Every Girl Matters

International Day of the Girl Child: Assembly address October 7, 2015

Ms Rachael Christopherson, English Teacher

On 19 December 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 declaring 11 October the International Day of the Girl Child.

The United Nations advocates that ‘adolescent girls have the right to a safe, educated, and healthy life, not only during these critical formative years, but also as they mature into women’. Why? Because if supported effectively during the adolescent years, girls have the potential to change the world — as the empowered girls of today and as tomorrow’s workers, mothers, entrepreneurs, mentors, and political leaders (United Nations Department of Public Information [UNDPI], 2015). Still today, girls are born into countries where they are denied access to education; they may not play sport or as young women, hold a job or drive a car; they are caged and suppressed because they are girls.

The International Day of the Girl Child is now in its fourth year. This is an important event for Brisbane Girls Grammar School on many levels. First, as a girls’ school renowned for its forward-thinking approach to girls’ education, I believe that it is our responsibility to recognise that this is not a privilege enjoyed by many girls world-wide, and therefore we have a responsibility to be the voice for those disadvantaged young women.

Over the last 15 years, the global community has made significant progress in improving the lives of girls during early childhood. In 2015, girls in the first decade of life are more likely to enrol in primary school, receive key vaccinations, and are less likely to suffer from health and nutrition problems than were previous generations. However, serious challenges still remain: in 2014 women and girls comprised sixty percent of the 781 million adults and 126 million youth worldwide, who lack basic literacy skills (UNDPI, 2015).

You will remember that, more than a year ago, the extremist group Boko Haram abducted 250 school girls from Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria, sparking a worldwide campaign to ‘bring home our girls’ (Magnay, 2015). In fact what is concerning to note is that schools, particularly girls’ schools, are the target of so many terrorist attacks in developing countries — more than 350 attacks in 2013. It is clear that girls in developing countries face disempowering challenges that are beyond our imagination.

In my role as an English teacher and the co-ordinator of the School’s reading club, the Libellum Society, and therefore as a passionate advocate of literacy and learning, I would like to focus today on girls’ access to education. ‘Education is a human right in itself and an enabling right that transforms lives’ (UNDPI, 2015). It seems to me that for oppressive individuals, extremist groups and governments, an educated young woman is a threat. Education is an empowering weapon against poverty, injustice and abuse.

Did you know that before the invention of the printing press, books were so valuable that they were often chained to the shelves in libraries? To own a book was a mark of status, wealth and privilege. So, has anything really changed? Let us examine the original name for ‘book’: ‘codex’. ‘Codex’ is a Latin word that describes an ancient book and is derived from the Latin word ‘code’. Thus to read is to ‘crack the code’. If you cannot read, you do not have the key to crack the code. We all know that if you do not have a key, you cannot get in!

Research worldwide points to literacy — reading — as one of the fundamental differences between advantage and disadvantage. Literacy levels are intrinsically linked to socio-economic status. It is the key to the doors of opportunity in all areas of life. Work by researchers such as Professor Peter Freebody has also shown that a girl in a developing country with even minimal education is more likely to marry later, have fewer children, and access better health care and other support networks for her family. Education gives her choices.

Let me give you an example of the power of education. According to Dhillon (April 18, 2015), India is currently ‘grappling with rising levels of violence against women and is turning to schools in an endeavor to change the patriarchal thinking in its society, starting with the contrast between what boys and girls do after they finish school’. He goes on to provide imagined statements from a girl and a boy.

Boy: ‘I go home after school and have a snack, then I play cricket with my friends, come home for dinner, watch TV and go to bed.’

Girl: ‘I get up early to clean the house, fetch the milk and help my younger siblings and then go to school. After school, I help my mother with the cooking and cleaning, get fodder for the cow, help in the fields and wash up after dinner.’ (Dhillon, April 18, 2015)

Suddenly gender inequality becomes clear, and education becomes a valuable means to changing attitudes towards women.

So determined is another community to provide education for their children that in Mexico City, a twelve-metre-long railway carriage serves as a single classroom, office and library of a school. The children’s parents were railway labourers; when the service train was discontinued it was parked and converted into housing and a school (Mollison, June 13, 2015).

In our own country, The Indigenous Literacy Foundation was established with the specific aim of providing more written texts in both English and Aboriginal languages to remote Indigenous communities of Australia. Its success is evident in the growing culture of reading in those communities.

Thus, Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai’s determination to receive an education and to promote the importance of education for all children is timely.  In addition, this year’s Australians of the Year reflect the growing value placed on literacy and education for women and on hearing their voices, especially in their endeavours to enrich the lives of our children — Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty (campaigner against domestic violence); Senior Australian of the Year, Jackie French (children’s author); Young Australian of the Year, Drisana Levitzke-Gray (advocate for the deaf).

