Aiding 60 million lives one class at a time

Foundation’s founder talks about empowering women through education

Wanda Bedard, founder of the girl’s educational charity 60 Million Girls Foundation, will be featured at a talk on the Oct. 15 on a pilot self-learning project focusing on young girls in rural Sierra Leone.

Bedard, a Montreal local, started the charity group in the late ‘90s after repeatedly hearing and reading about the plight of Afghan women under the harshly and repressive rule of the theocratic Taliban regime.

Shocked by their narrow existence and enraged by such squandered potential, Bedard decided to get involved herself. One Sunday morning, disgusted after reading a story of an Afghani girl sold by her father to a much older warlord for a pittance, she decided to change directions and work towards the betterment of the millions of disenfranchised women the world over.

“I can be upset after reading these things, but if I don’t take action and participate, I’m not helping improve things or change things,” said Bedard on her motivation.

Falling back on her professional experience as a businesswoman, she spent the next severak years trying to understand, in her words, why women were so little valued. She self-researched and attended workshops, volunteered for organizations like UNICEF, and sought out anybody who could better inform her on the workings of international aid organizations. She also realized only education could fundamentally elevate the conditions of the women in the world’s most unstable and poor countries.

The 60 Million Girls Foundation’s mandate is to fundraise and aid two to three projects a year completely though volunteers — as Bedard says, pretty much their entire staff has day jobs on the side, but this allows for “99 percent” of money raised to go to the sources that need them These projects are realized by established and registered Canadian charities who pitch their proposals and budgets to scrutiny and feasibility studies by Bedard’s foundation.

“Because we’re a public foundation we have no capital so we start pretty well at zero dollars every January and then we do the fundraising throughout the year,” she explained of the efforts that have seen the foundation give grants totaling $300,000 at a time for a grand total of $1.9 million over the years, spread over 16 projects.

“We take an awful lot of care in choosing our partners,” said Bedard of the risks and difficulties in carrying out operations in states where corruption and violence may be endemic. Only groups with a proven track record of strong connections to these communities and visions beyond the short-term are considered. Detailed budgets require reasonable administrative costs, and the foundation sometimes sends its own members (at their own expense) to check up on them. Every six months a status update is performed, which Bedard says is necessary in regions where volatile politics and instability can drastically alter the landscape they are working in.

“It’s important to us to have really close communication with our partners. It didn’t make a lot of sense of us to reinvent the organizations in the field or projects in the field when there’s already so many amazing projects going on and what they often lack is funding and partnerships,” said Bedard.

Despite some difficult instances — Bedard particularly remembers one project for post-secondary aboriginal education in Honduras marred by political instability brought on by a coup — no initiative has been abandoned or cancelled, though modifications have often occurred in response to changes in situation.

“You have to take [the instability] into account if you want to help these communities,” said Bedard.

“Any organization without strong community links and engagement won’t be successful. We constantly ask for feedback.”

With eight years of experience, 60 Million Girls has begun taking a more active role in suggesting and planning initiatives it thinks will best serve girls’ education. This, and their personal experience from travelling in Africas, is from whence springs the pilot project on self-directed computer-based learning in Sierra Leone.

“I remember being in very rural areas, hours and hours away from the nearest city, and then you’d be there and see a cell phone kiosk selling cell phone cards or telephones in the middle of nowhere. I said to myself ‘This is crazy, how could these people, who live in absolute poverty, think of buying a luxury like a cell phone? [Then I] realized this isn’t a luxury — this is a lifesaving tool. These communities did not have access to information beforehand and there is no electricity, but there are small entrepreneurs who have charging stations with generators. What I found amazing at the time was that the country actually skipped a whole generation of technology because they never had landlines for telephones and went right to cell phones.”

The challenge was figuring out a way to harness the innovation.

Rural African schools lack the resources to provide a strong education. There is a dearth of qualified teachers (Bedard estimated there are around 3.5 million missing teachers across the world) and government funding, though coming from a good place, is insufficient. Add to it the burden posed on the parents in providing for their children and making up for lost manpower back at their homesteads, and there are strong factors holding education back. 60 Million Girls therefore came up with a way to instead let the children learn on their own with the help of computers, which Bedard considers as “containers in which can be put vast amounts of information.” These computers lack certain basics like word processing, which depend on expensive add-ons like printers, and are instead outfitted with tutorial software, offline Wikipedia, and various encyclopedias. The choice of software originally focused on literacy,  but was found to be problematic as literature was culturally specific and particular to each host community. Mathematics, by contrast, was more universal in its applicability.

“We wanted to see if they worked and if the girls showed any interest. It was absolutely stunning. The girls loved it. They went through all the math videos at their level of high school, and they were clamouring for more. They were doing it on their own; there was no teacher overseeing things.” A second phase of some two-and-a-half months followed in April. It is these findings and the methodology behind it that form part of the discussion on Wednesday.

Bedard herself is already convinced.

“The research clearly shows that for every additional year of primary school that a girl gets, infant mortality rates decrease by 10 to 15 per cent. For every additional level of high school, potential revenue increases by about 25 per cent. So at the very core of it is to give the girls, and the boys depending on the projects, the tools to look after themselves, to be able to understand [the label] if they are given medicine, to understand the importance of prenatal care if pregnant, to understand the importance of nutrition or vaccination for their kids. To be able to read and write and understand basic numeracy, [the benefits] are clearly demonstrated.”

Empowering Girls: Using Educational Technology to save lives will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at  the York Amphitheatre  (room 1.615) of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex, at 1515 Ste. Catherine St. W.

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