I am often asked why I have chosen to work in education and as the lead for the charity PEAS in Zambia. My zeal to work around gender issues, and with girls in particular, has been influenced by my conviction that you cannot achieve development while leaving half of the team behind. This belief is based on the knowledge that if over 50% of our population is female, so too should half of school students be girls.

Without the education opportunities afforded to me as a girl, I would not be in the senior position I am today. As the Managing Director of PEAS Zambia, one of the key things that inspired me to pursue this career are the mission routed on increased access to secondary education. Increased access to secondary school education for girls is the core value we look to achieve.

Consider the implications of not providing equal access: there is no way we will talk about sustainable development if half of the population remains behind. There are so many advantages and proverbs that have proved it right such as “when you educate a boy you educate one person and when you educate the girl child you educate a nation”.

The benefits of education are life changing. The literate girl is given a chance to make informed decision based on their sexual reproductive health, early marriages or any other social amenities that comes with living in a poor community. This is my personal experience too: I have seen the incredible difference educated girls have been able to make in impacting their families and overall the communities in the long term.

“You cannot achieve development while leaving half of the team behind

One of my roles as PEAS Managing Director has been to mainstream female education and ensure that enrolment at our schools reaches an equal gender split. Right now in our secondary schools 51% of our 810 pupils are girls. I continue to advocate for more girls to have increased access to school places as one way of ending the cycle of poverty in the long term as an educated girl will make informed choices on issues that affect them.

So many sayings and research has been done concerning the issue of the need to invest in education, great people such as Nelson Mandela who said, education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. The future in Zambia looks bleak if there is no increased investment and support in girls’ education and this will mean, statistically, the poor will not have an opportunity to change their economy. Of course, the issue of female education is not only a Zambian challenge but a global challenge that result in various campaigns. So many issues, including child marriage, teen pregnancy, HIV rates and low future income, can be influenced by increased access to secondary education for girls. This has been proven time and again.

The potential of girls is huge. In the recent Grade 9 exam results our female students not only outperformed the girls’ national average by 13% but they also scored better than the boys. This is, in no small part, influenced by women taking the leadership positions in our schools, providing positive role models to girls and creating an environment that allows them to reach their potential.

On International Women’s Day it is vital to recognise the role we play in creating our female leaders of the future. To provide them the tools they need now is to lay the foundation for a changed Zambia in years to come.  I feel the work of PEAS in secondary education is key and, in the long term, will help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in improved quality of life for all.

Racheal Kalaba is the PEAS Zambia Managing Director. Find out more about the work of PEAS.