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Susan M. Blaustein

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Healing, Storytelling and Girls' Empowerment: Stand Up for Girls and Let them Speak!

Posted: 09/21/11 12:12 PM ET

There could be no stronger testament to the healing power of storytelling than the tremendous outpouring of personal narratives that accompanied the 10th anniversary of 9/11: from National Public Radio's wonderful StoryCorps tales, representing every victim with at least one illuminating story, to the moving and supremely dignified testimonies of children and husbands and mothers and others, delivered at the new Ground Zero memorial on the fateful anniversary itself. There, audience members and television viewers around the world were moved profoundly as these eulogies sang the praises of late loved ones, or introduced victims to their own offspring, mostly new or newly mature children or grandchildren, of whom, as so many family members attested, the honored dead would be so proud.

These stories keep the loved ones alive in memory and in the hearts of those too young for memory. They quiet the mourners, who feel they've not totally lost touch if they are still able to recount to their beloveds funny or silly or sad stories about those they have lost. Through this simple act of storytelling, the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11 are remembered, honored and deeply missed.

Sadly, another kind of crisis is robbing countless living world citizens of their stories, day after day, hour after hour: poverty. This, after all, is a story-destroying calamity -- slower burning, to be sure, but equally ravaging to those with important tales that need to be told and heard. Gender discrimination compounds the muting: where poor people go nearly unheard, poor women and girls have little chance of sharing their stories, or simply of being acknowledged. While this is true of many victims of terrorism, conflict and inequality, it is punishingly true for women and girls. We find examples in every one of the "Millennium Cities," 11 severely under-resourced cities across sub-Saharan Africa working earnestly, against tough odds, to attain the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Girls in Blantyre and Mekelle and Louga, three of these cities, spend so much of their days fetching water and performing other chores for their families that there is literally not time for school. No one has asked for these girls' stories. A child in Bamako, or Kisumu, or (to go far beyond the Millennium Cities) in Mumbai or Rio or Port au Prince or Chicago, lost a parent to HIV/AIDS, cares for her younger siblings and sells her small body to do so. She is ashamed to tell her story, and frankly, nobody wants to hear it. Another girl, in Kumasi, says out loud that she wants to be a nuclear scientist or the next UN Secretary-General. But people laugh at her dreams.

It's time to change this. It has been demonstrated over and over again that women's wisdom feeds families and communities and environments, making them healthier, stronger, more resilient and less tendentious. Educated women live longer, earn more and have healthier, better educated children. It seems a no-brainer: investing in women and women-to-be is one of the most efficient expenditures possible. Why is this not our top-priority investment, as a nation, and in today's world? What could be more efficient, delivering more bang for the buck, in the areas of child, maternal and family health, nutrition, safe water, environment and places of work, education, world peace? And what better way to start than by enabling girls worldwide, and their mothers, the opportunity to speak, and for us to hear their voices?

This September 22, the International Day of the Girl, is a chance to start turning the tide. Join the "Stand Up For Girls Rally" this coming Thursday. Here's how:

  • At some point during the day, please literally just stand up, and think and/or talk about girls, about how much sense it makes to educate and empower them, to give them the tools to sing and to fly.
  • Reach out to a girl on September 22 -- a niece, a child in the park, a colleague's daughter, your own daughter -- and make sure your own family knows how blessed we all truly are, to have the chance to go to school, a chance unavailable to hundreds of millions of children across the planet.
  • Consider giving a girl or woman an opportunity to tell her story, and consider the power of girls' education and of education for all children worldwide. Consider supporting one of the many noble organizations supporting women's and girls' education, health and empowerment, whether in your own community or a remote corner of the planet.
  • Learn about a myriad of ways to engage with girls through LitWorld, the New York-based worldwide literacy empowerment organization that has developed a series of creative and interactive activities especially for this purpose, for this day.
Support the Stand Up for Girls Rally to help each mother and daughter, however disadvantaged, speak of her own searing history -- her elders, her children, her men, her world. The rest of woman -- and mankind requires this, not only to rebalance a vast and unacknowledged inequity, but also so that we can truly listen, heed their stories and learn. Together, then, girls and women, and men and boys, can work to ensure that all those sharing this small planet have the opportunity to realize their full humanity -- not through any dreadful martyrdom such as befell the 9/11 victims, but by giving full voice to their minds and their hearts. On September 22 let's do our best to turn the tragedy of silence into a celebration of the restorative powers of speech, story and song -- to share, grieve and digest what has been lost, and heralding better times to come.

For more information about how to participate in Stand Up for Girls Rally, Thursday, September 22, check the MCI or LitWorld websites.