"Louder, louder!" Mrs. Sundberg yelled. "Come on, you have more than that!"
My second grade class and I stood flabbergasted in the music room of Indian Knoll Elementary. We had never been told it was okay to use our outside voices inside, and here, our music teacher was telling the girls to shout.
I of course, never hesitated to raise my voice. If you know me, you know I make a pretty potent first impression: one that is loud, borderline extremely annoying, but nonetheless, eventually my best friends say they just warmed up to it.
Second grade was no different. Give me an opportunity to yell. Oh, I'll take it.
So when Mrs. Sundberg introduced our class to "I am woman, hear me roar," my inner feminist was activated on the spot, and for a long time, there was no looking back. I had a new purpose to apply my innately precocious attitude. All I had to do was convince my peers how awesome they indeed were and how much they were worth so that we could roar together and make some noise worth listening to.
Mrs. Sundberg even made the boys shout with us. We all chanted, "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar." for about ten straight minutes. I think eventually, all of the neighboring classrooms heard us. Each time we reported the phrase, we became louder, probably not harmonized, but we were a powerful second grade class nonetheless.
If you have not yet been introduced to The Girl Effect, I highly suggest you check it out right now. For the majority of girls in the developing world, they will never know how powerful they are, and they will never roar. And unfortunately, that comes at a huge cost: not only for those girls individually, but for the communities they live in locally AND globally.
See, we know the statistics. Our wise and bright economists have already crunched the numbers. "When you educate a boy, you educate an individual. When you educate a girl, you educate a nation." We know the economic and social benefits of getting girls in schools and of allowing girls to fully participate in their own human experience: to learn and consequently find their voice. Gender equality has been dubbed, "the moral issue of our time," and it could not be more accurate.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) specify Gender Equality as #3. The MDGs purpose is to break community development into eight measurable goals to realize poverty alleviation in our lifetime. However, while there are eight separate goals, we also know they are all interdependent on each other.
For instance, we know we cannot eradicate extreme poverty and hunger if we only allow half the population enough income to feed themselves.
We cannot achieve universal primary education if only half the population is allowed to go to school.
We cannot reduce child mortality if half the children are denied rights to food, health and clothing over their male siblings.
We cannot improve maternal health if some countries disregard the value of women altogether. Regarding the plight of women and the eagerness for progress on the 5th Millennium Development Goal of maternal health, Deputy Secretary General, Asha-Rose Migiro said in 2007, “Would the world stand by if it were men who were dying just for completing their reproductive function?” Interesting question.
We furthermore cannot combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases such as Tuberculosis if one gender has more access to healthcare than the other.
And finally, we can obviously not partner in solidarity for those most affected by human rights violations if women and girls are not allowed.
None of these goals will ever come close to reaching their potential if gender equality is not realized first. When only half the population is allowed to participate, a society will, AT BEST, only reach half of its potential economically and socially. I saw in India and Cambodia where girls were not yet appreciated and do not yet know their worth, and they walk with their head down and off to the rice paddies.
However, while on site in community development projects where girls are primarily targeted, I have witnessed family units and entire villages be transformed which ripple into entire nations. When girls know their self-worth, the results are astounding. When the community recognizes her value, she is fed more at home and walks with pride. She walks unafraid to smile.
In Jharkhand, India, I visited a project called Yuwa-India where girls indeed understood their self-worth. As a westerner, I was used to girls shying away from me. They always think westerners are intimidating and powerful (which we are, so we should do something with that power for good), and you can see it on their faces. But, not at Yuwa. There, they knew their self-worth.
At Yuwa, girls are given the opportunity to build self-esteem through soccer, and it has dramatic effects on the education level of these girls, their future livelihoods, and even their health. In the villages surrounding Jharkhand, girls are seen differently by their families. They are no longer merely a burden who must be married off. The tide is slowly changing as families' attitudes shift. They are beginning to see that their girls might be an economical asset if allowed an education and what westerners view as basic human rights: rights that merely allow you to reach your human potential. Examples of the changing tide manifest in small steps. For example, one girl's family agreed to marry their daughter off later than their oldest because of the joy and self-esteem soccer had given their younger daughter. These small actions add up and truly reveal the impact of allowing girl's participation in their own human experience.
At Edge of Seven, when we first sent volunteers to the projects, we didn't differentiate who the living stipend was given to at the households hosting volunteers. We soon observed men using the stipend for booze and cigarettes, and the women using it to save for food and school for their children. It is safe to say we now only give the stipends to the women.
If you, like me, believe that an educated girl starts a ripple effect of change around her, then please support this cause. My goal is to give this scholarship to a talented girl from the Lower Everest Region of Nepal for higher education. Currently, only forty girls in the region even have the opportunity for high school because of the hostel built by Edge of Seven in partnership with the local organization, The Small World. Only with more educated women will community development initiatives fully ignite and the world truly start to look better as women use their creativity for innovative problem solving.
Furthermore, what does the world have to lose by giving the girls a shot? As John Abdulla, from Help Women Heal articulated at a speaking event last year, "For thousands of years, men have ruled this planet and just dominated it. We have consistently, continually, and quite competently messed up this planet...when you talk about war, violence, bombs, guns, rape and global warming; these aren't the inventions of women." Therefore, what if women had a shot? What might we create? What would the world look like? If you're truly curious, donate, and let's find out together.
Want to know more about gender equality, the fight against poverty and tactics for community development and how YOU, yes YOU, can get involved?
Step 1: Read, and be smart about it. Let your hard mind work for your soft heart.
I recommend starting with Nicholas Kristof's and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky.
Step 2: Talk about it. Strike up a conversation about it. Write about it. Figure out where you stand on the issue.
Step 3: Do something about it, or better yet, take a leap. Volunteer with Edge of Seven, or at a local organization that helps to empower girls.
Learn what empowerment means to you and then practice it. Often, it is merely a term thrown out there by those working in community development or even doctors. How many times have doctors said, "We must EMPOWER the patient!" But rather than throwing the word around, really explore what that word means to you. Are you empowered? Do you know how powerful you are and how great you could be? Have you shown someone else how powerful he or she could be? You won't be the most powerful person in the world unless you know how much you're worth. And I don't mean net worth in dollars; I mean net worth in potential impact. How much of a difference can you make? And can you allow someone else to see how much of an impact he or she can make?
Poverty will not be alleviated by a couple people with high degrees or some powerful presidents. Social justice will only be reached if each one of us makes it a priority to obtain. If, in our daily interactions, we make it a priority to shift the attitudes of women, and if we help reveal a girl's self-worth to her and her community one by one, we might be able to create the world envisioned by the Millennial Generation. But, we if let talented young girls fly under the radar without ever revealing to them how much they're worth, we will be stuck in the status quo, which is just not good enough.
Lastly, if you're a girl who has not yet been told how great your potential is, let me be the one to tell you with unwavering conviction how powerful you are. As a matter of fact, you might be the untapped most powerful person in the world. All you have to do is roar and believe it.