The international development community is very focused on girls these days. This is a good thing. Around the world, girls have been neglected and discriminated against, abused and worse for far too long. Where boys go to school, girls stay home. Men’s paychecks are larger than women’s; though the burden they bear in society is arguably much smaller. Even when every dignity has been denied, when they can’t read, write, vote, or drive, women wake up and risk their lives for the futures of their families. This inequity stifles not only their own development but the development of all those around them, as well.
Reversing this inequity isn’t easy.
As it turns out, education and opportunity aren’t created equal. Research shows that educating a girl has a very different impact on the wellbeing of those around her than does educating a boy. She will use her education to take better care of her children and not just herself. She will invest as much as $0.80 of every dollar back into her family, as compared to only $0.30 from men. We now hear this African proverb used regularly as a clarion call to change the way we approach international development: “If we educate a boy, we educate one person. If we educate a girl, we educate a family – and a whole nation.”
And so a wave of campaigns, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and government programs has sprung up with a focus specifically on girls. It’s about time. But while Reading Village believes it’s crucial to awaken the world’s attention to the importance and worth of girls, we do so a little differently.
We don’t focus on girls at the exclusion of boys. We focus on girls & boys together.
It shouldn’t be a novel idea to propagate gender equality in our schools and communities. Perhaps an unintentional byproduct of female-focused fundraising agendas, it shouldn’t be novel, but it is. While a gender-specific approach can be a valuable mechanism through which to address gender-specific issues such as maternal health, Reading Village sees education as one of many opportunities to practice inclusion and equity.
We enroll both male and female teens into our Leaders and Readers Program every year. In return for the scholarships teens receive as part of the program, they go through rigorous leadership development training and are required to work side by side to give back to their communities. This level of inclusion and equality doesn’t always come easy, but the skills developed are invaluable. In communities where women are more often illiterate and almost always relinquished to the home, our youth leaders are learning and working together for the common good of their fellow citizens. They may begin the program self-segregated, seated in a circle with boys on one side and girls on the other, but long before the end of their four years together they are teammates, thinking partners, and close friends. Our boys learn to respect our girls, see that they have good ideas and are capable of creating change. Our girls learn to trust our boys, see that they share common visions for their neighbors and want the same things for their families.
In this way, Reading Village not only develops educated female leaders but also educated male leaders who treat females as equals.
What’s more, creating equal opportunities for women means investing in the development of the men with whom she will interact. During the four critical years of adolescent development, our male scholars spend three hours a week reading to younger children – concerning themselves with their wellbeing and nurturing their creativity and development as a whole person. What better training could they receive to prepare our youth leaders for fatherhood? What better way to foster a value in the education of their future daughters, to convince them to encourage their little girls to achieve as much as they encourage their sons?
Equity isn’t shifting the scale from a patriarchal to matriarchal society. It’s about practicing the opportunity and equality that we preach. Every day. Forever.
So, yes, it is important to educate girls as well as boys. And in societies where females have been shunned from any notion of civil participation there may be a place for gender-specific programming. But in most corners of the world where we are interested less in catching-up and more in shifting social norms, we believe there is value in fostering healthy relationships between the boys and girls who will be the future leaders of society. That means bringing them together, not holding them apart.