Girls' education as a climate linchpin

Prof Kong a panellist at the Women's Forum Global Meeting, Paris & Online, 15-19 November 2021

SMU President Professor Lily Kong was one of the distinguished panellists at the Women's Forum Global Meeting on 19 November 2021, in a discussion about how funders, governments, and business can collaborate to transform girls' access to education around the world?

The panellists agreed that educating girls is not only one of the most effective development interventions – it has lasting impact on climate action and climate justice. Educating girls strengthens their resilience to the invisible societal impacts of climate change; it develops their skills for climate-ready jobs; and it empowers them to take on climate leadership roles.

Asked about the role of universities in addressing these issues, Prof Kong outlined how women are underrepresented not only in education and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). “There is a terrible need for greater innovation, or new ideas to cope with climate change to address issues of climate change. And not nearly enough the entrepreneurs coming forward with innovative ideas are women, not because they don't have the ideas, but very often because there are structural barriers. to women in entrepreneurship,” she explained. This is an issue that can only be addressed if educational institutions, corporates and governments all work together to create an entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Panellist Kate Hampton, CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, spoke about how the education of young girls is critical in achieving the systemic change needed to tackle the climate crisis. “If we can really make progress on gender equality, we can break the intergenerational cycle of poverty that traps so many children in spaces where they can achieve their full potential. And if we tackle the climate crisis, we will not only prevent the worst impacts, we will also unleash a huge amount of creativity and political change.”

When questioned by the moderator about whether some universities are shielded from the realities of the outside world, Prof Kong explained that universities such as SMU make impact not only through their research but also through the impact they make in the communities around them. “And that difference can be made in a variety of ways. There's no greater impact that we can make than through education, because if we educate our students well, and if they have that sense of mission, they will amplify what they have learned and take that into the world and make a difference. There is no better amplification that we can have than through research that can be acted upon and adopted by business, by government and society. And there is no greater impact than if we support and encourage and mentor young men and women in entrepreneurial activities – because their inventions, their innovations, their entrepreneurial realism can actually bring solutions to the world solutions.”

As examples, Prof Kong cited Freedom Cups and Crunch Cutlery – two start-ups led by SMU almnae and incubated at SMU.

The third panellist, Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist and founder of the Green Schools Project in Uganda, focussed on how the climate crisis exacerbates existing inequalities that many girls and many young women face across the world. She pointed out that rising temperatures greatly impact communities in the global south and that in certain societies, women and girls have been given the roles of providing food and collecting water for their families, so they are at the frontline in climate disasters. “They are the ones on the farms when the crops are dried up … or when the farms are washed away. They are the ones to walk long distances to collect water for their families. Many girls face the challenge of dropping out of school as their families lose the ability to take care of their school expenses. Many hours face a risk of being forced into early marriages.”

The panel displayed a high degree of consensus on several key points. Prof Kong summed this up: “There is a disproportionate impact of climate change on girls and women. Data shows that very clearly. And I also think that as a consequence, women can actually make disproportionate impact of climate change if they're only able to include them at the table. And as Vanessa and Kate have eloquently said, education is a very key part of that.”

Watch the discussion on YouTube.