When I left for the Peace Corps in the summer of 1994 I had no idea why the literacy rates in the some parts of the world were so low. In the village where I lived most women were illiterate. Girls would attend school and then at a certain age work the fields only to be married off to her husband’s family.
I remember talking to the woman I lived with, my bouzhou, one night after her cousin gave birth to a baby girl just up the hill from our house. She was sad that the birth resulted in a baby girl. When I asked her why, she told me that it is only heartbreak to have girls. That it is just one sad list of goodbyes, so it’s hard to put much effort into girls. She was honest with me, and for this I am grateful because without this frank discussion it would be hard for me to understand the family economics around illiteracy.
With this discussion, I began to understand why it is so difficult in some countries to educate half the population. In his book Half the Sky Nicholas Kristoff argues that if you can convince a woman of something, education, clean drinking water, family planning, they will find a way to convince the men in the village – they hold half the sky. If you can convince the women in the household the daughter is worth investing time, effort, and money into, the girl will most likely receive the benefits of education.
Think about it. It all comes down to economics. If I am living on subsistence farming and all I have is my daughter to help me survive, and I know that one day even she will be gone to another family, would I invest in this person? In the workplace I hear time and again that so-and-so is not worth investing in because they might leave in a year or so. It seems the same concept.
What makes it unconscionable, though, is the fact that this is happening in families. Families are making the decision not to invest in daughters’ lives.
Here’s the think though. I believe it’s getting better. The last time I was in Nepal most people were using cell phones. The very thing that we question here in the states is bringing unbelievable communication in this small Himalayan nation. The idea that Nepalis now have a view of western culture on the internet in many places means that they are seeing how women are not only educated, but that they hold powerful positions as well. When I was there, the only vision of western women was on the show Baywatch.
The opening up of communication lines gives me hope.
I will also say that groups like the Peace Corps bring new ideas to villages. When my villagers watched me read, they became interested. This allowed me to begin literacy programs. The notion of networking countries and people together will help people in repost areas understand a new way, a way that is different than what they dao.