Every morning when I come into work, I am greeted by the smiling face of a young girl. Her hair is pulled neatly back into two braids, glossy black against her pink hairbands. Her eyes, dark and alert, shine at me – I swear I can see them twinkle.
She wears the blue uniform of her school, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in rural Nepal. The Advocates for Human Rights supports the school to provide the right to education to the most disadvantaged kids in the area and to prevent them from becoming involved in child labor. Photographs from the school hang on the walls of our office, reminders to us of the lives that we impact with our human rights work.
Even though I see her every day, until last month I had never met this cheerful young girl, a girl whose smile – even in a photo – comes from her core, seems to light her entire being. Until last month, I did not know that her name was Kanchi. And I had never heard her incredible story.
In 1999, Kanchi was six years old. She lived with her family in a village in the Kathmandu Valley. Her parents were poor farmers; they had only a little land and some cattle and they struggled to feed their family. Kanchi was the youngest of six sisters. She and her sisters (and also her brother) had to help their parents in the fields and with household chores. Kanchi’s job was also to take the cattle to the forest to graze. Kanchi did not go to school. There were many children in Nepal that did not go to school at that time, but girls, like Kanchi, were more likely than boys to work rather than go to school – particularly in rural areas like the Suntole district where she lived.
Kanchi was a very smart and determined little girl. She wanted to go to school. So when she heard that a new school was opening in the Sankhu-Palubari community – a school for kids who were not able to go to school because they couldn’t pay or were discriminated against – she was very excited. She rushed off to tell her parents. But her parents, who had never themselves been educated, were not as excited as Kanchi. Why should they let her go to school? Who would help feed the family? Why should they send her to school if she was only going to get married in a few years anyway?
Kanchi says that she cried for a month and begged her parents to let her go to school. One day, teachers from the new school came to visit Kanchi’s parents to talk to them about the school. The teachers explained that it would help THEM if Kanchi could read and write. They explained why it was important for all children to go to school, even girls. They told them that all children – even the poorest, the lowest-caste, members of indigenous groups – had a right to education.
Kanchi’s older sisters, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, took her side. Instead getting an education, they had all married young and were working in the fields. Kanchi’s sisters argued that Kanchi should go to school, take this opportunity for a life that would be different from theirs. Finally, their parents agreed to let Kanchi go to school.
Kanchi started at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in 1999, one of 39 students in the first kindergarten class. To get to school, Kanchi had to walk one and a half hours each way. There were many other obstacles along the way, too. At various times, her parents wanted her to stop school and help them with farming. But she stayed in school and worked hard. She told her parents, “I want to do something different from the others.”
Kanchi liked her teachers and felt supported by them. She felt that the best thing about the school was the teaching environment. She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from 8th grade. She continued on to high school and completed 12th grade at Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012. The first in her family to go to school, Kanchi is also the first girl from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to graduate from 12th grade.
I met Kanchi for the first time in September. Almost exactly 13 years after this brave little girl started kindergarten, she is a lovely young woman who is preparing for her university entrance exams. She plans to study agriculture starting in January. Her parents are proud of her and they are happy now – she has chosen the family profession – but Kanchi is interested in learning more about organic farming so she can bring techniques back to her village. “I want to live a healthy life and give a healthy life to others,” she says.
Sitting in the principal’s office at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, I asked her what the school meant to her. Kanchi said, “I gained from this school my life. If I hadn’t learned to read and write, I would be a housewife.” When asked about her sisters, she told me that they had made sure to send their own children to school.
In her free time, Kanchi likes to sing and dance and make handicrafts to decorate her room. She likes to play with her sisters’ children. She has a smile that lights the whole world. She told me her nickname, Himshila. She smiled when she told me it means “mountain snow, strong rock”. Strong rock. That seems just about right.
October 11, 2012 is the first International Day of the Girl Child. The United Nations has designated this day to promote the rights of girls, highlight gender inequalities and the challenges girls face, and address discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe. In many ways, the story of Kanchi and her sisters reflects the experience of girls in many countries throughout the world. All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.
There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality. It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development.
“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”
The International Day of the Girl is a day to recommit ourselves to ensuring that girls like Kanchi have the chance to live their lives to their fullest possible potential. To redouble our efforts to promote the rights of girls wherever they live in the world. This first International Day of the Girl is also a day to honor girls like Kanchi. A day to take the story of her success in one tiny corner of Nepal and shout it out, an inspiration for girls all around the world. Girls like Kanchi with the strength, the bravery, the determination to change the world, but who just need the opportunity.
Originally published on The Advocates Post.
Photos of European Parliament Member Licia Ronzulli with her daughter keep popping up on my Facebook news feed and Pintrest. My friends are mostly moms, so I speculate that they had an emotional reaction when they first saw the photo of MEP Ronszulli with her baby. I know that I did. I cheered and teared up a little, almost simultaneously. Then I stopped and asked myself, “Why?”
The photo of Ms. Ronzulli at work with her baby is not a new – it was taken in September 2010. While this photo caused a splash in Europe in 2010, it took a while for it to catch on here. That’s about right – as a country, the US is generally well behind Europe in terms of policies that support mothers.
Although she doesn’t bring her daughter to the European Parliament regularly, there are other photos of Ms. Ronzulli and the now-toddler Vittoria. During a vote on the Eurozone debt crisis on February 15, 2012, reporters snapped several photos of Vittoria with her mom at the European Parliament.
Here are a few reasons:
1) Ms. Ronzulli’s employer, the European Parliament, has rules that allow women to take their baby with them to work. Most American women do not have that option.
2) The photos perfectly symbolize the work-family balance that all of us working moms struggle with every day. The fact that, according to media reports, the photo of Ms. Ronzulli with her infant was taken during a vote on proposals to improve women’s employment rights makes it all the more poignant.
3) Ms. Ronzulli is showing the world that childbirth does not automatically flip the offswitch on our female brains. Women continue to be productive employees even after they become mothers. The Daily Mail, which ran the February 2012 photo in an article titled “Does my vote count, mummy?”, describes the 36-year old Ronzulli as seeming “in complete control in spite of having her baby on her lap throughout.” Why is this such a surprise? I know that I, for one, have become better at multitasking and more efficient at doing my work since I had my first child.4) In the 2010 photo, it appears that Ms. Ronzulli is choosing to keep her 7 week old infant with her as much as possible. In my experience, that’s important for babies who are still so little. Yet 6 weeks is the typical maternity leave in the U.S. That doesn’t mean that it is paid leave, however. The U.S. is also one of only a handful of countries with no national law mandating paid time off for new parents.5) Ms. Ronzulli was entitled to a parenting leave, but chose to take only 1 month of it. She makes the point that it is about personal choice. In 2010, she told The Guardian “It’s a very personal choice. A woman should be free to choose to come back after 48 hours. But if she wants to stay at home for six months, or a year, we should create the conditions to make that possible,” she said. Amen, sister!
6) She looks GOOD! I know I never looked that good 7 weeks after labor and delivery, but many of my friends very quickly looked like their pre-baby selves again. I certainly didn’t look my best when I was the sleep-deprived parent of a toddler, but the world didn’t end. Moms like a little reminder now and then that a having a baby doesn’t slam the door on our ability to look and feel good. Sometimes it sure feels like that, but really it’s just a temporary setback.
7) Ms. Ronzulli probably didn’t have to nurse baby Vittoria sitting on a toilet in the ladies room. That’s something I had to do at some point or other with all three of my babies here in America.