Helen Grant: Parliamentarian, UK Envoy, Legal Practitioner Championing the Girl-child Education

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Helen Grant is United Kingdom’s Special Envoy for Girls Education, and also a Trade Envoy to Nigeria. She has been a member of Parliament for about 11 years, having practiced as a family lawyer for 23 years. She was recently in Nigeria to prepare ground for the forthcoming Global Partnership in Education Summit to be hosted in London between July 28 and 29, 2021. In this interview with Michael Olugbode, she bares her mind on the impact of the summit on global education and the plan to get 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school by 2025 globally

Can you shed more light on who Helen Grant is?

Well, by way of background, I became a member of the UK parliament in 2010. So I’ve been an MP for nearly 11 years now. I was a minister in David Cameron’s government between 2012 and 2015, first as a justice minister, then minister for men and equalities, and then minister for sport. In October last year, the prime minister invited me to be his trade Envoy to Nigeria. And in January of this year, in addition, he also asked me to be his special Envoy for girls education, which of course is a huge honour. Prior to politics, I was a family lawyer for 23 years and much of my work revolved around representing women and children who had suffered violence. I also did all the child abuse work and I enjoyed my profession enormously. I also have a wife assignment, a mother to Benjamin and Joel, who are my grown-up sons. And on a personal level, Nigeria is also very close to my heart because my father is Nigerian, my mother is English. Our family name is Okuboye. So you have the Grant now because I married an Englishman, but my father’s name was Julius Akanji Okuboye. He went to school at the great Saint Gregory’s College in Lagos in the 50s. And then he came to study in England where he eventually became a doctor and he met my mum there who was training to be a nurse. So I am extremely proud of my Nigerian heritage and my British heritage. And I believe that my love and understanding of both countries, both the UK and Nigeria will help to bring people and businesses together.

Perhaps you wouldn’t mind to say what part of Nigeria your father was from?

Well Jos in Plateau State, that’s where he grew up, a bit of the North, but he went to school in Lagos and I have visited Plateau State on a number of occasions. And it is one of the most beautiful areas.

Do you speak any Nigerian native language?

Well my family speaks Yoruba but I have to do a bit more work on my Yoruba before you test me on this, but the next time I come back, maybe we could have a conversation in Yoruba.

We already know you are a diplomat, but which area would you say is your strength, your specialty?

Well, I enjoy enormously the work that I am doing now, I do actually believe trade and girls’ education go very well together. You know, I am here on this visit because we value enormously our relationship with Nigeria and Nigeria”s success is important to the UK. it is also important to the continent of Africa and in order to realise that success, in my opinion, we want Nigeria to do even more trade and we want more girls to be educated. So I think the two connect extremely well. On girls education, the role is very much about taking out the prime minister’s message that 12 years quality education for every girl is one of the best ways of tackling many of the difficult issues that we have to deal with today, like poverty, climate change, and inequality. And we know that if we want to change the world for the better, girls education is a very good place to start. A child of a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to live beyond the age of five, twice as likely to go to school themselves and 50 per cent more likely to be immunised. And we also know that girls who are educated are more able to choose if, when and how many children they have. So in investing in girls and their education is really important, it’s important for women and girls who make up 51 per cent of the population, but it’s also really important in levelling up society, boosting incomes and developing economies and nations, and, you know, all of these things that are extremely important to Nigeria and to the UK.

I would like to draw you back a little by asking, what is the role of the special envoy?

The role is very much about taking that message, taking that mission of our prime minister, Boris Johnson, taking that message out about the importance of 12 years quality education and the transformative impact it can have on nations, on communities, on families, on children. So that’s very much what the role is about. And, you know, we are doing many special things in this area. And I think that, we are also showing leadership in this area, and that’s why the prime minister has put girls’ education at the very heart of the G7, that we will be hosting in June, so that the transformative effect of it can get the priority and profile it needs and deserves as well as the financial and political commitments. Our foreign secretary has set two very important new global targets. The first one is to get 40 million more girls in primary and secondary school by 2025 and a third small girls reading by 2025. And then of course we will be co-hosting with Kenya, the global partnership for education financing summit on the 28th and 29th of July in London. And we are working very hard with our international partners to raise the replenishment commitment needed of at least $5 billion for children’s education for the next five years. So a lot is happening, leadership is coming from the very top. It is a marvelous job, it’s a marvelous role, but of course there’s an awful lot of work to be done. And the situation has been made more pressing because of the impact of the pandemic, which is, you know have had a huge effect on most nations. We know that it has disrupted a lot, it has become one of the biggest disruptors in our history.

