10x10 is built on a foundation of partnerships with NGOs, corporations, policy makers, and grassroots organizations - all working to change minds, lives, and policy. 10x10’s coalition of NGO partners provide life-changing services to girls every day, and are among the best practitioners of their kind. They include: A New Day Cambodia, CARE USA, UN Foundation’s Girl Up, Partners in Health, Plan International USA, Pratham USA, Room to Read, and World Vision. We are proud to present our weekly Partner Series, where we highlight the wonderful work that they are doing on the ground.

We spoke with Dr. Tessie San Martin, President/CEO of Plan International USA. She is a seasoned executive with more than 25 years’ experience helping to address gaps in education, economic growth, capacity-building, corporate governance, political reform and labor policy globally. Her work has taken her to Egypt, India, Mexico, Bosnia, and Indonesia, among other countries, where professional initiatives have involved supporting disenfranchised populations, a significant number of which are women and young girls.

Q: Tell us about what Plan International USA is doing to boost girls' education. 

Tessie: I’m so glad you asked that question.  Without education, without basic literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, children cannot reach their full potential, and economic growth cannot be sustained.  Our education programs are focused on three outcomes: improving access to education (can children get to the schools?); improving quality of education (will they learn relevant skills in the schools?); and improving governance and management of education (will the schools be able to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the communities and modernizing economies?). Over the past five years, Plan has invested over $180 million in primary education in more than 40 countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In fact, Plan invests more in basic education than in any other program area because we know that education can transform children, their families, and their communities.

While our education programs help both boys and girls, we know that girls face some unique obstacles. Leveling the playing field for girls oftentimes starts by educating their parents and community leaders on the benefits of educating girls, as well as by providing girl-friendly environments in which to learn. To make this concrete, let me tell you about our girls' education program in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

The primary school enrollment rate in Burkina remains one of the lowest in the world - and girls are the most disadvantaged: their primary enrollment rate is just 50 percent and girls' average completion rate for primary education is only 26 percent.  We worked with the community to first understand “why?”:  why was school attendance and completion so much worse for girls? We learned there were many, often interrelated, reasons: from the lack of bathroom facilities for girls to the lack of role models, to parental attitudes.  So “solving” the school access and completion rate problem required a holistic approach, one that included things like raising awareness among communities through radio broadcasts and door-to-door campaigns; literacy training for mothers and their active involvement in a mentoring program to positively impact their daughters; and building girl-friendly schools with separate girls’ latrines and daycare centers for younger siblings.

This approach has resulted in an increase in girls’ enrollment in primary school by 22.2 percentage points, and by the way boys’ enrollment has also increased by 17.6 percentage points because it turns out that doing things that improve quality, like greater parental involvement in school governance, helps all children, not just girls.  More important, we feel that these represent sustainable gains. Why? Because by working the problem with the community, the parents, and the children themselves, we have also helped changed how the community sees the school, how the parents view their children’s attendance, how the children view their school.  It has generally improved local involvement in school maintenance and quality - and ultimately improved local ownership for education outcomes.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to work on educating girls around the world?

Tessie: One person in eight is a girl or young woman age 10–24. Young people are the fastest growing segment of the population in developing countries, and their welfare is a fundamental input for key economic and social outcomes – including the size and competitiveness of tomorrow’s labor force, future economic growth, improved governance, and healthy civil societies.  And girls’ welfare today shapes the prospects for future families. Educational and health achievement of future generations is directly related to the physical and intellectual condition of today’s girls and young women, who will bear and prepare the children of the next decade.

There is plenty of evidence that educating girls is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do: the impact is not only social, it’s economic as well. According to the Global Campaign for Education1: “Education enables girls and women to improve their livelihoods: Widespread research demonstrates that investing in girls’ education is an effective route to ensuring both long term economic growth and sustainable social development. One extra year of primary school boosts a girl’s eventual wages by 10-20%. Women and girls also make good use of the money they earn, reinvesting 90% into their families compared to only 30-40% for men. Increasing women’s education also increases national growth, a 1% increase in the number of women with secondary education can increase a country’s annual per capital income growth by an average of 0.3 percentage points.

Conversely, the costs to not educating girls are high…and the results are bleak. As the UN has noted, “…The true costs include lower health status of the children of these women, lower life expectancy, skill obsolescence of jobless girls, less social empowerment, and so forth.” According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women2, “the cost of inaction is far higher. And the costs are borne not just by women, but by all of society. There is strong evidence that failure to educate women impedes growth; a one-year increase in the schooling of all adult females in a country is associated with an increase in GDP per capita of around $700. Research also shows how stalled progress in girls’ secondary school enrollment means foregone reductions in fertility, maternal mortality, child mortality, and malnutrition.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job? What types of challenges or obstacles do you encounter?

