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Conversation with Alisha Graves on Girls’ Education and Rights, and the Global Education Summit: Co-Founder, OASIS Initiative


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/22


Alisha Graves, MPH is the Co-Founder of the OASIS Initiative. She discusses: the Sahel region; the Global Education Summit; the organizations that are getting involved; girls who lose out on the access to education earlier in life; the keynote speakers; high levels of population growth typically associated with lower rights for women and girls; fundamentalist religion; freedom of choice at all levels of life; and Oasis.

Keywords: Alisha Graves, education, girls, Global Education Summit, National Institutes of Health, OASIS Initiative.

Conversation with Alisha Graves on Girls’ Education and Rights, and the Global Education Summit: Co-Founder, OASIS Initiative

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interview conducted July 21, 2021.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, today, we are here with Alisha Graves. We are talking about the Global Education Summit. In particular, it is focusing on girls’ education and family planning in the Sahel region. Its growth rate is among the highest in the world. This comes from a number of factors. However, with these societies that are in this region and this growth rate, what are the risk factors for girls not getting proper education? And what are the indicators of girls having that access to education? Noting, of course, that this is fundamentally a human right for all children, including girls.

Alisha Graves[1],[2]: Ok, so, related to risk factors for not staying in school, there are many. We started our work with a grant from the NIH, the National Institutes of Health here in the US to look at maternal mortality and morbidity. So, women dying from pregnancy and childbirth in northern Nigeria, which has one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world. Actually, through the really careful, ethical, logical work of a colleague of mine, Daniel Perlman, he and his research team found that early marriage and childbearing is one of the great risks of maternal death. so then, they began asking the communities, “Well, what alternatives are there to marriage and childbearing?” And they heard, over and over again, that the alternative is – in fact, the only viable alternative is – school. then they looked around and noticed that most of the girls were leaving school around the same time puberty started and in early adolescence, 12 or 14. So, they asked the families; this education was so important: Why are the girls not in school? And they found that consistently, the parents said, “The first daughters go to school, a great opportunity cost.” And they finished doing that for 6 years and barely read or write. So, it wasn’t worth sending their other daughters to school.

So that points to the importance of the quality of education. It also goes back to a question about risk factors. There are tremendous risks when girls leave school early and are more likely to be married and more likely to become pregnant. There is a tremendous risk to the girls’ health, which also precludes her from developing. The girl was taken out of school early, very early, is not really able to get a sense of self and a feeling of what she wants in life and ability to be able to express her own wishes and desires and form them in the first place and then express them to the people in their family and community.

So, it precludes girls from leading a full life and girls who marry and start bearing children early in addition to the health risks to them. Their own children are less likely to be educated. Their own children are less likely to have good nutrition. There’s just a lot of detriments at the household level when girls don’t complete school. then conversely, there are a lot of benefits when they do so, both in terms of girl’s self-expression, obviously literacy, numeracy and interest in that ability to work outside of the home. So, you can get a wage-paying job, should be more likely to be connected to social services, including health, health care and just generally more able to contribute to society and to the development of her community and her nation.

Jacobsen: What was the starting point of the Global Education Summit focus on girls’ education and family planning in the first place?

Graves: So, this summit itself is an international meeting to try to increase funding for education worldwide. It really is focused on education. Our event is a side event at the summit. We have been calling for increased funding, especially for girls’ education in the Sahel, for many years. So, we took advantage of this larger summit to offer a platform to make the case for really focusing on keeping girls in secondary school, because now, it’s happening in Africa. The country has changed a lot. The primary education rates have increased a lot over the last couple of decades. Secondary education, especially in the poorer countries of the region is still really low. So, we’re making the case that by keeping a focus or getting focused on girls’ secondary education.

There will be all of these other benefits, not just to the individual girls, but on a demographic level as well, because those girls are likely to get married and start bearing children later and they’re more able to negotiate with their partners about using family planning. They’re more likely to desire a smaller family and be able to achieve both with and through better communication with their partners, but also better access to health services, because that’s something that doesn’t come easily. so there are these regional and demographic benefits that will be reached by changing the demography of the region and in particular, changing the structure. So, we put the girls’ education and family planning together because, through family planning, the demographic benefits are achieved.

