The Significance of a Girl

One early morning in 2009, my husband, Chris woke up and found me reading on the couch with tears in my eyes. He sat and listened to me bawl about a woman in Pakistan who had been educated by “that guy from Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson. I was reading his second book by then, following the success story of this woman who, without Mortenson’s school, would have been married at 14, had several children by 20 and been largely uneducated. Instead she had just finished her nursing degree and was helping women in childbirth and postnatal care in her home valley in Pakistan. Tears ran down my face as I finished reading a graph out loud. Chris, still groggy from sleep, put perfect words to how I felt about learning about the success of newly educated women in a developing country.

A large part of my focus, passion and attention has been paid to Asia in the last few years. You might think it started in 2011 when I went to Nepal, but I was hooked before then. In 2007 I picked up Three Cups of Tea and learned about Greg Mortenson; a mountain climber from my home town, who, by a twist of fate, ended up working as a humanitarian rather than a mountaineer. His descriptions of the Kush Valley – the area and people below K2 – hooked me. He decided to build a school in a village there when he saw kids doing math by writing with sticks in the dirt, because they had no school supplies (and on that day, no teacher either). And at that point he became an inspiration for me.

Skip forward to 2011 and my first Nepal visit – I was immersed in a country and community that is very similar to the one where Mortenson began his work, and it connected a lot of dots for me. Then in 2013, my next trip to Nepal was centered around volunteering in schools – promoting education in places where it is desperately needed. All the while I had Mortenson in my mind. It was due to his manner, his unassuming, humble, gentle ways that he was able to walk among perfect strangers in Pakistan, who are historically leery of any outsiders, and realize his deepest desire: To educate girls in the far reaches of the Himalaya, so they had choices other than becoming a teen mother and prisoners to their houses. (Pakistani women are not allowed to walk in public, even to the market, without a male family member as an escort. If no men from the family agree to take them, they are bound to their homes.)

For a few fleeing days, I was able to do something similar, in a remote area of Nepal’s Himalayas. I spent five days with my heart in my throat, for the experience. With the goal of improving a school that was so far off the grid, we walked for ten hours from the closest road to get there. And it was a life-changing experience, my second trip to Nepal, because of the time with the school children and teachers.

And so it was natural that Chris gave me Malala’s book for Christmas this year. And I devoured it, all the while relating back to past experiences. The bits that really shook me were how well a sixteen-year old can explain her own culture to outsiders, and how determined the Taliban were to keep anyone from getting an education, save their own madrasahs (schools meant only to make young boys into warriors).

I have been following this courageous young lady and her father since then. And now you know why. Watch her father’s TED talk, below, just released a few days ago, read I am Malala. Then try hard not to appreciate what you have, how educated you are, and how much you have to share, because of it. Get inspired, in whatever way it takes you.