01 Sep 2009
Heroines and Helping Hands
Girls Everywhere Deserve a Chanceby Sheryl WuDunnTopics:
Girls matter — we take that for granted here in the developed nations, and we all expect our daughters, sisters, and wives to make a difference in the world. But take a moment to think about another kind of girl, one who might live in a small village in Africa, India, or China, where girls don’t really matter. We can make a big difference in their world and in the world around them.
Through all my years of trekking and reporting in developing countries, the theme that kept surfacing was what happens to girls in those kinds of communities. I’ve seen lots of stories, some sad, many powerful. And I’ve seen remarkable leadership come in different shapes and contexts.
Consider two very unusual examples: a peasant woman from a remote part of Pakistan and a teenager from New Jersey. Both of them are leaders, changing the world around them.
Mukhtar Mai has no idea when she was born or how old she is. She never had the chance to go to school. Then seven years ago, in 2002, she was gang-raped by the order of a tribal council. Somebody had accused her brother of an offense, and the community wanted to punish her family by humiliating her. Mukhtar staggered home, prepared to commit suicide, as most Pakistani peasant girls would do in that situation. Her parents, however, wouldn’t allow it.
Mukhtar’s humiliation turned to rage, and she reported the rape to the police. It was such an unusual move that soon Pakistan’s President Musharraf heard about it. He actually sympathized and sent $8,300 in compensation.
Mukhtar didn’t spend the money on a fancy vacation or on iPods for her and her family. Instead, she invested in a school for girls. When the New York Times wrote about her, readers sent in a total of $350,000. Mukhtar expanded her school. She enrolled herself and began to learn to read. When the publicity attracted the attention of the authorities, Mukhtar feared for her life. In 2005, Glamour magazine wanted to honor Mukhtar as Woman of the Year, but Pakistan refused to let her leave the country. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened, and soon Mukhtar was flown first-class to America by Glamour.
With her new fame and relative fortune, Mukhtar once again invested in education: a school for boys; a herd of dairy cows to provide income for the school; a van for the school that doubles as an ambulance to take pregnant women to the hospital.
Mukhtar led improvements in the world around her. She didn’t commission a study or give advice. She confronted extremism. And if an illiterate peasant in a remote corner of Pakistan can do all that, imagine what well-educated, middle- and upper-class Americans can do.
One high-school girl in New Jersey figured that out. When Jordana Confino heard about Mukhtar, she was moved to action. With a friend, she started a club, Girls Learn International. They attended a United Nations conference on women and girls that underscored the critical role that the education of women and girls plays in reducing poverty. They made phone calls, sent letters, and gave talks to raise money for girls and women abroad.
Girls Learn now has dozens of chapters in high schools throughout the country. Each Girls Learn chapter is paired with a school in a poor country such as Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Pakistan, or Vietnam where girls typically do not get much education. The U.S. girls raise money to help their partners and upgrade their schools.
The truth is that we in the developed world have all won the lottery of birth. And when you win the lottery, you can think about sharing. The secret is that joining a larger cause makes us happier. We truly can make a difference in the lives of so many girls — and in our own lives as well.
— A former New York Times correspondent and editor, Sheryl WuDunn won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989, with her husband, Nick Kristof, for coverage of the Tiananmen Square uprising. Their new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is about girls and women in the developing world.
Class of MBA 1986, Section C