Jacobsen: So, the organizations that are getting involved here. What are some of the prominent ones that people can look forward to in terms of their becoming involved in this particular summit? And what are people hoping as some of the takeaways, what have been some of the takeaways in the past?

Graves: And so, we’re organizing this event. I am the co-founder and director of research and started as a project at the University of California, Berkeley. We’re also a nonprofit, also registered as a charitable organization in Canada. That’s the latest initiative in Canada and our partners are UC Berkeley. The partnership coordination unit, which is the Family Planning and Women’s Rights and Girls’ rights organization in West Africa. We have a partnership with the Center for Girls Education, which is a partner in northern Nigeria. It has had tremendous success keeping girls in school. They’ve shown a two-and-a-half-year increase in the age of marriage with girls who participated in the program. So, this is a partnership that we’re organizing this event. In terms of what we can hope for there, we’re really hoping to see a commitment from donors, especially donor agencies and the governments on how to increase aid and increase available programs for girls’ secondary education and for her reproductive health and rights in the West African Sahel.

Jacobsen: For girls who lose out on access to education earlier in life, what happens to them?

Graves: Everybody has a different story, but we know from surveys, demographic and health surveys and national-level surveys; we know that the less educated girls, again, are likely to marry earlier. They’re less likely to have access to health services. That includes reproductive health services, counselling. They’re less likely to have decision-making power in the household. So, that could be regarding household resources like money and making decisions about their own ability to leave home. So, this goes on in terms of how empowerment decision-making/power is correlated with education. So, importantly, there’s a virtuous circle that happens, which is that mothers always want to see their children as educated or better educated than they are. To the one, we can keep girls in school. We know that there’ll be benefits to their own children in terms of what the mom expects and can be able to navigate for her children’s education.

Jacobsen: Now, who are going to be the keynote speakers at this particular summit?

Graves: And so, I feel like I need to clarify this. Our event is a side event at the larger summit. We are an official side event, but ours is a half-day conference. Next Tuesday in the larger summit is full day, next Wednesday and Thursday, I believe, and possibly Thursday and Friday. So, I’m not sure who the keynote speakers at the Global Education Summit are. We have a few very high-profile speakers that were mentioned. One of them is Professor Nicolas Meda, who is a special advisor to the President of Burkina Faso and also a former minister of health. Another is the high commissioner to the Sahel coalition. He’s the former minister of agriculture of Chad. It’s interesting with the conference dedicated to education and training of West African women. But these are two of the most… I don’t know if they describe themselves as feminists, but I know them personally and they’re very active and in a position to influence education and rights in the region. So, we’re hoping to get a special guest, but I know it’s not confirmed and that person is a very high-profile education advocate. So, I’ll let you know if that changes in the next day or two. Another person to mention is one of the key speakers, Habiba Mohammad, who is the director of the Center for Girls Education or a partner in northern Nigeria. She, for 15 years, has been dedicated to helping to keep girls at school and really changing social norms and expectations of girls and in the state, actually. But now, we have seen ripple effects throughout northern Nigeria.

Jacobsen: Are high levels of population growth typically associated with lower rights for women and girls?

Graves: Very good question. My guess is, “Yes.” But I think the probably more careful answer would be to say that we know high rates of population growth generally correspond to an age structure that used to be very young. There is a lot of evidence that shows that a youthful age structure of the country is more associated with greater civil unrest. So, I think in the context of the Sahel, which is a very young population, the regional population is very, very young. There been as long as I’ve been paying attention to it – for about 12 years now. There’s just increasing unrest and violence. So, I think that compromises women’s and girls’ rights. It compromises the well-being of the people in the region at large. But women and girls tend to be more affected by violence in terms of their own safety, facility to move around places and so forth. So, I think that’s part of the relationship there.

One of the things I would say about this relationship is we know when it easier it is for girls or women to access family planning services, which includes counselling and contraceptive methods, the more likely they are to uptake it. So, it’s an obvious thing to say. But I think there are so many barriers to accessing reproductive health services in the Sahel that there’s a relationship between the ability to access, usage rates, and contraceptive prevalence rates, and then that in turn contributes to high fertility and the population growth. One last thing I would say about that is it’s true that there’s generally a preference for large families in West Africa. However, there are more women who want to space or limit their pregnancies, but are not using any contraceptives. There are women who are current users. So, there’s this latent demand for family planning. That’s something that’s there.

