Natalie Portman on Equal Education in Africa: "It Makes You Ashamed About All the Times You Complained About School"

For InStyle's December issue, on newsstands and available for digital download now, we spotlight the inspiring celebrities who cast a light on causes that deeply resonate with them in our annual "Shining Stars" feature.

Shining Stars - Natalie Portman
Photo: Johan Sandberg

When Natalie Portman traveled to Kenya to help build a girls' school with Free The Children, she gained a deep understanding of the disparity in the opportunities available to girls versus boys in many parts of the world. "Boys are going to school five times more often than girls in some regions," the Free The Children ambassador tells InStyle. "Even if you're the smartest girl in your village, it's likely that you simply won't have access to secondary schooling." Here, she explains how her work with the organization has made her an advocate for equality in education.

Why did you choose to become involved with Free The Children?
"My problem with wanting to get involved with various organizations is that there are so many groups doing meaningful work that I care about, but I wanted to focus my energy on one thing rather than 20 so that I could really commit. The issue of girls' education appealed to me because it has an impact on so many other things. The knowledge gained will delay the age at which a woman has her first child, reduce the number of children per women, and ensure that each child is better sheltered, educated, and fed."

What sets Free The Children apart from other groups?
"They have incredible success with the schools they build because they create sustainable systems that will continue to function well after the group leaves. Free The Children sets up microfinancing for parents and a train to transport the girls to and from the schools, which is important because transportation is such a huge reason that girls don't attend."

How do you deal with the emotions that can come with this type of work?
"It can be discouraging and upsetting. It reminds me every day that I'm very lucky to have been born by pure chance into circumstances that allowed me to eat, have shelter, go to school, and be healthy."

On the contrary, tell us about some of the victories you've had working with Free The Children.
"When I visited Kenya, we helped build the first secondary school for girls in the region. I got to meet some of the first graduates of that school and they were just so impressive. It makes you ashamed of all the times you complained about school because they just love it so much and realize what an opportunity it is. You have to convince these girls to sleep because they want to stay in the library all night long studying."

How would you encourage people to get involved and support the cause?
"There are places in the world where girls are having acid thrown at their faces just for walking down the street to go to school and learn. As individuals and as a nation, we have to be protective of girls whose basic rights as human beings are being challenged by protesting these injustices."

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