The World Lies in the Hands of a Girl

stand up book coverThe following post is an excerpt from STAND UP!, which came out Tuesday. You can purchase the book on Amazon. Three GLI students are spotlighted in the book, and we’ll be posting their stories this week to honor their work.

Every story in STAND UP! !: 75 Young Activists Who Rock the World, And How You Can, Too! is a launching pad for lessons and discussions on many topics—bullying, the arts, equality, disabilities, empowerment, family, environment, peer pressure, community service, education, friendship, leadership, race relations, faith, diseases and other medical issues, poverty, cultural understanding, healthy eating and living, animal welfare, drugs, military issues, social entrepreneurship, and so much more.

The free download, companion eBook STAND UP! DISCUSSION GUIDE is meant to be a starting point for exploring these issues and causes in the classroom, in the community, at home and anywhere else teachers, students, parents, book clubs, advocates, activists and the simply curious may be gathered. Like the stories themselves, the goal of this guide is to use the discussion questions as gateways to debate and exchanges that will encourage participants to further expand their knowledge, share experiences, open minds, take action, inspire change and bring people closer together.


by Sophia and Nadia Tareen

Protected behind the tinted windows of our large van, we examined the Pakistani city at a distance as we overtook most of the smaller cars on the bustling streets. The relentless ruckus of the Karachi traffic faded into the background as we trekked into rural Sindh. With our suitcase stocked with notebooks and gifts, we readied ourselves for the visit to the school we had only envisioned in our minds.

We are two sisters from Philadelphia who are working to spark positive global progress in this often-mystifying world. Going to an all-girls school, feminism and gender equality have been ingrained into our attitudes and views. Whenever we hear news headlines about gender discrimination, we simultaneously look at each other with a grimace, acknowledging the mutual feeling of disgust. Throughout the world, girls are denied access to an education, a fundamental right established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Girls are deprived of this right to an education for reasons such as financial barriers, safety concerns and cultural preferences for boys.

Currently, two-thirds of the 121 million uneducated children in the world are girls. Without an education, these girls fall into the perpetual cycle of poverty, which exposes them to extreme forms of violence, sexual exploitation and more forms of abuse. While these facts are indeed staggering, we can assure you that these numbers are real and these stories are real. We know this because we have had not one, but two extraordinary opportunities to meet the brave girls who defy the limitations of their circumstances and make it a priority to receive an education.

In 2007, we learned about Girls Learn International (GLI), a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to empowering and encouraging students in the U.S. to help their counterparts in the developing world go to school. We started our own GLI chapter at our all-girls school, the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and established a partnership with the Khanott girls’ school in the rural Sindh region of Pakistan, the country where our parents grew up.

We spent the early years of the Baldwin GLI chapter developing a strong foundation for the club through expanding membership and conducting interactive meetings, holding stimulating assemblies and unique events. During the year, we introduced and discussed human rights issues with the student members and fostered cross-cultural communication between the Baldwin and Khanott students through individualized pen pal letters. By the end of the first year, our chapter had grown to 30 dedicated members, and our motivation to promote universal education had been bolstered.

In 2008, our parents presented the two of us with a remarkable opportunity – a trip to Pakistan to visit the Khanott School. The Baldwin GLI chapter prepared by drafting letters and creating beaded friendship bracelets for the Pakistani students. As we bid our Baldwin classmates farewell before winter break, we both felt the immense responsibility bestowed upon us. To represent both the Baldwin School and GLI was an overwhelming honor. However, rather than apprehension, we were driven by the prospect of making an impact on the Pakistani students, our American classmates and our own outlooks.

Nadia (second from left) and Sophia (far right) Tareen

Nadia (second from left) and Sophia (far right) Tareen

We arrived in Karachi and were greeted by our family who lived there. A few days after we settled in, we packed the gifts from the Baldwin students and made our way to rural Sindh.

