How Cory Bernardi’s attempt to smear Wear A Dress Day ended in a windfall

Senator Cory Bernardi

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It all started with a tweet. “One school in SA now has a ‘wear a dress day’,” Conservative senator Cory Bernardi informed his followers last Wednesday. “This gender morphing is really getting absurd.”

I’d just come home from a dinner with colleagues at One Girl – the organisation behind the Do It In A Dress campaign – to find my phone and social media blowing up. Everyone wanted to know had I seen it and what were we going to do. I stared at the screen and thought, how are we going to respond to this?

As it turns out, we didn’t need to worry. Thousands of Australians took it upon themselves to respond for us by standing up for the truth and throwing their support behind Craigburn Primary School, which on Friday is celebrating its Wear A Dress day after a week of controversy. Children and parents did the school drop-off in dresses on Friday morning, and will be joining their principal Paul Luke and teachers wearing dresses throughout the day.

The criticism of Craigburn’s school fundraiser for Do It In A Dress was way off the mark. I actually facepalmed when I saw that tweet because it was so far from the truth.

Do It In A Dress is One Girl’s annual fundraising campaign, which celebrates the fact that in the countries we work in, a school dress is a symbol of education and empowerment. There are more than 60 million girls around the world who are denied an education, so here in Australia we put on a school dress to try and change that.

The campaign has nothing to do with “gender morphing” and everything to do with educating girls in Africa.

Soon after Senator Bernardi’s tweet, comedian Josh Thomas responded with a tweet of his own.

He leapt to Craigburn Primary School’s defence – clarifying that its “Wear A Dress” day had nothing to do with gender morphing or the same-sex marriage vote, but was about educating girls. And he went a step further, choosing to generously donate $2000 to the Craigburn fundraising page in a show of solidarity and support for the students’ efforts.

What happened next was an enormous wave of support, as thousands of Australians (and quite a few international supporters) got behind the students at Craigburn Primary School, and affirmed the fact that these kids were simply trying to raise funds so girls in Africa could get an education. The donations came pouring in at such high volumes that our website crashed several times. We had to add five extra servers just to manage the traffic!

Since all of this craziness has unfolded – the tweets, the media storm, the flood of support – one question we keep getting asked is: “How are you feeling about all of this?”

I can summarise our feelings into one word: proud.

Everything that has followed Bernardi’s misguided tweet last week has highlighted the bravery of a group of students and the generosity of the wider Australian community.

To date, Craigburn Primary School has raised more than $274,000 – a far cry from the $900 they had originally aimed to raise.

As the donations flooded in, there was a lot of focus on how much money the school had raised, but in the One Girl office, our eyes were on a totally different tally: the number of girls that can be educated with those funds. That number is sitting at more than 916.

To put in perspective the impact the amount raised can have, it costs us $300 to educate a girl for a year. That covers her school fees, her uniform, her books – everything that she needs to go back to school and succeed.

Through our scholarship program and our three other girl-focused education programs, we’ve been able to support more than 29,000 women and girls across Sierra Leone and Uganda.

One of those girls is Fatmata from Freetown, Sierra Leone, who joined our program and was offered a scholarship to go back to school after being orphaned when she was 15. The difference education has made in her life is profound. As Fatmata puts it: “I feel very happy. I can’t believe that I am in school again,” she says. “It’s very good for girls to go to school so you can be independent. Right now, my education is for myself. But in the future – it will benefit everybody.”

As the Craigburn Primary School students celebrate their “Wear A Dress” fundraiser, we’re proud to stand alongside them to celebrate their achievements and determination to make a difference in the world. They’ve certainly done just that.

And as for Do It In A Dress? We aren’t nearly done yet. October is our action month for the campaign and thousands of passionate Australians will be putting on school dresses and raising funds to educate girls.

Morgan Koegel is CEO of One Girl. Visit to join in the campaign.

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