Somewhere in the world, there is a young girl yearning to learn. As much as she tries to fight it, her mind keeps asking questions – why does the sun rise, how can trees grow so tall, why does my heart beat, and what is love? She dreams about a life beyond her own, and wanders what it would be like to live in another place and time. She envies her brothers who come home from school with stories about heroes, explorers, and leaders. And she looks over their shoulders as they write in their notebooks with fancy pencils and pens.
According to UNICEF, there are more than 63 million girls around the world not in school. Access to education is a fundamental human right, and allowing girls and women to be educated helps break the cycle of poverty. When I was an Executive Director of a refugee women’s organization, I met women from many countries with very little formal education, yet they were the main caretakers of their families. Despite their circumstances, they figured out a way to survive and in some cases even thrive becoming business owners or leaders in their communities. I couldn’t help but wonder what more they could be doing if they had learned to read and write.
I am reminded of both my grandmothers who never went to school and could only scribble when asked to write their names, but they were the smartest women I knew. My paternal grandmother was a storyteller and if she could write, she would have been a bestselling author of many novels. She was tough as nails and even with her fourfeetfive frame, she was able to intimidate most men including my grandfather with her sharp tongue. My maternal grandmother was gentle and kind and if she had a profession, she would have been a counselor or therapist. She had a way of reading people and always knew exactly what to say in any situation. She was our calm sage.
Both women inspired me to learn. They never complained about how they were robbed of an education but on the contrarily, they always said they were just ordinary stupid women. They believed in what they were told for generations that as girls, they were not supposed to be smart. As a teenager, I thought they were trying to make me more like them. Whenever they told me to listen to my elders and remember traditions, I thought they were trying to hold me back from my dreams. Sadly enough, it wasn’t until much later and when they were no longer around, that I realized their true secret desires for me.
Being the first woman in my immediate family to receive a graduate degree, I am proud to say that I could not have done it without my grandmothers and every other women on whose shoulders I stand. I am passionate about women’s issues and will continue to support and work with organizations to ensure that women and girls around the world have access to an education, and can live their dreams.