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Fathers: Bring Your Daughters to School

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When Banhi, a 12-year old girl in a shelter for abandoned children in New
Delhi, India told my daughter and me that she wanted to be a medical doctor,
I was baffled.

In a country where, according to UNESCO, there are three to four girls out
of school per boy, and literacy for females is 55% compared to 78% for
males, where millions of children -- particularly girls like Banhi -- live
in absolute poverty, it is hard to imagine that happening.

But there she was, fire in her beautiful black eyes, determination in her
young voice. And given the chance, I am convinced she will be a medical
doctor.

Recently my daughter (14) and I traveled to India to launch the Father and
Daughter Alliance (FADA). FADA's purpose is to mobilize fathers to support
their daughters' education, see www.GlobalFADA.org.

While my daughter met with 200 girls, and, shy as she is, extemporizing as
best as possible on why we were there, I was talking with 50 fathers, many
of them living in the slums, encouraging them to allow their daughters to go
to school. They told of their daily struggles with work and the many
reasons why it is more advantageous to send the boys to school while having
the girls take care of younger siblings or fetch water. But, as our
dialogue moved along, many stated that, in spite of that, they would make a
commitment to bringing and keeping their girls in school. We also talked
about them becoming "extension fathers" to other girls, like Banhi, who
don't have a father, through the formation of "fathers associations for
daughters' advancement," which they agreed to do.

Deepalaya, an NGO working for 30 years with street children in New Delhi, is
partnering with FADA to bring 1,000 girls back to school with the help of
their fathers. T.K. Mathew, chief executive for Deepalaya, pointed out the
need stating: "It is always the father's unilateral decision to pull his
daughter out of school. Mothers are hardly ever consulted on this." And
Mathew added: "If the father gets to know his child better, he may not
consider her a burden at all."

When I was growing up in Bolivia (like India, a country with dire poverty
and inequality), I remember one day two classmates were bothering each
other, and decided that their issue would be settled after class in the back
alley. After punching each other for a few minutes, the friends of one of
them decided it was enough and grabbed his arms to stop the fight. But the
other guy was still loose and kept punching the one held by his friends.
"Don't hold me," the guy implored, "Hold the other guy. You are my friends.
He is still punching me."

Likewise, many organizations work with women and children and hold them in
shelters as victims of abuse, but not many are working directly with those
men who are still loose and may still be causing suffering to others. Yes,
we men make big mistakes. And, in too many cases, men have caused hurt and
inflicted violence -- and worse -- on women and children, girls in
particular. And they should be held accountable.

Most men, however, are willing to do their best for their families and they
may just need a little prodding to do so. Though we are often hard-headed
(I know this well, by personal experience), we are not hopeless, and
certainly not the enemy. We need to work with men, and challenge each other
to a higher standard.

On the day of our departure, and right after we visited a rural school for
street children in Haryana, we met with the Chief Minister (a kind of
governor of the region) of New Delhi, Ms. Sheila Dikshet. Within minutes of
explaining the need for a father and daughter alliance, the Chief Minister
looked at Mathew and charged him to work with her Minister for Health and
Welfare, to produce, within a month, a plan of action to launch seminars,
awareness campaigns, and actively promote this idea within parent and
teacher associations.

Ms. Kiran Walia, Minister for Health and Welfare, told the Indian Express
newspaper the next day that the project is being planned on the premise that
"the father, in a patriarchal set-up, is often the decision-maker." She
said, "In our society, daughters are usually close to their mothers. Given
the social pattern, fathers rarely ever interact with daughters because they
are meant to assist their mothers in household chores."

It is fitting that, as we celebrate International Women's (and Girls') Day,
this March 8, the international community has selected the theme "Women and
Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls." We absolutely need to
work together, women and men, fathers and mothers, in the education and
protection of all children -- especially girls.

As a father, that is what I want for my daughter. And that is what I want
for other daughters, like Banhi, so they can transform their own lives --
and, yes, even become a doctor one day.