International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8, not only provides an opportunity for all women to celebrate the progress we have made, but also a moment to stop and reflect on how we may ensure that the next generation of women are empowered to reach their full potential.
Despite the substantial advancements in many countries, some very sobering statistics remain. Of the 793 million illiterate people in the world, two-thirds are female. And although there has been a worldwide increase in the enrollment of girls in primary schools, there remains a substantial gender gap at the secondary level. This is particularly true in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where—according to a World Development Report—there were only 66 female tertiary students for every 100 male students.
It is widely known that educating girls is one of the most powerful and effective ways to address global poverty, but the barriers to education facing girls in the developing world go far beyond simple economics. Girls are often tapped to help in the home, including several hours of housework and sibling care before and after school, and parents may be reluctant to allow their daughters to trek the lengthy distances to school. Cultural bias only compounds these issues.
One of the most powerful ways to support girls to overcome these barriers is by acting as advocates. At Room to Read, our advocacy efforts include enlisting family support, engaging with governments and communities, and providing life skills workshops for girls. We also employ social mobilizers, women who serve as role models and counselors, and help girls navigate their individual journeys.
The power of advocacy is clear in stories like that of Suma Tharu, one of our Girls' Education scholars who was invited to perform at this week's Women in the World Summit, hosted by The Daily Beast and Newsweek in New York City. Such an invitation would no doubt have been unimaginable to Suma as a young girl trapped as an indentured servant in Nepal’s illegal Kamlari system, but today she stands as a thriving example of what a quality education and a lot of determination can yield. At 19, Suma is expected to complete secondary school in March 2014, and has plans to become an advocate herself.
Despite all the challenges that Suma has faced, her thoughts are focused on the needs of other girls. At this week’s summit, Suma will share with the world a song she wrote about the challenges faced by girls in the Kamlari system—giving a voice to a community whose struggles are often overlooked. We first heard Suma's song when she shared it with the producers of 10x10, a feature film and social action campaign aimed at highlighting the stories of 10 girls from 10 countries as they struggle to earn an education. When she returns to Nepal, Suma plans to become a health teacher, so that she may educate and empower other young girls.
The need for advocacy is not limited to girls and women in developing countries. In 1950, only one-third of working-age women in America had a paid job, a figure that has now been doubled. Despite this incredible advancement however, women still represent less than 15 percent of corporate executives and board members at top companies. More alarmingly, only three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
Although there are undoubtedly numerous contributory factors inherent in such inequalities, a recent study revealed that one of the key issues for women as they seek to advance in business is a lack of senior executives who would advocate for them; someone who could help navigate the internal politics in companies. Men were much more likely to have such an advocate to help guide and facilitate their advancement.
So on International Women’s Day, let us all look toward ways to advocate for girls and women—those in our personal lives, professional networks or in the world at large. Perhaps Suma’s courage can guide and inspire us, an extraordinary example that no matter what challenges we may be faced with, there may still be room in our lives to advocate for another.
Watch the live stream of Suma's performance in New York today at 6:30 PM EST or Saturday, March 10 at 11:00 AM EST, and find out how you can support girls like her across the developing world on our website.
This blog post was adapted from International Women's Day: Advancing the Next Generation of Gals, originally published by the Huffington Post on March 8, 2012.