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Think Globally for International Women's Day

03/07/2014 12:01 EST | Updated 05/07/2014 05:59 EDT

My eight-year-old son Gavin is privileged to have a girl for a best friend. And despite the gender difference, they're very similar. Logan and Gavin are equally smart, equally imaginative, and equally good at finding clever ways to get into trouble at school. Both seem instinctively sure that they can take on the world and win.

Last fall, I went with their Gr. 3 class on a field trip to a local pioneer schoolhouse. I watched as all the girls but Logan happily entered the girls' cloakroom and happily donned the frilly aprons hanging on wooden hooks for their use. At the pioneer teacher's harsh command, they quietly slunk to the girls' section of the classroom. All except Logan.

Logan took one look at this dubious layout, astutely assessed the limitations of the girls' side, and headed to the boys' area of the classroom. Without making a stop to choose a frilly apron. She knew exactly who she was, and had the strength of character to do what made sense for her. And in Canada, in the year 2013, her position was respected.

School doors slammed shut

Watching Logan grow up in Canada, it's hard to believe she lives in the same world as many of the girls I've visited in my work. And on International Women's Day, that contrast is particularly poignant. Millions of Logans are born into the world each year -- packed with potential and promise. Yet the global picture is filled with girls for whom the schoolhouse door is closed. It's not just a matter of having one's freedom of choice limited, as it was with pioneer schoolgirls here in Canada. It's even bleaker than that:

  • 66 million girls are out of school globally (UNESCO)
  • 33 million fewer girls than boys are in primary school (Education First)

In desperately poor families around the world, girls are more likely to be valued for their immediate earning potential -- however meager -- than for what they could achieve with an education. Although most countries do provide free education, the cost of uniforms and school supplies are astronomical for a family living on one meal a day. If there's money for only one child to attend school, most parents will choose their son.

The duty to quit school

Often, girls actually step forward to leave school out of a sense of duty, or because their parents place so little value on education for girls. I think about Jyoti, a girl in India, who went to work in a car upholstery factory to help support her siblings. Her father had been injured in an accident. For a bright girl with big ideas, it was the ultimate sacrifice.

"I decided in my heart that I would step in," she remembers. "My siblings' education, food for the house, clothes for our backs all required money." And step in she did, for nearly 12 hours every day. Jyoti said goodbye to the rest of her childhood. Education dropped to the bottom of her priority list, even though, ironically, she was paying for her own siblings to go to school. Her own dreams took a back seat.

Such tragedies play out deep in the souls of girls whose instincts tell them "You are smart! Even smarter than many of these boys!" There's also a tragic side for the countries that don't support their eager female students. If India enrolled just one per cent more girls in secondary school, says the Global Campaign for Education, their GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.

And the story doesn't end there. The legacy of education -- of the lack of education -- will affect these girls as they grow into women. It will also have a profound effect on the children whom they one day parent.

  • A girl with an extra year of education can learn 20 per cent more as an adult (The World Bank)
  • A child born to a literate mother is 50 per cent more likely to survive past the age of five (UNESCO)
  • Educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their own children to school (UNICEF)

The spark in action

Despite the odds stacked against her, however, Jyoti's story made me smile in the end. Now eighteen years old, Jyoti has taken her life back and is making it count. Her mother convinced her to join a skills training program, offered by World Vision. There, she learned to be a tailor. She recently opened her own small shop, and is creating her own fashion designs.

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Jyoti in her tailor's shop

"I am no less than any fashion designer," she says, with a huge smile and no small touch of pride in her voice. "Though I haven't done a very fancy or expensive course, I can still make clothes that these designers create. I carry this skill and confidence with me wherever I go."

It was, perhaps, the same kind of stubborn confidence that Logan felt when she walked to the other side of that pioneer classroom. The same spark that assures me that -- with the right support -- girls all over the can push open those doors and walk into different futures.

You can help educate a girl through World Vision.

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