Like Lisa and Ashley, I was also lucky enough to be in attendance at the CARE National Conference and Celebration last week. As they have already written, the conference focused on three different bills and three main targets: (H.R. 3077/S. 384) the Global Food Security Act and addressing the Millennium Development Goal #1 of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act (H.R. 2103/S. 987), which condemns child marriage as a human rights violation; and the Global and Maternal Health Bill (H.R. 5268/ not yet introduced in the Senate), which seeks to reduce rates of maternal mortality with cost-effective and women-empowering solutions.

Global issues like hunger, poverty, or lack of access to education are enormous, and need to be addressed in comprehensive ways.  I’m always a big fan of programs that build the capacity to address the issue in the population most affected. People have the ability to solve their own problems. The Food Security Act places much more emphasis on funding for long-term agriculture rather than emergency aid, and, in doing so, the empowerment of communities to feed themselves. It was with this in mind that I chose the Food Security Act as my focus for the lobbying visit. This wasn’t my first time lobbying on Capitol Hill, but it was the first time that I actually had the job of conveying key elements of the group’s agenda to the Hill staffers.

And I’m certainly glad I did.

As of May 19th, my House representative officially co-sponsored the Global Food Security Act. (Curious about your own reps? Click here for the House, and here for the Senate!). As one of over 900 conference participants with 345 Capitol Hill visits, I definitely felt part of something larger than myself.

But that wasn’t the only type of change at this conference.

Beyond a successful lobby day, I was humbled and inspired by the panel on “Educating Marginalized Girls” held on the first day of the conference. Panelists, ranging from CARE staff the globe over, to Dikembe Mutombo, founder of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation and former NBA star from the Democratic Republic of Congo, all shared amazing stories with the packed lecture hall. But I was absolutely blown away by the stories of Jennifer Rowell, Advocacy Coordinator of CARE Afghanistan. Rowell has been engaged in human rights since 1998 and worked in Peru and the UK before her work in Afghanistan. She has been deeply involved with increasing access to girls’ education in Afghanistan and in helping Afghans found community-driven schools. She told us about a person she can only call “Mr. Hero,” a man who started a school right in his home, opening his doors and taking on very real risk to himself in order to provide educational opportunities to local girls. Other panelists spoke about girls who suffer “multiple layers of disadvantage,” barred from education as a result of gender, economic status, discriminated against as a member of an ethnic minority, language, location, disability, contexts affected by conflict, having to work (sometimes as a child laborer), and so on. Girls in Afghanistan experience many of these barriers: girls are not allowed to travel more than 2 km on foot for security reasons, which clearly inhibits their ability to attend school. There is still cultural stigma against women’s education, and Afghanistan is very much a war-zone. Fear of schools being attacked, often more of a deterrent than a school actually being attacked, keeps girls at home. Furthermore, for the 10 years under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to be teachers, so there is a shortage of female teachers in the entire country.

But this is why Rowell’s work is so necessary and incredible. They have discovered that when communities not only feel, but actually HAVE, ownership over these schools, they are fiercely protective of it. “Afghan-driven schools” are less likely to be attacked by insurgents, building capacity in local teachers builds the credibility of the school, and reduces stigma around female education. Once schools have become established, there are programs to integrate them into the public schools system, which builds accessible education infrastructure. Rowell ended her talk with a slide-show of women graduates from the schools. She showed images of a photographer now working in the US, her colleagues, and many successful students. Perhaps most moving for me, however, was the photo of a graduate who has since returned to teach at one of the schools. She had the opportunity to pursue education and better her situation (and that of all girls in Afghanistan); she had access to the opportunity to earn a living and give back to her community, all while developing her skills, and, ultimately, the skills of her students.

This is the type of positive feedback loop that makes educating women and girls such a powerful site of change.