By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef
In Kyrgyzstan, we met and interviewed girls who had big dreams of being diplomats and doctors, journalists and lawyers. People there aren’t worried about their kids learning to read and write. In Pakistan, however, we saw a lot of basic poverty. The kind that creates barriers and obstacles to things that should be simple. Things that shouldn’t have to be given up, like an education.
We saw a lot of talented, driven, ambitious girls throughout our travels. We also saw some girls who don’t really see any value in education. Their lives, their paths are already set out for them. And many times, it doesn’t involve reading or writing or books or anything that has to do with their intellect. Not every girl grows up to be a Nobel prize winner. Not every girl grows up to be Malala. And that’s a right on its own too. Every child should be allowed to feel lazy or tired or fed up with what life’s thrown at them. Because they’re children. But that’s why it’s even more important to make sure those kids, all kids, go to school. That’s what schools are for. They are supposed to be places where kids can learn and grow and be nurtured. That’s where they’re supposed to find out about possibilities and have dreams of their own. The kids who don’t want to go to school or think that they don’t need school...they are the ones who need it the most.
Have you ever read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? It’s a classic and a coming-of-age story about a girl, Francie Nolan, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, right before World War I. Francie comes from a pretty poor family. After her father dies, she starts working at a factory, and after she gets laid off, she works as a file clerk in Manhattan. And this is all before she even starts high school. Francie is a girl who loves to read and write. She often writes about her own life and the poverty she sees on a daily basis, much to the dismay of certain teachers who think that kind of writing is inappropriate. But she doesn’t let that get her down. She’s so excited to start high school, until one day her mother announces that she can only afford to send Francie’s younger brother, Neeley (short for Cornelius) to school next year. Both Francie and Neeley are furious about this decision. Neeley doesn’t even want to go to school. He likes earning money (because he has been working to help out the family too) and Francie wants more than anything to continue on to high school. Neither of them understand why their mother is doing this. She tells them, “Because if I don’t make him, [Neeley] will never go back. Where you, Francie, will fight and manage to get back somehow.”
I kept thinking about this part of the book. I kept thinking about this when we met a girl named Aqsa in Karachi. She lives in a slum of Karachi called Machar Colony, which quite literally means Mosquito Colony. Nearly 700,000 people live in that slum, the majority of whom work in the fish business as laborers, fisherman, or shrimp peelers. They are born, live, breathe, work, and die there. We talked to Aqsa and she took us to her home where we met other members of her family, including her grandmother and her sister. We asked Aqsa and her sister about their lives and what they want to be when they grow up. And we got some unexpected answers. Aqsa first told us that she wanted to be a school principal. When we asked her why, she said because her father told her to. Her older sister stopped going to school some years ago. She told us she can write her name, but beyond that what’s the point? She knows that she will live and die in Machar Colony. That is her reality. What can education do for her when she already knows what her destiny is? We all looked at each other at that point. We didn’t have a good and straightforward answer to that.
All of a sudden, I felt stupid for thinking I could walk into this girl’s home and assume I know what’s best for her and her family. That might seem obvious to others, but I started this project with a clear idea of what every girl’s childhood should look like. It usually involves going to school, being healthy, and having dreams. So it was a slap in the face when I realized that that’s just not how it works. Not everyone gets the same opportunities, no matter how many schools you build. But that doesn’t change the fact that those of us who can do something about this, should still try. We can’t let that get us down. For all I know, maybe Aqsa will think more about her future now that she’s seen and met three random American girls who were able to visit her home purely because of their education.
Scroll through our Pakistan photo gallery and read more about Aqsa's story and Machar Colony here.