I want to make a bold statement: the purpose of our project is to join many others who are working to educate girls and women in developing nations thereby changing the world. In India where we work, women are less valued, have fewer rights and are literally, property. The level of violence they experience is unconscionable and there is no means of escape. In the most remote areas of India where no ultra sound options exist, there are one million newborn girls that are murdered every year. At birth their backs are broken, they are smothered, or drowned in a bucket of water. These girls are murdered for many reasons but primarily because parents don’t know how they will feed one more child and because girls don’t have the value boys do in these cultures. It is the girls who die.
In India, there are 700 million people who live on less than $2/day and over 200 million girls and women cannot read or write. Women who are illiterate are more likely to be forced into sex trafficking, have poorer health, be married off as teenagers, bear children at a young age, be victims of violence and remain in poverty. We want to change that. My name is Susan Cook and I’m with Free Schools World Literacy.
Free Schools is a grassroots initiative in Asia to promote literacy and to empower women and children with a free education. The illiteracy in the world is around one billion adults and two-thirds of them are women, and the worst illiteracy is in India. And so, in a state like Bihar where Free Schools is focused, is one of the highest rates of illiteracy.
There is huge gender discrimination in India. India has a patriarchal system of land ownership and when girls marry, they go to other families and actually become their property. This is a breeding ground for a lot of unhappy women. They aren’t much unlike you or me. Imagine yourself in this situation, what would it do to you? Seventy percent of women in India experience domestic cruelty, and once domestic cruelty is experienced, forty percent attempt suicide. The girls and women we are interviewing seem dead inside – they can’t afford emotion.
That’s the unpleasant reality today. Now for the hope and action: Free Schools began with one school in 2005 and we now have 80 schools in India and Thailand. Have you read the books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools? Greg Mortenson and his team have about 130 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They go into the most remote villages and build physical structures. FSWL is doing exactly the same thing in India and Thailand but because of the climate difference (no winter) we can open a school using donated space, often under tarps.
There are two unique characteristics of FSWL. The first is our costs are hard costs in communications like telephone and Internet and banking and are able to keep costs very low. The second is our model. We don't incur infrastructure costs. We don't go in and build schools. We go in and borrow space and involve the community as much as they’ll allow. What is happening now is the villagers, seeing the value of education, which they never understood before because the villagers have been illiterate for generations, are donating land, materials, labor and building their own schools. We're fostering initiative on their part -- initiative to become stakeholders in the whole culture of school in their village.
We are educating these girls in the basics of reading, writing, summing and the signs of human traffickers. I want to emphasize that we are keeping many girls out of the hands of human traffickers – we are literally saving these girls from a horrible, horrible existence and giving them an opportunity to raise themselves out of the poverty in which they’ve lived for generations. This means they can earn an income and have choices in their life. And what’s more, they are coming alive emotionally. They are beginning to sing, dance and create art.
For every year that a girl is in school, she will earn ten percent more in her adult life. If a girl is in school for five years she will earn fifty percent more in her adult life. The positive effects on the family -- empowering the family -- are very strong because girls, once they're educated, invest back into their family. They make sure their own children are educated. They look after their parents while they're still with them. They become advocates of health and hygiene, are active in civic discussions -- they become community activists. This is the girl effect that is referred to now among NGOs and it's very powerful. It's not that men don't have their own gifts. It's just that it's the girl who puts the money and education back into the family.
There are a million villages in India and where education is offered, violence is less.
We are documenting stories of 4 women and girls for the explicit purpose of raising funds for continuing our work. We are unable to move forward without funds. Our film crew recently traveled to Bihar to film a short documentary for immediate fund raising purposes. We plan to have the film for viewing in late July. We’re working on the story boards now and begin editing in late April. We begin filming the one hour documentary next February.
We need help and that is why I’m reaching out to tell this story. My goal is to meet people who will listen to our story, our goals, ask questions, and believe in us enough to open their check books. This is the story and why I’m reaching out to you.