly vanish if you read this outstanding little book from MasterCardFoundation and Camfed International.

It highlights, with stunning photography, the ambitions of young women across Ghana, and comes as stark contrast to the images we're seeing from the Ebola-stricken countries elsewhere in West Africa.

They're not unrelated. As Bertha, one of the young women in the book, says: "When you educate a girl, everything changes."


Among the many ugly lessons from the Ebola zone is the cost of poor primary health care, and how it is directly correlated to female literacy.

We know better. From Vietnam to Jordan to Ghana, we know that frontline health care improves when women are involved. Better still if they are in charge, as professionally trained workers, and educated mothers with freedom to make health care decisions for their families.

Consider these statistics from the Ebola zone. In Liberia, according to 2011 data from Unesco, the literacy rate is 27 per cent for women and 61 per cent for men. In Sierra Leone, it's 33 per cent for women, and 55 per cent for men. In Guinea, it's appalling: 12 per cent for women, and 37 per cent for men.

Of the 20 worst performing countries in terms of educating girls, the ones Unesco says won't achieve female literacy in our lifetime, 13 are in West Africa.

That can change, cheaply. Girls' education is the single best investment any country can make. In Ghana, where basic education has been a priority for decades, the female literacy rate is 65 per cent. That's not stellar and below the 78 per cent for men, but a clear reason why its health care is so much better than the region's.

That doesn't make it easy for Bertha. She shares a single room with her family, trying to get to bed at 7 p.m. so she can rise at 2 a.m. to cram in her studies, in time to leave for school at 7 a.m. But at least she has a school to go to. Her goal? To be a paediatrician.

I spent a day this summer with young women like Bertha, and men, who are at university thanks to the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, a decade-long initiative to help the next generation of African leaders.

Of course, they're at the elite end of the girl challenge, but their obstacles are ordinary in Africa. One described having to rise at dawn to cook for her entire family, then go to high school where she was the top student, study, study, study, and then return home at night to spend hours on her hands and knees scrubbing the family home and yard. She's now at an American university, on scholarship, feeling, she said, a tad guilty living in a university residence, watching others -- women, she noted -- cleaning her dorm.

Painfully, this is not new. The United Nations has been pushing for the rights of girls -- to education, health care, sexual freedom -- since the 1980s. And yet, female literacy in West Africa has been a crisis all along.

Now, thanks to Ebola, it's a global crisis.

We should welcome the wake-up call, so that a decade from now, we're relying a lot less on emergency teams from the Centres for Disease Control and a lot more on millions of educated women like Bertha. That education is her right, as a human being. It also just happens to be our best investment for an Ebola-free world.


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