We made a sharp turn off the highway into the sandy terrain and pulled into the Khanott village. A representative from the Indus Resource Center—an organization that sets up schools for social and economic development in Pakistan—led us into the Khanott School where we were enthusiastically greeted with Assalamu alaikum—may peace be upon you. The students were ecstatic about our presence and their eagerness to learn about our lives in America was clear.

First, we presented the fourth grade class with the Baldwin GLI chapter’s cultural exchange project: a scrapbook containing photos of our chapter’s members, the Baldwin School and wintertime in Pennsylvania. We also distributed the friendship bracelets and introductory letters that our chapter had written and our mother had translated into Urdu, the language of Pakistan. We then visited the sixth-grade classroom where the girls told us that they hoped to continue their education at a university.

We showed the Pakistani students where the Baldwin School and the Khanott village were located on a map of the world. Even though the girls of Baldwin and the girls of Khanott are geographically thousands of miles apart from each other, we are all students, striving to gain more knowledge about the world we live in, trying to shape our futures and discover our paths in life.

This trip’s poignancy transformed both of our understandings of the dire situation of girls’ rights—it made the mission real. Upon returning home, we organized musical evenings, fashion shows, guest speakers and assemblies in which we discussed the Khanott girls’ stories and fundraised more than $3,000 for our partner school. Our GLI chapter also worked with the entire upper school at Baldwin to make and send the Khanott School a colorful quilt, with each square featuring a word representing our values and beliefs in both English and Urdu. For example, “freedom” is azadi, “hope” is umeed and “believe” is yakeen.

Three years later, we contacted the Khanott School directors again and coordinated another visit into rural Sindh. This time, we were prepared and resolutely conveyed our mission to the Baldwin School administration. More than 100 upper school students wrote personal letters inside the front covers of hand-decorated notebooks for the Khanott School students. We wanted to express how much we valued our friendship with the students and our appreciation for the beautiful bangles, handmade traditional dolls and other local handicrafts they had sent us. We gathered notebooks and an assortment of other American gifts into a suitcase, and once more the two of us made the daylong journey from Philadelphia to Karachi.

After a beautiful drive through the dusty, rural landscape of Sindh to the Khanott village, the students of our partner school greeted us at the door with that same inspiring charisma as they had during our first visit. Joy and pride ran through us as we walked by Baldwin’s colorful quilt, which was displayed outside one of the classrooms.  Through construction efforts, the school had expanded in size, the classrooms were better organized and the students were as eager to learn as before.

The girls described their daily routine to us and explained how attending school has allowed them to avoid the fate of many of their mothers – child marriage. One 15-year-old girl named Benazeer described how she had brought her school lessons into her home by teaching her younger sisters about the importance of receiving an education. Sitting next to her, another student named Sidra explained how she planned on becoming a teacher at the Khanott School once she graduated. A girl named Saira told us about how she was arranged to marry an older man when she was only 15, but the Khanott School teachers rallied behind her and convinced her family to allow her to continue her education and get married when she was ready.

As we listened, we felt the power of the girls’ courageous stories. Through their commanding voices, we heard their determination to become educated. And through their resolution to break the barriers before them, we saw the value of the investment. Keeping girls in school is a real solution to the epidemic of poverty that affects the political, economic and social systems of Pakistan.

Girls like Saira are the ones who spark change by participating in household and community decisions, standing up for women’s basic rights, and protecting other girls from falling into the traps of outdated and discriminatory customs. Girls like Benazeer will end the vicious intergenerational cycles of inequality and poverty. And brave girls like legendary Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who at age 15 was shot by the Taliban and nearly died for her beliefs that every girl deserves an education, are the role models for courageous protestors of injustice. These inspiring young women are the ones who will instill real and purposeful change in communities that would otherwise stagnate in archaic conventions. Girls are the solution that can move the world forward.

We are two sisters asking all of you who are fortunate to live in countries where education is widely accessible to stand up and take action! Global progress starts with giving a girl a chance, a chance made possible if she is put into a school. Join us and we can change the world.

Sophia and Nadia are co-founders of the Girls Learn International chapter at their school.

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