International Women's Day, celebrated annually on March 8, provides not only a special opportunity for all women to celebrate the progress we have made, it also affords us a moment in time to stop and reflect on how we may ensure that the next generation of women around the world are empowered to reach their full potential.
Despite the substantial advancements of women in many countries, there remain some very sobering statistics. Currently, of the 793 million illiterate people in the world, two-thirds are women and girls. Although there has been a worldwide increase in the enrollment of girls in primary schools due to global efforts to ensure education, there remains a substantial gender gap for girls transitioning to, or in, secondary school in many countries. This is particularly true in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a World Development Report, there were only 66 female tertiary students for every 100 male students in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2008.
It is widely known that educating girls is one of the most powerful and effective ways to address global poverty. At Room to Read, we recognize that the barriers to education facing girls in the developing world go far beyond simple economics. Girls in the developing world are often the ones tapped to help in the home, and this may require several hours of housework and sibling care before and after school. Safety issues are paramount for girls, and parents are reluctant to allow their daughters to trek the often lengthy distances to pursue their tertiary education. Additionally, cultural bias may play a part in impeding a girls' educational advancement.
At Room to Read, we have found that one of the most powerful ways that we can support girls through secondary school is by advocating for them. Advocacy may include such endeavors as enlisting family support, engaging with governments and the community, and providing life skills camps and workshops. We also employ "Social Mobilizers," women who serve not only as role models and counselors, but as advocates to help girls along their individual journeys.
I'd like to share with you the inspiring story of Suma Tharu, as an example of the power of advocacy. Suma, one of Room to Read's exemplary scholars from the Bardiya District in rural Nepal, has been invited to perform in this week's Women in the World Summit in New York. Such an invitation would no doubt have been unimaginable to Suma as a young girl. Suma, now 19 years old, was the only girl among four children born to impoverished parents. In order to provide support for their family, Suma's parents passed her into the Kamlari system. The Kamlari system is a form of caste-based indentured servitude, which, although now outlawed in Nepal, remains in some communities. During the ensuing six years of servitude, Suma worked for three different families, lived in very small rooms and was forbidden to attend school. Fortunately, Suma was rescued by a local nonprofit group, Friends of Needy Children, and at age 16, was then provided a second chance for an education through Room to Read's Girls' Education program. Suma is expected to complete 12th grade in March 2014.
However, this is not just a story of how the advocacy of individuals and agencies helped support Suma, it is also about Suma's own plans for advocacy. Despite all the challenges that Suma has faced, her thoughts are focused on the needs of other girls. At the Women in the World Summit, Suma will sing a song she wrote and sang for 10x10, a feature film and social action campaign, to share with the world the extraordinary challenges faced by girls in the Kamlari system. Additionally, Suma plans to become a health teacher, so that she may be able to help educate and empower other young girls.
The need for advocacy is not limited to the girls and women of the developing world. In 1950, one-third of American women of working age had a paid job, and today two-thirds do. Yet, despite the extraordinary advancements that women have made in the workplace, they still represent less than 15 percent of corporate executives and board members at top companies worldwide. More alarmingly, only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
Although there are undoubtedly numerous contributory factors inherent in creating these disturbing statistics, a recent study revealed that one of the key gaps for the advancement of women in business was having a senior executive who would advocate for them; someone who could help navigate the internal politics in companies. Men were much more likely to have that senior executive who would help guide and facilitate their advancement.
So, on International Women's Day, perhaps we can all look toward ways to advocate for girls and women -- this may include those in our personal lives, business lives or in the world at large. Perhaps Suma's courage can guide and inspire us, by showing that no matter what challenges we may be faced with, there may still be room in our lives to advocate for another.