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A New Script for Women: Education Over Adversity

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Nearly 1 in 3 adolescent girls in South Asia are married or in union. In Zambia, 61% of adolescent girls justify wife beating. In Bangladesh, of all young women of secondary school age only 47% attend secondary school. We are overwhelmed by daunting statistics and stories of gender-based violence and discrimination playing out on the world stage, reminding us of the long road ahead to gender equality.

However, increasingly, we are also hearing stories of transformation and the success of determined young women who overcome odds, rise above injustice and inspire action. The rural entrepreneur who not only lifts her family out of poverty, but stimulates her local economy as well. The brave young woman who insists on attending school despite cultural traditions and successfully negotiates against early marriage, proving her value to her family. In my work as an advocate for girls' education across Asia and Africa, I have met hundreds of these remarkable young women and there are thousands more out there just like them -- young women who have commanded attention and refused to remain silent. I have seen what is required to incite determination, confidence and pride in deserving young girls. There is no silver bullet solution to the world's gender inequality. There is, however, a crucial step we can take to begin turning the tide -- give girls a platform and amplify their voices and soon, each story of empowerment will no longer be the exception, but the rule.

In many societies around the world, the current generation of young women are paving a new path for themselves and for those who will follow. They are developing skills such as self-awareness and empathy, communication, decision making and problem solving, critical and creative thinking and how to cope with emotions and stress. These skills will be employed to navigate many areas of a young woman's life such as her daily interactions, her education, her health, her rights and protection, her social responsibilities and her future. When coupled with academic skills, these life skills are what empower girls to develop into women that will challenge inequality, change perceptions of women and expand the opportunities for future generations.

It is important that girls are given opportunities to share their stories of determination and resilience with their communities and with the world. This month three graduates of Room to Read's Girls' Education program will travel from their rural villages in India, Vietnam and Cambodia to address audiences in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney and personalize how an investment in girls' education can effect indelible change. These young women have surmounted physical, emotional and societal challenges to achieve their dreams of an education. Nisha, from India, convinced her illiterate parents to let her continue with lower secondary school even while running her father's tea shop after he was paralyzed in an accident. She managed to run the small business, pay her older brother's school fees and overcome injuries from a serious road accident herself. Nisha is currently pursuing a Bachelors in Humanities at a well-known university in Uttarakhand. Tay Thi from Vietnam is in her last year of teacher training college after facing challenges to her education that included her parents burning her textbooks... twice! She argued that she'd be better able to help the family of nine with an education, and went hungry while defying her parents and continuing in school. And, Sum Sin from Cambodia has overcome extreme poverty and social exclusion to become a primary school teacher. Sum Sin's mother, who sells fish in the local market, lost her husband and four other children. She couldn't be more proud of her daughter who has always believed in education and is now educating the next generation of learners from her village.

Nisha, Tay Thi and Sum Sin believe that with the opportunity to pursue an education comes a unique responsibility to pay it forward. Tay Thi has served as a guest speaker and shared her experiences in overcoming difficulties with junior alumnae of Room to Read's Girls' Education program during the program's annual alumnae gathering. She has also contributed to an advice handbook written by senior alumnae for new graduates of the program, helping those that follow in her footsteps chart their own paths to success and happiness. They serve as excellent role models to younger girls in their own communities and this will soon to expand to include communities overseas.

As the dialogue around women's rights and girls' education heightens, particularly on International Women's Day, let us remember that there are millions of young women just like Nisha, Tay Thi and Som Sin, all with a story to tell. The more we listen to their experiences of struggle and of triumph, the more they will inspire us all to see the strength, potential and contributions of women.

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After overcoming adversity to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher, Sum Sin now passes on the power of education to students in her village.