This year, as the international community assesses progress under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ‘since their implementation in 2000 and sets goals to be achieved by 2030, girls born at the turn of the millennium have reached adolescence, and the generation of girls born this year will be adolescents in 2030’ (UNDPI, 2015). In 2030 — our future — how will a girl’s life have changed?

So what part can you play as a student of a school that encourages you to ‘contribute confidently to [your] world with wisdom, imagination and integrity’? Past principal, Dr Amanda Bell, reminded Grammar girls: ‘You are part of a school that has panoramic aspirations and inspiring alumni all over the world’.

Education is a right, but for many girls in the global community, it remains a privilege. I believe that it is your responsibility to apply your privilege, your gift of education, and your opportunities, to open the doors of opportunity for other girls.

You have, in fact, made in-roads in ways that perhaps you are unaware of …

Your participation in Steptember is one example. By counting your steps and fund-raising you raised more than $8 000 for CPL (formerly known as the Cerebral Palsy League). Do you know what this money will provide? It enables disabled children to be involved in fulfilling, meaningful and fun activities using equipment and learning devices designed specifically for children with cerebral palsy. Staff are trained to work one-on-one with these disabled children, providing a much needed break for the families of children with cerebral palsy or similar motor skill disabilities. Your money builds respite homes, learning facilities and playgrounds. Have you considered how difficult it might be for a little girl with cerebral palsy to go on a swing at the park? Can she play on the swing? The answer is she cannot. She cannot jump up onto the seat. She cannot bend her legs to balance on the swing. It is difficult to get her arms around the chains to hold on. I know this, because I have seen it.  But a swing specifically designed for a disabled child enables all of these things to happen. The little girl gets to experience the joys of a swing in the park. And it is magic to see that happiness. That is what you achieved in Steptember.

All Year 9 classes have a World Vision sponsor-child. How does this help young girls in developing countries? My World Vision sponsor-child, Sumitthaa, is from Sri Lanka. I have been her sponsor now for eight years. She progressed in school up to Year 9 and is seventeen. She works at home supporting her family, working in the vegetable garden, cooking and sewing. You might think that this is not much progress for this young girl compared to your own aspirations for the future. Actually the progress is huge. That is because, at seventeen, Sumitthaa is a young, independent woman.  She did not become a child bride; her family was not forced to sell her to an enslaved life of domestic work or worse; she is not pregnant or caring for her own small children; she does not have AIDS. She has choices. Not as many perhaps as you, but she has choices. It is possible for her to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Finally, this story about Rebecca. She is an eleven-year-old refugee from South Sudan who has settled in a refugee camp in Uganda. In Sudan, Rebecca lost her father to the conflict and was forced to escape Sudan with her mother and siblings. In the World Vision-supported refugee camp, Rebecca receives food, shelter and medical care. This means she is now well enough to resume her Year 4 education – a great outcome because, in her school in Sudan, she was placed third out of 176 students. Rebecca says:

I want to become a doctor so I can help people in my country.  My father was an educated man and we want to go the way our father shows us. If we are all alive we can do education to be a leader in another time … and all people can know that this child is the daughter of this man who died from the war (World Vision Australia, 2015).

In this small way, you are catalysts for change. The challenge is how to maintain this momentum in the years ahead. The Reverend Martin Luther King said: ‘our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’. Every girl on this planet matters. You matter. Your right and her right to a happy and fulfilling life matters.

In the words of Kathryn Stockett, from her inspirational novel, The Help: ‘You [are] smart. You [are] kind. You [are] strong. You [are] important’ (Stockett, 2009). The International Day of the Girl Child reminds us that every girl should feel that way.

References

Dhillon, A. (2015, April 18). Boys and girls learn a new lesson in Mumbai project. The Sydney Morning Herald, p. 42.

Independent Voice. (2015, May). Women’s rights: Looking back to Beijing and beyond. Independent Voice, p. 29.

Magnay, J. (2015, May 23). Film catches struggle of Nigeria’s daughters. The Weekend Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/the-supreme-price-film-catches-struggle-of-nigerias-daughters/story-e6frg6so-1227365747345

Mollison, J. (2015, June 13). Hardyards. The Weekend Australian Magazine, p. 18–21.

Stockett, K. (2009). The Help. New York: Penguin Books.

United Nations Department of Public Information (2015). International Day of the Girl Child. Retrieved from United Nations: http://www.un.org/en/events/girlchild/

World Vision Australia (2015). Hope emerges for children. World Vision: See the Difference, p. 5.

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