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Girls & Women

Economic development starts with empowering girls

Shantanu Starick

Here’s the setting: I’m sitting on a crowded bus in Bahia, a state in northeast Brazil. I’m speaking in English to a friend who is seated next to me. The two of us are spending a bridge year in Brazil as Global Citizen Year Fellows, where we’re living in homestays and serving as apprentices with local community partners. Across the aisle on the bus, a ten-year-old girl has her eyes glued to me. I can imagine why she would be intrigued- it could be the language I’m speaking that she doesn’t understand, or my fair skin, which stands out in a predominantly afro-Brazilian community. During lulls in my conversation, I look across the aisle to see if I still have my young friend’s attention. Sure enough, the staring continues. After a while, my new friend summons up the courage to spark conversation.

“What language are you speaking?”

I told her that my friend and I were speaking English and that we were from the United States.

“Is that another state in Brazil?”

I went on to explain that the United States is another country and that it was far away. Next, I asked her where she was from.

“Paripe,” she responded. This time, I was dumbstruck.

My new friend, Ana, lived in the same neighborhood as me. Here we were, in another part of the state, far from home, and one of my neighbors was across the aisle.

Ana and I continued our conversation for the remainder of the bus ride. She explained to me that she aspired to become a doctor, and that her dream was to open a community center in our neighborhood, Paripe, so that people will have somewhere to eat and sleep and study. She spoke precociously about the social ills evident in our neighborhood, which is located in the marginalized periphery of Salvador da Bahia. Ana told me about her school, her friends, and her mother’s response to her ambitions.

“My mom tells me I shouldn’t dream so much. She tells me to go outside and play with my friends instead.”

I don't know the circumstances that made this mother discourage her daughter's dreams. Maybe she's trying to shelter her daughter from disappointment. Maybe she's given up on change coming to the neighborhood. But I shared a different message with Ana. I asked her to promise to me that she would never stop dreaming, and that she would do her best in school so that she could open up that community center when she gets older.

Ana, and millions of girls like her, are the key to global economic development and the elimination of poverty. Educated girls have brighter futures and create brighter futures for their families. They have fewer kids, give birth at a later age, and raise their children with a focus on education. They also have higher self-esteem, invest in their communities, and function as contributing members of a nation’s economy. It’s also simple math: a country’s economy is ineffective when half its population is oppressed. When we empower girls through education, we empower young girls like Ana to become agents of change in their community… whether that community is Paripe, or our global community.

This article was written by Kim Asenbeck, a 2013 Global Citizen Year Fellow in Brazil. You can read more about Kim's experiences during her year in Brazil on her blog. Kim is currently a student at Wellesley College.