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John J. Wood Headshot

Whose Responsibility Is Girls' Education?

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Many people dream of winning the lottery. I feel like I already have. I won the lottery of life, because I was born into a society, and to parents, who were able to educate me. Without those parents pointing me in the right direction, success in school, in business and life would not have been possible.

It is without a doubt that my love for reading came from three strong women in my life who instilled in me a life-long love of books. My grandmother, my mother and my older sister read to me from a very early age, and later helped me with my homework. I did well academically, and was later able to join Microsoft during the go-go years of the early 1990's. That success would likely not have happened were it not for those early influences that continue today, four decades later.

Because of this, I find it impossible to silo and relegate the issue of girls' education as simply a woman's issue, something to read about on a Mommy blog or a women's magazine. It is a human rights issue and something we should all be engaged in. Why should men and boys care? Because half of those who will eventually benefit from an educated mother are young boys.

We've all seen the headlines that garnered global outrage; 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan was shot and nearly killed by a group of heavily armed assassins for her relentless pursuit of an education. The men who shot her delivered a powerful message as Malala was not a random target. She was deliberately selected for her defiance against the system. A brave and determined young woman, her pioneering spirit can be attributed to the fact she had a powerful weapon in her arsenal, a father who believed in the power of education. When Ziauddin Yousafzi took his daughter to speak at a local press club, he stood by her as she asserted, "How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to an education."

For her bravery, Malala was made an example of by those that feared she would succeed; she has done more than her part in demanding equality in education. But let's take the education of the men who attacked her -- where were their educators? It has always been just as important for Room to Read to include boys in our literacy programs as it is girls. When a young boy in a developing country sees that a girl is just as capable as he is when it comes to learning, his perception of women begins to evolve.

If girls' education is a human rights issue, on whose broad shoulders does the solution rest?

It is undeniable that that the media plays an important role in educating a global audience on the deficiencies in girls' education. Stories like Malala's tend to monopolize headlines until inevitably, they slip from our news feeds and our memories to be replaced by another tragedy or entertainment news. But in order for awareness to be impactful and for change to be sustainable, a topic must be addressed regularly, almost incessantly. When celebrities or members of royalty become headline news, their stories are repeated so often we feel we know them personally. With the power and reach of the internet and social media, we know every evolving detail almost in real time. Just as we follow these stories or a presidential race, we should be consistently informed of the need for girls' education around the world.

The power of the media can result in global movements that empower societies all over the world to unite and call for change. This often leads to impactful communication vehicles that have even more transformative power. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, first a best-selling book and then a PBS documentary by New York Times journalist Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn has recently crossed media vehicles once again with the March 4 launch of Half the Sky Movement: The Game, a Facebook adventure that raises awareness and funds to empower women and girls across the globe. 10x10's groundbreaking film, Girl Rising, in theaters now, is an example of another media vehicle that strives to inform a global audience of the pertinence of gender equality in education and inspire action. These movements focus not on the challenges women face but celebrate progress, providing hope for a better future.

With Creating Room to Read, I deliberately highlight stories of the young women in our Girls' Education program whose lives have been transformed by education and the systematic change it has brought to their communities. Like 19-year-old Sreymom from Cambodia -- while being supported by Room to Read through secondary school, she learned the value of planning ahead, and raised one cow, then two, then three, selling the milk and putting the proceeds into her college fund. Today, she is in her second year at university and writes, "By the time I graduate I will be able to teach (my community) how to earn money to support their families. I will help people find customers; I think you call this marketing." Sreymom is a shining example of the power of investing early in girls, especially in places like post Khmer Rouge Cambodia that are struggling to rebuild a civil society.

It is incumbent upon leaders and governments to do their part as well. Until it is a given that girls and women of all ages are receiving the same education opportunities as their male counterparts, supported not only by their families and communities but by their governments, we must stay vigilant on all fronts. Former British Prime Minister and current U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown has set the bar by demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015. It is only through a unified front that a seismic shift in policy, both legal and social, will be achieved.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that of the 793 million illiterate people in the world, two thirds are female. Educating a girl goes far beyond learning to read and write. Education leads to smaller, healthier families, lower HIV infection rates and higher wages. Educated women are also more likely to educate their own children, ending a vicious cycle of illiteracy.

The burden of responsibility ultimately lies with you and with me. We must be action-oriented optimists who take responsibility by taking action. Support an organization that mirrors your own values, read a book or see a film on the subject; convince your own personal networks to get involved. Engagement on every level is what will ultimately bring about change.

It is imperative that we all do our part, because while we have seen measurable gains in equality in education, we are still in need of a resolution. The average cost of providing an education for a girl in our program is $250 per year per girl. With that in mind, I find it unfathomable that 100 million Malalas woke up and didn't go to school this morning. Stories like hers deserve to be thrown on the scrap heap of human history -- let's put it there.

John Wood is the founder and board co-chair of Room to Read, an NGO focused on global education and gender equality in the developing world. His latest book, Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy is available wherever books are sold. To join the movement, visit http://www.roomtoread.org/freedomtodream