This blog tackles issues specifically for women within under-developed communities.
“I would have become a nurse, an office clerk or maybe even a pilot”, my mum laughed as she imagined her life if she had continued education beyond age 15. Then she asked me to stop asking questions and speak to my aunts instead. In my family, there is a record of women who were told not to go to school - they had to help their parents at home and get married. It’s an uncomfortable truth for me, having been born in the UK, brought up on feminist ethics and always allowed the privilege to do what I wanted. Only to learn that the women who came before me were young girls who did what they were told to do, jeopardised their education to continue what was deemed normal for them at the time.
This contrast has meant that understanding the reality of the lives they have lived has been somewhat liberating for me. I now finally understand their frustrations and perspectives of the world a bit better. More importantly, I now gaze even more in admiration at how gracefully they’ve evolved into incredibly independent women, despite all of it.
According to Unicef, this is why it’s important for girls to have access to quality education: They are less likely to marry young and more likely to lead healthy, productive lives. They earn higher incomes, participate in the decisions that most affect them, and build better futures for themselves and their families.
What I’ve also learned is that a lack of education for girls can mean having to cater to social norms of getting married - before the ages of 18 - and having children as the sole purpose to aspire to. Not having the opportunity to dream or have other goals for their lives. In some cases, it’s likely that girls in this situation also lack self-esteem because society, the community and their loved ones continue to overlook their skills, dreams and value.
The two aunts I spoke to are women I feel closest to but equally furthest away from in terms of our lived experiences. Each of these conversations were on individual video calls where they beamed with pride at how wonderful their childhood was when they were learning and excelling in their education but ended with ‘anyway I don’t want to talk about all of this now’. Bringing up the hardships of the past and talking about the childhoods they missed out on because they got married as children has meant they have each been on a journey to make peace with it. One aunt said, ‘We lived hard lives, so you have it easy now.’
Here is one aunts story:
I went to school in Uganda from the ages of 7 to 10. At that time, I was the top of the class in over 3 subjects and quite smart.
I dropped out of school because my parents needed help with the younger children in the family whilst they were working in the shop.
A year later, my dad passed away and we faced financial difficulties in our family. Whilst my eldest brother who was 15 went to the market to sell groceries, I looked after the rest of the children, the youngest being 6 months old.
My favourite time was when the woman selling the sweet yellow bread I loved would come round and my mother would allow us 1 slice each and give us 50 cents to take to school so we would get cassava at lunch. The other day, I was offering food at the alter for God and remembered there was a time where I would eat just as little.
When I was 15 I was married and the following year I had my first child.
It’s a common theme - child marriage was considered normal. Girls were considered more helpful with the already unmanageable household; cooking, cleaning and looking after the other young children. The notion of unpaid care work doesn’t exist in this life so it isn’t a problem to do the work. For many south Asian families, using money and resources towards education for girls in the family is not a priority because girls leave when they get married. In my mum’s words, they become someone else's responsibility. The cycle of the patriarchy continues.
Here is another aunts story:
I went to school in my home village in India for about a year, when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I had to drop out to help my parents look after the farm animals and my younger brother.
At the time I didn’t know how to read or write at all. Within a few years my parents had arranged for me to get married and move to Uganda, but they recognised that when it came time for me to move, there would be no means of me keeping in touch with them.
There was a teacher from our local school who lived across the street and offered to train me to read and write during the dark nights with only a coal lamp in the room, so that I would be able to write to my parents after I moved and got married.
When I was almost 15, I moved to Uganda and helped care for the younger children in my husband’s family. I had to cook using a stove I had never seen before -- it was a totally different style to the ones we used in the village in India.
Whilst I understand this narrative on girls education is changing, progress is still far too slow. In India alone, almost 40% of girls aged 15-18 drop out of school, and around a third of girls get married before age 18. Women do up to 10 times more unpaid care work than men. Girls are still dropping out to help out at home. In many cases, girls don’t show at school because they start their period and can’t afford sanitary towels. In the worst of cases, school is an unsafe place for girls to be travelling to; so they don’t. These are not issues that happened generations ago - but instead, very real deep societal problems India and many underdeveloped countries globally are tackling to this day.
Girls and women accessing education would benefit all of society because they’d be in work, lessening the financial burden from men as traditional earners and boosting the national and global economy. It would allow women the financial freedom to not depend on anyone but themselves.
My aunts live life as they want now. I told one of them I think she’d be making millions if she’d only been able to continue her education and pursue whatever dreams that might have come up. She smiled and said ‘that’s for another life now.’
Written by Neelam Keshwala