Creating the Ground I Stand on a tribute to the journeys of All Girls & Women of South Asia
Over two days, 60 influencers heard six girls from diverse South Asian geographies from Afghanistan to Maldives share courageous journeys of how they pushed their limits, inner and outer ones, overcame fear to be who they are today. The fierce girls were speaking with conviction for more than 170 million adolescent girls of the region, many not in school, in child marriages, millions facing climate change crises, 1 in 5 under nourished and 50 percent anemic. They were adolescent girls and young women, some in post primary education others in university and graduates from modest backgrounds traversing complex spaces, taking on big battles against illiteracy, ending child marriages, overcoming mental health challenges; SRHR; propelling STEM leaders tackling climate change, digital rights life skills and pushing for girls in sports and enterprise; absolutely brilliant and breathless storytellers! These bold heroes had already discovered their inner calling and voice; they were committed to learning afresh whatever it took to become social movements in their own right, some with 16 students to others taking on 1000s of followers within and beyond their local and national boundaries. Each one had powerful narratives to share as they do each day of the year including the International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2023 as young leaders. This day for me is also a tribute to Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, attacked on October 9, just prior to the first anniversary of the international Day of the Girl Child in 2012! Malala is an icon for young girls and boys for what she dared to do, asking for a simple but powerful entitlement, ‘to learn’ without barriers and violence. Today, Malala is the youngest Nobel Prize winner and the much-awarded global movement; she seeks each girl to become a social spiral in her own space. She is humble and hard at work for creating 1000s of Champions in the South as multipliers of education, STEM, skills and enterprise, within and beyond national boundaries. A girl whose name stands for ‘malaal or ranj, or sadness’ is the complete antithesis; she is creating the ‘happiness gene’ for all girls no matter which geography they live in, committed to learning innovatively as women of STEM, Sports, Mental Health; Enterprise, emotionally and digitally enabled and always supported by fellow champions and counsellors virtually and physically. In each of the six present girls that UNICEF had invited viz. Saadia Sudheer (Pakistan) Tajala Khurami (Afghanistan), Rachana Lamsal (Nepal) Aishath Zara Ashif Maldives) Fabiha Jannat (Bangladesh), Ugyen Zamgmo (Bhutan) and Abdul Rahuman Jesrina(Srilanka); and a social entrepreneur raising a storm too from India, Malika Taneja working on emotional well being. We could see seeds sprouting high of a girls’ movement in South Asia! One girl’s passion, commitment to fight against all odds is a profound living legacy for millions to follow galvanizing local and global attention. Our six young adolescents and youth leaders shared their struggle and craft, how they became their own enablers and acknowledged support of organized UNICEF’s efforts and its partners on ground. Inspired by the rich discussions, the Chairperson of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child (NCRC) Ms. Ayesha Raza Farooq highlighted the urgency of multi-sectoral collaboration and child protection to address the polycrisis of adolescent girls in South Asia. Each country’s official representative shared investments that have worked for Adolescent girls in Education, STEM, Digital Skills, reduction in Domestic Violence, Ending Child Marriages and Environment protection and Employability; but much more needs to be done. UNICEF has a target to reach 25 million Adolescent girls by 2025; this can only be done through hard core partnerships.
The South Asian platform convened by the UNICEF regional office had invited me from Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) to share with activists, policy makers and researchers of the region, evidence about what works for Adolescent girls in Pakistan. The experiences of Siyani Sahelian (wise friends), Advancing Action for Adolescent Girls (A3G) over 3 years has provided rich evidence on three-dimensional success. A3G is an inspirational journey, as each one of the 50,000 girls (9-19) were either never enrolled (57%) or were drop outs (4 months to 4 years)- (43%). The evidence was bold about their transformations in a) beliefs/behaviors, about themselves (life skills, SEL and as leaders); b) as learners catching up and completing education milestones, and c) as certified skilled income generators for their family wellbeing, with many immersed in new found digital and leadership skills. ITA awaits scaling up SS-A3G to millions in Pakistan and beyond. The design and title of SS was co-created with the young girls themselves sitting in villages of South Punjab. It was also inspired by the cumulative layers of what one had learnt over two decades in diverse setting when I was first initiated to rural Punjab and Pakistan. One could see so many prototypes culminating in the HundrEd innovation of ‘SS A3G” in 2023 including the “Rawalpindi Youth Group” Project for adolescent rural girls with the department of Local Govt. in Punjab, Pakistan.
The treatment arms were similar, literacies, lifeskills, TVET and income generation. The project had been running since late‘80s with the Local Govt. department a brain child of a great UNICEF mentor Naheed Aziz, inspiring us with her creation. I had multiplied it across 6 districts of Punjab in the ‘90s. It had great stories of success too; Pakistan could have benefited its girls and young women a great deal by scaling it up. What gags scaling; that needs to be asked. Is the government averse or risk taking behavior and mainstream what works? Are the funds always going to be short for girls and women’s education and enterprise depressing the participation of women in the labor force (24%). Is the Bureaucratic and political will and imagination always lagging for girls and women’s education? I believe that the ‘girl power’ of South Asia is already transforming homes positively, the benefits from education and income are not just for the girl child but for the whole family and generations! What are we waiting for? As the Regional Head of UNICEF Mr. Sanjay Wijesekra said “No nation can get ahead if half of its population is left behind”.
Baela Raza Jamil
CEO ITA Pakistan and Founder Pakistan Learning Festival