Tessie: I love my job for many reasons.  For starters, I can see the difference we make in people’s lives.  It is measurable and tangible; seeing what we can do together with the communities where we work is incredibly energizing.  In fact, my favorite part of the job is having the opportunity to see our programs in the field, and listen to and learn from those with whom we work and for whom we work.

I also love the variety.  No day is like another.  We work in 50 countries, and have a broad range of programs and of donors.  Our donors include big foundations like Gates as well as individuals who support us year after year with whatever donations they can.  They come from literally all over the U.S. Another fun part of my job is talking to our donors and learning from them what moves them to give and inspires their generosity.

As to obstacles, I think our biggest challenge is making sure we are able to constantly learn about what works and what doesn’t, and be willing to recognize this and adapt. Becoming a real learning organization is hard. It is easier and safer to stay with what you know and what you have done before. We have to dare to take risks if we want to do better. But it is not just about taking risks and innovating, it is also about learning constantly.  We are investing in improving our monitoring and evaluation (so we are better at tracking and reporting on results for ourselves and our donors), as well as our knowledge management systems so we can share what we are learning better.  We also know that to constantly improve you have to be willing to experiment and innovate.  So we give our staff the room to experiment, and to learn, to adapt approaches to local needs.

Finally, I will say that if you are in the field of international development you have to be an optimist.  Every time you see an obstacle you need to remember that nothing you face can compare to the struggle to survive that many of the children we serve face every day. This puts everything in perspective. There are no obstacles. Just opportunities!

Q: How did you learn about 10x10, and what do you hope to achieve with this partnership? 

Tessie: We first came into contact with 10x10 in 2010.  It was clear our missions were highly complementary: our Because I am a Girl initiative and 10x10’s campaign both focused on the importance of girls’ education. Plan became an official NGO partner of 10x10 in early 2011, facilitating visits for the film crew to Haiti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Peru, India, and Sierra Leone—with the goal of telling the stories of amazing and powerful girls who are trying to overcome barriers preventing them from accessing their rights to education, health care, financial independence, and a whole host of challenges. It has been a terrific partnership.

We hope that—through the stories of these girls’ struggles and successes—we can engage more people and reach an even wider audience to take part in our Because I am a Girl initiative and raise awareness of the particular challenges that girls face around the world. In particular, the BIAAG goals are to:

  • Reach 4 million girls directly through girls-focused programs
  • Reach 40 million girls and boys through gender equality education and transformative programs
  • Reach 400 million girls through working with governments and policymakers to ensure equal access to education, health care, and opportunity.

We will track this impact through a global monitoring and evaluation framework, designed using a variety of community-centered methods.

Q: Why do you think that 10x10, among the many doing good work for the world’s children, is in a position to contribute to improving education for girls?

Tessie: Given its impressive team and the collective experience with impactful storytelling, 10x10 is in a unique position to bring that message to audiences that might not normally be involved in international issues or have an in-depth knowledge of challenges facing girls around the world. In addition, the group’s use of media across different platforms – internet, video, TV, film, print – can ensure comprehensive coverage for the message of girls’ empowerment.  It is impressive to see what 10x10 can do, and observe the power of your story-telling.

Plan has developed some impressive actions on the United Nations’ first International Day of the Girl. Tell us what we can expect.

We’re truly excited about the upcoming first-ever International Day of the Girl, which Plan had an instrumental role in bringing about! For October 11, we’ll be officially launching our BIAAG initiative in NYC with the participation of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Liberian Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee and Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi, among others.

In addition, we’ll be hosting dozens of events around the world to celebrate girls, ranging from lighting up of various monuments such as the Empire State Building (NYC), CN Tower (Toronto, Canada), London Eye, and India Old Fort (Delhi, India); to concerts in Bolivia and Mumbai; to joint meetings and panel discussions with government ministries in Cambodia, Peru, and elsewhere.  The passion for and the power of this cause to engage men and women and boys and girls around the world is truly global.

1 http://www.globalcampaignforeducation.nl/l/nl/library/download/584078

2 http://www.unifem.org/attachments/products/MDGsAndGenderEquality3WhatDoesItCost.pdf