October 2013

One generation of educated girls is a revolution

I realised anew that day the power of education, not just in the life of one individual girl, but to break entire cycles of poverty, writes Melinda Tankard Reist.

BY Melinda Tankard Reist

It felt like I had arrived at a wedding. The girls were dressed like brides. Their hair was immaculate. Their necks were bedecked with jewellery. Happy chatter filled the air as they awaited the biggest event of their lives so far.

These were slum girls, Dalits, on the lowest rung of India’s class ladder. Their lives before then had been spent collecting rags out of stinking piles of garbage, to sell for their family’s survival.

But today they would graduate.

There were many who believed such girls were not worthy of an education. Going to school was just for the wealthy and privileged, not to be wasted on “untouchables”.

But a Christian NGO gave them this gift. These girls were not unclean but worthy of dignity and respect. Worthy, even, of an education. The basic human right of education belonged to them as much as anyone else.

I was travelling in India with two girlfriends and two of our daughters, visiting aid projects. I was given the great honour of giving out the graduation certifications.

After the ceremony, the girls joined together and sang “We Shall Overcome” in Hindi. We all cried.

The girls now had hope; not just for themselves, but for their whole families. They were the first in their families to learn how to read and write. No more wading through muck and slime to scavenge something to sell to be able to eat.

I realised anew that day the power of education, not just in the life of one individual girl, but to break entire cycles of poverty.

A new film, screening in Australia for the International Day of the Girl Child on Friday [October 11], drives this message home with compelling and intimate force.

Internationally acclaimed, Girl Rising shows the strength of the human spirit and the power of education to change the world.

It tells the stories of nine girls born into cultures where girls come last.

“It’s a simple fact,” narrator Liam Neeson says, “there is nobody more vulnerable than a girl.”

Girls are marginalised and discriminated against, denied opportunities due to harmful traditions and social norms. There are 66 million girls currently out of school. And yet, educating a girl can break the cycle of poverty in just one generation.

If India enrolled 1 per cent more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 per cent more as an adult. Girls with eight years of education are four times less likely to be married as children.

A child born to a literate mother is 50 per cent more likely to survive past the age of five. Educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school.

Girl Rising chronicles the struggles they face in this fight for an education: early marriage, extreme poverty, child slavery. In daydreams they picture rows of sharpened pencils at desks, the chant of the alphabet, of school uniforms and shelves full of books.

Suma works as a bonded labourer in Nepal. Sold at six, and called “Unlucky Girl” by her owners, she sleeps in the goat shed, eats scraps from her master’s plate and is beaten daily. Eventually social workers enrol her in a Room to Read night class.

They demand she be set free, telling her owners that bonded slavery has been illegal in Nepal since 2000. Suma becomes the last bonded worker in her family.

“I am my own master now,” she says. “After me, everyone will be free; I feel like I can do anything.” Suma wants to use her education to help all girls get to school.

Azmera is 13. Her widowed mother is under pressure to marry her to an older man. But her older brother says he will sell everything he has to keep her in school, thus avoiding a fate that will see 38,000 girls married today.

Amina, in Afghanistan, is married as a child to a cousin. “My body is a resource to be spent for pleasure or profit,” she says. But she wants to change things for other girls.

“I will speak. I will not be silenced. I am the beginning of a different story.”

She lays out a challenge to all of us. ”Don’t tell me you are on my side; your silence has spoken for you.”

As the film tells us: “These girls hold our future in their hands. If they get what they need incredible things will happen.”

Can we help them do that?

This article was first published in The Sun Herald, October 6, 2013, and is republished in The Good Oil with permission from Melinda Tankard Reist.

Melinda Tankard Reist

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is well known for her work on the objectification of women and sexualistion of girls, and efforts to address violence against women. A co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, Melinda is named in Who's Who of Women (Australia) and World Who's Who of Women.

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