And it has disrupted 1.6 billion children’s learning. many of those children are girls. many of them are out of school, many of them will never return to school, lowering their chances of good livelihoods, finding good jobs and fully participating in society. We also know too that out-of-school girls are more at risk of, of violence, sexual violence, early pregnancy, forced marriage, child marriage, FGM, human trafficking, and you know there is a very real risk of a lost generation of girls, unless we can work really hard and work together to make sure that doesn’t happen. And that’s one of the reasons why I am visiting an important nation like Nigeria. That we have a good relationship with, to talk about these important issues and what we can do together to move that dial and get more children into school and receiving a quality education.

Apart from some of those things that you have said, what is UK doing about education globally, and perhaps in assisting Nigeria as a country?

Well, we were doing a lot, as I mentioned that the UK, I feel for starters is showing considerable leadership in relation to what Boris Johnson has done. They’re putting, you know, girls’ education very much at the heart of our agenda this year for these important events that we’re either hosting or co-hosting, you know, like the G7, like the GP. And it will even be part of the cop as well, showing that girls education could be part of the solution to climate change. So first of all, great leadership, but specifically in Nigeria I can tell you that during the last 10 years we’ve supported, something in the region of 8 million children to receive an education. And that has taken the form of teacher training, supporting children into primary schools and secondary schools and boosting education management systems, which is extremely important. And I am also very proud to have to say that of the work that the team in Nigeria have been doing here to adapt to what has happened with COVID. And they have been able to really help keep children learning by developing home and community led learning programmes, some accelerated learning programmes to help with catch-up. And of course, the recording of radio and TV lessons which have actually amazingly helped something in the region of 3.5 million children in six different states across Nigeria. So there is a lot happening here, but there is a lot happening as well in terms of leadership,

What is Global Education Summit, and what is the UK and Kenya doing to host the rest of the world in London?

The global partnership for education is an important fund and they are having their educational financing summit, which we are co-hosting with Kenya on the 28th and 29th of July. There are many vital enablers to education, but actually having the financial resources to support our girls and boys is an important part of that. And that’s why this summit is extremely important. The global partnership for education, the GPE are a unique fund in that they are the only fund that focus entirely on educating children. The UK is one of the original founders of the fund and we are the largest single donor. The fund is chaired by Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia and the chief executive who also leads the fund very well is a lady called Alice Albright; they are aiming to raise at least $5 billion to fund children’s education over the next five years. And we are working very hard with our international partners to make sure that happens. And you said, why is this so important? If that happens, that could help to ensure 175 million more children can receive education. It could add billions to the economist of developing nations, and it could lift millions of families, people, children, out of poverty. Pledges have already started to come in, Finland and the Netherlands have made a pledge. I know there will be others from other nations, and we hope that a good collective pledge from the G7 members will go a long way towards reaching that very important target.

Kenya and UK jointly hosting is some kind of strange, considering the distance between the two countries, we would want to know what are the roles of the individual countries in the hosting. What are the roles laid out for Kenya and England differently or jointly?

I think everybody’s just working as hard as they can to make sure that we have a really successful summit and that means raising the funds that we need for children’s education. And also making sure that nations who are partners with the GPE allocate sufficiently good size of their domestic budget towards education.

Why is educating girls important and why are you championing this?

It’s transformational, it is as our prime minister said, if we can do that, we can tackle many of the huge issues facing the world today, like poverty, climate change and inequality. And as I said just thinking about that transformational impact, that child of a mother who is educated has 50 per cent or more likely chance to live beyond the age of five, twice as likely to attend school themselves and 50 per cent more likely to be immuniaed. This all together means that society will level up income, and communities and nations will be able to develop.

What is the situation for girls’ education in Nigeria?

There are lots of children who are out of school in Nigeria, many of them are girls and that disparity increases over time. There are more girls out of school in secondary school and primary school. And there are many reasons for that. Some are to do with cultural and religious reasons, some are to do with a preference sometimes towards the male child. And there are some gender based reasons too. Like I said earlier, cases such as violence, early pregnancy, child marriage, early marriage, FGM, all of those types of reasons can often stop girls from attending school. So we want to see even more girls attending school and enjoying education in Nigeria and in a lot of other countries around the world, too.

What is the UK doing to support girls education in Nigeria?

I think I have said what we are doing in terms of supporting girls education in Nigeria. Over the last 10 years we have supported millions of children especially girls get education. A few of this is in teacher training, supporting education management systems and supporting children to primary and secondary school and at least 8 million children over 10 years, have been assisted into school.