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Why making sure girls go to high school is the best possible investment in public health

I was born and raised in Benin, West Africa. Even though my continent is still perceived only as a land of poverty, war, and disease, I have to say I had quite a great childhood. And I have been able to accomplish my childhood dream: to be a singer and to travel the whole world.

It is true that I was very lucky, not because I was born into a rich family — my dad worked at the post office — nor because I was discovered at a young age by some powerful music mogul. The reason for my success story? My mother was educated and understood the importance of good health and vaccination. Her high school education allowed her to follow correctly the advice of doctors and to go beyond the superstitions that prevent many parents from vaccinating their children.

A memory from my childhood that I will always remember is the blue UNICEF truck roaming the streets, scaring me. Mom would give us no choice: we had to get our shots, and I hated needles. I would run away and hide, but she would always find me and make sure my vaccinations were up to date. She had a big medical book called Mon Médecin (My Doctor) that described all the organs and diseases known at the time. All of us brothers and sisters would avidly read it. We learned the importance of proper hygiene, nutrition, and care, and we all benefited from this knowledge over the span of our lives.

I didn't realize it at the time, but my mother was the exception and not the rule. As a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador I have participated in many health campaigns, and the biggest challenge I've found is that, often, the health message we are trying to convey is not properly understood because of a lack of education among mothers. They want the best for their children. They have amazing strength and great patience. But the complexity of diseases like HIV/AIDS, as well as the strict necessity of prevention, are unclear to many of them. A lot of traditions, rumors, and fears run contrary to what seems like common sense in the Western world. Moreover, certain communities don't speak the main language of the country, rendering public service announcements useless. There is only so much that campaigning can do if the message itself is not fully understood.

Angelique Kidjo performs at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

The Millennium Development Goals brought incredible attention to the importance of primary education for both girls and boys. But I think the level of education required to understand complex health information extends beyond primary school. Girls, who will in turn become mothers, need access to a more sophisticated schooling system if we want them to implement all the available measures that will save lives. It won't be easy to attain. There is a lot of pressure on teenage girls to do other things beside going to secondary school, including getting married, caring for newborn babies in their families, or attending to their homes when their mothers are away. That is why secondary education for girls is the best investment we can make. Equipped with the additional knowledge and skills they will gain, girls will be able to accomplish their dreams.

I want every young girl in Africa to have the same opportunities as I did!


Reprinted from To Save Humanity: What Matters Most for a Healthy Future edited by Julio Frenk and Steven J. Hoffman, with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.
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