Girls and the challenges of poverty and education

In honor of Sunday’s celebration of International Women’s Day, I want to discuss the state of education available for girls around the world, in particular the stories and facts shared by the documentary “Girl Rising.” The film was first released in 2013 and spawned a global campaign to increase the education of girls around the world. It provided valuable statistical information but also counteracted that with the personal stories of nine girls from around the world.

“Girl Rising” was particularly focused on the intersections of different forms of oppression, in particular those related to gender, race, socioeconomic and religion. All of the girls were racial minorities and living in various states of poverty, especially by American standards. The girls were from Sierra Leone, Haiti, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Peru, Egypt, Nepal, India and Cambodia. Various economic reasons prevented access to education but also to basic necessities for living. Suma’s story told of bonded labor, or kumlari, in Nepal; her parents had sold her into slavery because they could not provide food and shelter the way her master would be able to. Girls like Yasmin and Amina were married young for money and for their protection.

Poverty and low rates of literacy appear at first glance to be a non-gendered issue, yet the United Nations reported that 70 percent of the 1.3 million in poverty were women. The United Nations’ “The World’s Women 2010” report found that of the 774 million adult illiterates worldwide, two-thirds are women, and this percentage hasn’t changed in 20 years. Women’s access to education is routinely threatened by marriage and childbirth at a young age. Girls make up 54 percent of the 72 million children of primary school age who are not receiving education, and that percentage only increases when it comes to secondary education.

“Girl Rising” is smart to note that educating girls leads to a better economy for everyone; they cite facts such as women promote small businesses as they run more in the developing world. It was calculated that if one percent more girls went to secondary school in India, the country’s GDP would increase by 5.5 billion. An extra year of education for a girl means she will earn 20 percent more. These are powerful and eye-opening facts that show just how badly the developing world could use girls. Education of girls would help provide these countries with better economies on many different levels. It is often said that women are the world’s largest untapped resource, considering their economic potential, and the available data supports that statement.

People already know that education works and that it leads to better earning potential. The fathers of Senna and Ruksana were insistent on their education giving up their own lives, time and money in the process. However, the problem is that schools cost money in so many countries and parents will choose to educate boys over girls. In Suma’s case, her brother was sent to school over her. According to the film, there are 33 million fewer girls than boys in major education today. In most cases, parents will educate boys over girls, knowing as well as we do that education open doors. However, in developing countries girls will be sent out to do work while their brothers go to school. The UN’s report in 2010 revealed that women work longer hours than men worldwide in addition to spending twice as much time as men on domestic work.

The film sends a very powerful message about the state of education for girls around the world, while using the personal experiences of nine girls to tell it. It’s emotional, understanding the privilege you’ve had to be in school and to have a college education. There is something incredibly humbling in watching a girl’s pure happiness over the purchase of markers and a sketchpad, a luxury for a girl whose home was a makeshift tent on the side of a street.

Overall, the film is about hope. Most of the girls in the film and their parents have made sacrifices to have access to education. While for some, their stories seem bleak, they are all committed to increasing awareness of this problem and providing solutions. As the audience, we need to listen, understand and help. It is our responsibility to use our privilege to help these women and girls around the world to better their economic circumstances through education.


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