Guest blog by Juliet Cutler
When Grace was a child, she would cast shy sideways smiles at me covering her mouth, slouching her shoulders, and looking away. When she spoke at all, I would have to lean in to hear her.
Now, in her adolescence, there’s a steadiness about Grace—a look in her eye that’s thoughtful and confident. She has something to say, and she’s no longer afraid to say it. She stands upright and walks as if she knows where she’s going, because she does. In 2021, Grace will become the first member of her family to graduate from high school. From there, she will no doubt transform the conditions of poverty for herself and for her family, as most educated women do.
I’ve known Grace since her birth in 2000 when I was living and teaching at the first school for Maasai girls in East Africa. Grace grew up in a traditional Maasai family in northern Tanzania, and I knew her father well. From the time Grace could talk, she began to quietly, but urgently tell her mom and dad that she wanted to go to school—an unlikely prospect for most Maasai girls who frequently face early forced marriages, genital cutting, and other forms of gender-based violence that keeps them out of school. However, I believe this drive to learn is woven into the very fabric of Grace’s being, as it is in children all over the world.
Unfortunately, 263 million children and youth worldwide, or the equivalent of about 80 percent of the United States’ entire population, are not in school. Many of these children are like Grace. They are poor. They are female. They live in cultures where discrimination and violence against women are prevalent. And yet, they know education can improve their lives.
Research in the field of international development proves that the single most transformative intervention for poverty alleviation is the education of women and girls. Education has the power to improve the health and wellbeing of families, communities, and even the natural world. National economies are strengthened by the simple act of sending girls to school.
I’ve had the great privilege of witnessing the life-changing impact of education for Grace and for many of my Maasai students. Some of them are now doctors, teachers, pilots, nurses, attorneys, founders of nonprofits, and above all else confident leaders in their own communities. These women are now transforming the conditions for other Maasai girls who are following in their footsteps.
In my memoir, Among the Maasai, I tell the stories of girls like Grace, but as important, I reveal the ways my ongoing work among the Maasai has transformed my life in deep and significant ways. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve learned the power of walking bega kwa bega, a Swahili phrase that translates as “shoulder to shoulder.” Even across vastly different cultures, we are more similar than we sometimes realize. I’ve come to recognize that Maasai women and girls share many of my own aspirations. They want opportunities to thrive. They want happiness and love, and they want to chart their own courses. Education is the pathway to this.
* * *
Here are a few other books that may inspire you to empower and uplift women and girls around the world:
1. Malala Yousafzai is known worldwide as an advocate for girls’ education. In her most recent book, We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, Yousafzai not only explores her own story of displacement, but she also shares the stories of girls she’s met while visiting refugee camps around the world. In the midst of these stark, barren places, Yousafzai observes that hope still stubbornly emerges in the face of heartbreaking trauma.
2. In We Should All be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie encourages men and women to start defining gender roles more broadly by inviting us all to image how much happier we would be—and how much fairer the world would be—if we didn’t carry the weight of gender expectations. Adichie makes the point that we should claim our identities based on abilities and interests rather than on socially conditioned gender roles.
3. Melinda Gates offers a heartfelt and personal call to action in The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. Using stories and data from her travels and research with The Gates Foundation, Gates shares her vision for an equal society where women are valued and recognized in all spheres of life.
4. In 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women, Betsy Teutsch shares 100 proven solutions that help women emerge out of poverty in eleven different sectors including public health, technology, agriculture, transportation, law, and finance. Teutsch reveals the power we all have to make an impact with a relatively small investment.
Juliet Cutler is an American writer, educator, and activist. In her book, Among the Maasai, she tells the story of her experiences working alongside local leaders to empower Maasai girls in Tanzania. All proceeds from the sale of the book support education for Maasai girls. To learn more visit: www.julietcutler.com