In the short life of this blog so far, I’ve written briefly about the value of female solo travel, and the self-confidence and perspective it has granted me. Ask me about it, and I could go on and on about the ways it has changed my life. The real value, what I did not touch upon there…has nothing at all to do with me.
Solo travel and volunteering granted me access and freedom to connect with others, really for the first time, in the countries I visited. So much so that it almost made me feel ashamed about my time abroad where I hadn’t done so. I felt in previous trips I had missed the opportunity to truly connect with people and culture in favor of seeing the sights and sitting on another beach. My attitude toward travel shifted with my first visit to India. I came to value most of all the truly eye-opening, honest, beautiful conversations I had the chance to have while traveling alone.
Perhaps what made the biggest impression on me, particularly while traveling through India and Nepal, were the stories of the women I connected with. From students, to mothers, to the small children in daycare, to women at the end of their lives—I listened as they shared their stories of struggle, strength, a desire for a better life, a desire for autonomy, for the right to make their own choices and shape their own fate. In all-too-simple terms, it not only made me realize what I was born into and take for granted. It shook me to my core.
This all started when I sought an opportunity through my employer to volunteer for a short amount of time in New Delhi, India. Knowing that I was passionate about education—but unaware as to just how much more passionate I was about to become—I signed on to teach a third grade class.
All of the students at my school were children who wouldn’t otherwise be in school. The NGO’s director shared with me the main reason most of the children are there is due to the fact that they serve two meals during each school day. I could go into great detail about the nature of this school, about the piece of plastic held up by tree branches (and shared with two other grades) that was my classroom, about differing attitudes towards education in India, about the children’s endearing politeness, about the cows interrupting my lessons with moo’s. What I really remember about the experience was the contrast between my female students and my male students.
A few days into teaching, I began to notice some stark contrasts between the girls behavior in class and the boys. The children ranged in age from 8-11, as they were placed in grades due to education level, and some things are the same all over the world. Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls. Especially at these ages. What struck me was the lack of engagement from most all of my girls. A few of them you could tell really wanted to be there—others I could tell were bright but were challenging to engage. The boy students would be the first to raise their hands, would eagerly exclaim for me to “come check!” and take pride all of their correct answers during workbook exercises. The girls, on the other hand, would color during exams or hold my hand and ask me to come sit with them when I was trying to teach.
I became concerned when I noticed a trend in attendance. My female students, quite simply, just weren’t showing up. I sought to understand. I remember thinking…this is just SO different from the classrooms I grew up in! All other cultural and economic differences aside, girls were always the ones raising their hands, leading the class in test scores, showing up engaged and ready to learn (as a generality.)
There was a lot I had to wrap my head around to embrace teaching in India, including leaving my background and my “Western” perspective, if you will, at the door. What I couldn’t wrap my head around were the explanations given to me when I asked about the girl students.
When I talked to others about the girls lack of participation in class or frequent absences, it was, quite simply that girls have responsibilities at home that the boys do not. If a younger sibling was sick, the sister had to stay home to care for him/her while the brother went to school. If anything needed to be taken care of at home, it was the girl’s responsibility. I learned from other teachers that many parents don’t support their children going to school. Not because they are against education, but because they themselves likely were never educated and are working to survive daily life.
Other teachers shared their strife with attempting to hold parent/teacher conferences. They sent home notices with the students, and not a single parent attended. With the second attempt, they offered a parent/teacher conference to discuss the student’s progress—and a meal. Parents began to show. And while it was recognized that it was great that these girls were becoming more literate, comments were made that “it didn’t really matter, marriage is imminent for most of these girls anyways…and then it won’t matter.”
I wanted to scream. “Don’t you get it? Don’t these girls, don’t these parents, understand that education is their ticket to move themselves…their families…and their country forward?!”
This is just one minor personal insight into a very complex issue that I had only a limited glance into, but you can imagine how it left me stunned and frustrated. India is making strides with women’s rights, as are many other countries worldwide. But there is a long road ahead. I slowly came to understand how complex the issue is, filled with engrained attitudes toward women in cultures that are centuries old. It’s going to take a lot of work. And it’s going to take some support.
Fast forward to months after I returned from India. I believe part of that experience lit a fire under me, particularly when it comes to the rights of women worldwide. But I have to be honest—when we don’t fuel that fire, we can lose it. It is too easy to fall back into our own lives, our own culture, our own problems.
This fire was reawakened by a phenomenal book, by two Pulitzer prize winning journalists called “Half the Sky.”
Half the Sky reinforced that small experience I shared with you about teaching in India, and made it hopeful. It gave me real examples of women, in their own countries, working to advance the rights and the wellbeing of the women in their communities. It broadened my view to other countries, and it deepened my understanding that while there is no one simple solution—a woman’s right to an education is the key to advancing health, poverty, human rights, even overpopulation…not just for those women and girls, but for the generations to come.
I can only scratch the surface of what I’d like to be able to share about my personal experience with these women, however small. I can only aspire to barely scratch the surface of the issue as a whole.
What I am asking of you today (if you’ve gotten this far, I thank you for reading from the bottom of my heart) — is to celebrate women worldwide. March 8 is known across the globe as International Women’s Day. There are women struggling for life every day, for themselves, for their families…their strength is immeasurable.
The one quote from Half the Sky I want to share with you here comes from one of the book’s authors, Nick Kristof, in the Half the Sky documentary. He says:
“As long as the victims are poor, rural, female, illiterate, they don’t have a voice.”
Send strength, send good thoughts, send support, send money. If only for a moment, even if it’s just for today, seek to hear that voice. Perhaps you’ll be moved to go beyond that and begin to amplify it.
Links to learn more:
Short, impactful videos on the topic:
- 10×10 Act: Girl Rising
- The Girl Effect: Why Girls?
- Plan International: Because I Am a Girl: I will take it from here
- Half the Sky: documentary trailer
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women
- Get the Book
- See the documentary on Netflix or purchase a viewing
- Half the Sky movement website
- What you can do: (particularly valuable are the ‘advocate’ and the ‘volunteer’ sections)
If you do one thing, please read the Half the Sky book. I believe so profoundly in this book that I will be giving one away to one of my readers.
Enter by leaving a comment, liking Part-Time Traveler on Facebook, or following me or Half the Sky on Twitter (one entry each.) I will announce the winner in one week!