22 June, Friday


A new boys’ club, where girls are welcome

Specialist view

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Every International Women's Day has special significance when, like me, you are working in the social sector and focused on helping girls around the world develop their voices and chart their paths. This year, however, on the heels of many months of rallying cries and universal reckoning for women everywhere, March 8 carries extra weight. Whether you are more moved to action by the culture of sexual harassment or misconduct in institutionalized industries such as Hollywood, heinous gender crimes, pay inequity, or the lack of role models for women in business, we as a society are ready to press for substantive and indelible progress.
 
As CEO of Room to Read, progress for me equates to a reformist approach to the gender dynamics in classrooms and working with over a dozen ministries of education around the world to adopt school curriculums that equip girls with life skills. It also includes engaging with communities and families to equalize gender roles in society and at home, and ensuring that Room to Read’s own workplace culture is founded on gender balance and integrity for all our staff. As a mother, that progress means that I encourage my daughter — and my son — to poke holes in gender stereotypes.
 
Of the 1,600 Room to Read staff members around the world, 57 percent are women. I am proud to say that our male staff also are focused on our work in gender equality. For example, a current randomized controlled trial evaluation of girls’ life skills in Rajasthan, India, is being overseen by a male staff member on our research, monitoring and evaluation team. In Nepal and India, we employ several men who contribute to our holistic approach to providing material support, mentorship, life skills and family and community engagement for the nearly 14,000 girls participating in our Girls’ Education Program in those two countries. We walk the talk that says the impetus for women exercising their rights can — and should — be gender-neutral.
 
I have been on many Room to Read site visits in Africa and Asia where girls in our program are reserved and quiet until the men leave the room, or until they enter one of our gender resource centers, after which they become lively and loquacious. That dynamic makes me acutely aware of the challenge that exists before us. We need an inclusive approach that not only gives girls agency and voice, but brings boys into the fold and encourages them to grow in to egalitarian men. We live together, after all, in an ecosystem composed of both genders — where traditions and beliefs, economics and institutions, quietly shape how our girls and boys are being raised. This ecosystem defines the experiences we have as women and men, and will determine if existing biases will be eradicated or escalate.
 
If we are truly going to raise girls who are confident, self-aware advocates for themselves, we must raise them in a way that does not make boys weak, but makes both genders strong. We should prepare girls to find and use their voices in a co-ed setting.  In the United States, research shows that by the time a girl reaches middle school, she becomes increasingly less interested in being a leader. This is also the time when her self-esteem will drop 3.5 times more than boys her own age. What would the statistics show if these girls were being encouraged and championed by both women and men in their families, classrooms and communities?
 
Fathers and brothers of teenage girls often have a great influence on how these girls view themselves and their place in society. The encouragement of these male role models or figures of authority can be transformative.
 
No matter how confident, outspoken or educated women become, #MeToo will persist and prevail until women collectively value their rights and men register the harm caused by inappropriate behavior and start recognizing women as equal, valuable peers. A generation of boys exists before us that can engender a new and joyous chorus, a band of women and men together standing up against harassment and violence, becoming educated about their rights as global citizens, pursuing their dreams, using education as a weapon against injustice, and pressing for progress with each word, action, law and social practice upon which they lean.
 
Geetha Murali, Ph.D., is CEO of Room to Read, a global organization focused on improving literacy and girls’ education in 15 countries and serving millions of children.

The Hill

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