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.