The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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JANUARY 30, 2012 1:06AM

The Importance of Educating Girls

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Fifth grade class in Chuchoquesera, Peru

When I visited the classroom pictured above in the Peruvian highlands back in 2004, I noticed that slightly more than half of the students were girls. I remarked on this fact to the human rights activist who was giving us the tour of this Quechua-speaking indigenous community.  He smiled sadly and said, "Yes, but this is fifth grade.  In sixth grade, children go to a lower secondary school that is farther away.  Most of the girls won't go.  It takes too long to walk there and they are needed to help at home, so the parents won't let them go.  Besides, most of them will be married soon." Unfortunately, this is a situation that is repeated throughout the world

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world - especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Since then, I have visited classrooms and asked questions about girls' access to education in countries on several continents.  This is a photo I took at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

Kindergarten class, Buduburam Refugee Settlement, Ghana

Boys far outnumbered girls in this classroom, illustrating one of the problems for girls in accessing education.  When resources are scarce, parents will often choose to spend the money on school fees for their sons rather than their daughters.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to promote economic growth and development.

"Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

Ensuring equal access to education for all girls by 2015 is part of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, making this issue a major focus of work by the United Nations (for more info, check out the UN Girls' Education Initiative site), the World Bank and many international non-governmental organizations.   October 11, 2012 has been designated as the International Day of the Girl Child to draw attention to the topic.

Fourth grade student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School wearing Newari traditional dress

On a much smaller scale, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal is doing its part to encourage gender parity in education and  increase literacy rates.  The school works in partnership with The Advocates for Human Rights (the non-profit where I work) to prevent child labor and improve the lives and well-being of the neediest children in this community in the Kathmandu Valley. I travelled there in January for our annual monitoring visit.

Pre-K student at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, Nepal

First grade class at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, Nepal

This year, the school has successfully met goals for gender parity among students in both the primary and lower secondary grades. For the 2011-2012 school year, 147 of the 283 students in pre-school through eighth grade are girls. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, 15 of the 31 students in ninth and tenth grade are young women.

9th Grade students at SPCS

Most of the students' families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Many of them are from disadvantaged groups such as the Tamang and Newari.  Indigenous group with their own cultures and languages, the indigenous students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate.

How has the teaching staff managed this success at keeping girls in school?  Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married or enter domestic work. It took more than 10 years, but their efforts have paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in most of the grades at SPCS.

The impact of the school both on the individual students and on the community over the past 12 years has been profound.  When I was there in March of 2011, we interviewed approximately 60% of the parents of SPCS students.  It was clear to me that parents value the education that their children are receiving and, seeing the value, have ensured that the younger siblings are also enrolled in school rather than put to work.  Twelve years ago, there were many students in the area out of school but now most are attending school. I could also see the physical benefits that the students derived from attending school when they stood next to their parents.  Even the 5th grade girls towered over their parents, illustrating the simple cause-and-effect of adequate nutrition, wellness checkups, and not having to work in the fields from a very young age.

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  In particular, the effect that these girls have on their community, their country and - hopefully, the world - will be thrilling to watch.

Photo credit for this photo to Dulce Foster.
This post was originally written for World Moms Blog 

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"Investing in girls is smart." It seems incredible that such a simplistic statement, what most people in developed countries would call a no-brainer, would have to be stated by no less than the World Bank President. Then those statistics remind us why. Eye-opening, important post Jennifer. And the pictures are so compelling.
Thanks for your comment, Margaret. I agree - it should be a no-brainer. There is still a lot of work to be done . By the way, my grandmother wasn't allowed to go to college because she was a girl and it would be "a waste of good money".
It is too bad that we still have to compare the importance of females to that of males. Educating women is the answer to so many of the world's problems. My own mother was also not allowed to go to college. I believe that frustration was with her until she died. However, I don't know why she didn't assert herself after she was married. TRADITION! of course. Thank you for an informative post...and oh those beautiful faces......Suggested reading: SOMEONE KNOWS MY NAME by Lawrence Hill.
This is an important post. I think what's sad is how little money it often takes to keep a girl in school in many countries.
Thanks for this -- it's so important. I'm not sure if it's too "feel good" or not controversial enough but the cost-benefit ratio for investing so much more in girls education is off the charts. I give credit to Hillary Clinton for drawing a lot of attention to this over a good many years. I suspect that in her retirement this may be the cause she pours her heart into. Regardless, we all benefit from more education, more gender equality and more empowered girls – here or abroad. Rated.
Thank you for sharing this - it is so full of positivity and hope. The improvements you mentioned, seeing the benefits of good nutrition, increase of percentage in girls in education - and just the sight of eager faces in school uniform is so uplifting for me. I look forward to your posts and admire the work that takes you to such far corners of the world.
@Ande - thanks for the book rec! I look forward to checking it out.

@jl - Thank you for reading and commenting. You are right, education is a small cost. The total cost per student (including teacher salaries, uniforms, books, supplies, exam fees, and a daily meal) is approximately $250 per year. A small investment with big results!
@Drewonimo - thanks for your comment. I think Hillary Clinton has been a groundbreaking Secretary of State in her willingness to take on women's rights issues internationally. I hope you are right that she uses her retirement to continue this work. I wholeheartedly agree that everyone - boys and girls - benefit from education!

@Fusun - thanks for your kind comments. Have a nice day!
We may still have a long way to go, but we have also still come a long way. Recognizing the importance of education for boys and girls, among the rural and poor who still rely on their children for help surviving, is a huge shift in all cultural attitudes. When more parents can see the good end result of what it takes to educate a girl, more will do it. It is hard to show people what doesn't happen (less poverty, fewer/later childbirths, less violence) as a motivator. Unfortunately, for many, the "natural" life of early marriage, lots of children, and hard labor and subsistence living is not going to change soon in the global economic climate. I hope that the men can see that a future for everyone includes better circumstances for their sisters and daughters as well as their sons and brothers.
You are so right, Oryoki. We have come a long way, but it does take a shift in culture to keep girls in school and that shift can take generations. The focus in many countries, Nepal included, is on access to education for all children. That is hugely important and the first step, but the gender/culture shift has to happen to make the access to education really effective. Mothers, as well as fathers, have to value education for their daughters. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
Thanks for sharing what you are seeing firsthand...what wonderful work you do!
Thanks, clay ball. I feel pretty lucky to be able to do this work!