Jacobsen: In southern Nigeria, it’s majority Christian. In northern Nigeria, it’s majority Muslim. With northern Nigeria, how is fundamentalist religion associated with exacerbating violations of girls’ rights or with assisting them come to fruition?

Graves: I don’t feel qualified to answer that directly, but I would say our colleagues at the Center for Girls Education have done a really amazing job developing a community approach to get the community members engaged, including, oftentimes, conservative and religious leaders to get them on board with girls’ education because is supported in the Islamic texts. So, for the girls’ education, I think it hasn’t been our experience in working with our partner there hasn’t been negatively affected. In fact, I think they’ve been so successful in getting religious leaders on board that it has contributed to the overall success of keeping girls in school. I think we are now piloting safe space groups. So, that’s like a group of girls who meet with a mentor and develop life skills. Often, they can also help literacy and numeracy equivalents to now piloting with the Center for Girls Education for married adolescent girls, including good spacing of lessons. So far, we’ve been going very carefully because of the things that you just described. So, far, we haven’t met with any resistance.

Jacobsen: For freedom of choice at all levels of life, how will having a higher level of educational access for a girl when she becomes a woman help her become financially independent, and so on?

Graves: That’s a good question, and the truth is: Because it’s such a youthful population, because of the sort of high levels of poverty, the job market looks very, very different. Lots of highly informal work there. So, that’s very different from what most of your readers would be familiar with. That said, I mean, there are a few ways that there’s a promotion of women in the workforce through our service that keeping the girls from school. First of all, through the safe spaces approach that we offer, we are actively promoting girls’ literacy and numeracy improved much more than it was just through the traditional education system. So, they’re more likely to be literate and more likely to be able to do the math and so forth. So, they have the skills. We’re also testing vocational approaches for girls who are out of school and want to learn skills. So, in northern Nigeria, where this is still a relatively small pilot, but so far they’ve been very successful, teaching girls poultry farming, poultry rearing, tailoring, shoemaking, cell phone and small electronics repair. But those are giving girls concrete skills to go into the workforce. It’s still, like I said, a pilot. I don’t know. It’s been a year or two. We’ll have more concrete results. But they’re moving towards opportunities for working outside the home.

Also, I think you’re asking, ‘How is education contributing to them being able to work outside the home?’ One other thing I’d say is: The norms for girls in the communities where we’ve been working have changed radically over the years. When it was just a handful of teenage girls who were in school, families would gossip about those guys sending the girls and putting them at risk. Now that the majority of girls are going to school, the families are gossiping about those families who are keeping girls from going to school. So, expectations for girls have really changed. in northern Nigeria, the culture for a long time now; it’s hundreds of years that families have practiced seclusion until a woman, once she’s married or a girl and she’s married, generally is not allowed to leave the home without the permission of her husband. If we have a cascading mentorship program whereby the girls who go through this program can become mentors, after a few years, given the spaces, the spaces for other girls, those cascading mentors are usually married and they’re usually the first in many, many generations to be allowed by their husbands to work outside the home. So, I find that pretty amazing.

Jacobsen: How can people find out more about Oasis?

Graves: So we just were established as a Canadian charity earlier this year, so we don’t have a Canadian. The website is “” We as Oasis Canada charity will be fundraising for girls’ safe spaces in Nigeria and Niger. So, Canadians could make tax-deductible gifts to Oasis initiative Canada, that we would pass through without any overhead charges to our partners in northern Nigeria and Niger.

Jacobsen: It’s fabulous.

So different from the US, yes, I think so, too. I think it’s awesome. I have through my Canadian husband; I have some connections in Canada, so I hope to later this year really to get fundraising for that. Because ultimately we want to see this approach. I want to see all girls staying in school for secondary school and being able to make important life choices. Part of our contribution to that will be to continue to offer these safe programs, especially in northern Nigeria and Niger. So, to do that, we need partners in the region and we’re raising as much funding as we can raise.

Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your opportunity and the time today, Alisha.

Graves: Thank you, Scott. I enjoyed talking to you, taking your questions, and hopefully answered them sufficiently.

Jacobsen: Thanks so much.

Graves: Ok, have a nice day.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-Founder, OASIS Initiative.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 22, 2021:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2021:


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