Breaking the Cycle of Illiteracy for Women and Girls

Education Gender Equality Mali Sierra Leone Faces of Hope
Joseph Kaifala
A young girl in Sierra Leone learns thanks to the Jeneba Project.

On World Food Day, World Food Program USA is proud to announce our recipients of the Fall 2017 Catherine Bertini Trust Fund awards—Caravan to Class in San Francisco, California and the Jeneba Project in Sierra Leone.

When Catherine Bertini, the former executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), won the World Food Prize more than 15 years ago, she knew she wanted to use the prize money to bolster women’s empowerment across the globe.

This Fall, two inspiring organizations will benefit from Bertini’s vision as recipients of WFP USA’s Bertini Trust Fund awards. Supporting grassroots initiatives that boost access to training and educational opportunities for girls, the fund has awarded more than 20 grants over the last decade.

“Caravan to Class and the Jeneba Project are doing important work in communities across Mali and Sierra Leone to break the cycle of illiteracy and improve educational opportunities for women and girls,” said M.J. Altman, WFP USA’s Editorial Director. “We are incredibly excited this World Food Day to support their initiatives through the Catherine Bertini Trust Fund for Girls’ Education.”

Meet this year’s award winners!

Caravan to Class

A bucket list trip to Mali at the age of 50 changed the trajectory of Barry Hoffner’s life. In 2010, he traveled to villages in Timbuktu to realize a childhood dream.

“I felt Mali was a very special place,” said Hoffner, who spent time with the Tuareg people, a community native to the Sahara desert. “The music, the history—I always wanted to visit Timbuktu since I was a teenager.”

When he asked what they needed most, they told him education. By end of year, he founded Caravan to Class (CTC) to help break the cycle of illiteracy in the rural villages of Timbuktu. According to Census figures, only 2.2 percent of middle-school aged girls in rural areas attend school; that percentage drops to 0.5 percent for high-school aged girls.

Since its start, CTC has educated 3,000 children, including over 1,500 girls ages 6-12 through its school-building initiatives. With the support of the Timbuktu Ministry of Education, Hoffner has partnered with a local non-governmental organization to build and provide operational support for 12 schools. This support includes paying teachers’ salaries, buying school uniforms, and providing supplementary food including vegetables, cooking oil, and morsels of goat to complement WFP’s bags of sorghum.

Barry Hoffner
A woman participates in a literacy class in Mali.

The Bertini Trust fund award will help CTC expand its Female Adult Literacy Program to serve an additional 40 women in the villages of Bantam and Koiria where CTC has built plans for new schools in the past year.

Launched in 2015, the program equips women with basic literacy in multiple local languages to become strong advocates for education within their families and villages. So far more than 120 women have benefited from the program.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” he said. “We’re going to reach basic literacy for 70-75 percent of these women. They’re going to come out of it being able to read and do basic writing. They’ll be able to do something they should have been able to do when they were younger.”

The Jeneba Project

Southwest of Mali, the Jeneba Project is expanding educational opportunities for women and girls in Sierra Leone. As the country continues to recover from a decade-long civil war and the effects of the 2015 Ebola crisis, founder Joseph Kaifala sees education as central to his country’s advancement.

“One of the ways we can contribute to the development of this country is to improve education for girls,” he said. “Any country that is serious about its development cannot have half of its population left out.”

Joseph Kaifala
Kaifala and Jeneba Project co-director Liat Krawczyk.

Born in Sierra Leone, Kaifala started the Jeneba Project in 2007. Its first initiative was the construction of a library for more than 600 elementary, middle and high-school students. Since then, the Project has built a high school that serves 400 students annually and provided more than 160 scholarships to girls to incentivize them to stay in school.

This work is vital given the challenges facing girls and women in the country. Child marriage awaits many girls who drop out from school, which contributes to high illiteracy rates. Poverty means many cannot afford school fees or uniforms, while other families struggle to provide food for their children.

“There is no fundamental objection in Sierra Leone to girls’ education,” he said. “Our problem is poverty. When parents have to choose between the education of their daughter and son, they usually go with the son because he can bring wealth for the family.”

The Bertini Trust Fund will help the Jeneba Project finish building a high school for 75 girls in the Robis region in northern Sierra Leone where dropout rates are high. It’s a downpayment on Kaifala’s belief that education will help these girls become employed and contribute to their communities later in the life.

“We want young people to realize that sometimes they have the solutions and do not have to wait for other people to solve the problems in their community,” he said.

In the years ahead, he hopes to start conversations with WFP to add school meals programming where the Jeneba Project works to ensure that hunger is not a barrier to continued education for the country’s leaders of tomorrow.

“I have been granted an education that now enables me to contribute back to my community,” he said. “That’s the same situation I’m trying to create for children in Sierra Leone, especially for girls.”

Learn more about the Bertini grant awards.