Another volunteer told me a story once about a student in her town who won one of Peru’s national scholarships called BECA 18. This particular scholarship is every college-goers dream but is only available to people living in extreme poverty. It pays not only for full tuition but also room and board, books, and a small monthly living stipend. And because students in Peru leave high school as minors at the age of 16, they need their parents’ permission on official documents. Now any parent that I know back in the States would not hesitate to sign off of such a life altering opportunity to study for free in one of Peru’s top universities but this student had one problem – she was born a girl.
And because she was born a girl, her father found it inappropriate that a young woman should be living alone and studying in a big city hours away from parental supervision, her father unequivocally said, “No,” and shut the door to his daughters education, surrendering her to endless domestic tasks and long days harvesting crops.
I first heard this story about a year ago shortly after I arrived in Peru and I was beyond shocked but I soon learned that stories such as these are not at all uncommon. I have mentioned before in this blog that Peruvian society is heavily governed by a strict set of gender roles often giving men and boys more power and control over their own lives – especially over their own education.
I see it when I walk into a home economics classroom and all the girl students are cooking and the boy students are all sitting down waiting to be served.
I hear it when a student tells me that most girls feel more valuable when they have a boyfriend as opposed to when they have an education.
I notice it when I ask a group of students what they want to be when they grow up and the boys always respond first while the girls sit silently in reflection as if no one as ever asked them that question before.
And I painfully hear it when I blatantly ask my group of girls what they think about the restrictions society has placed on them because they are young women and they say, “That’s just the way things are. We don’t think about it too much.”
It makes me sad because they should be thinking about it. Their mothers, fathers, brothers, educators, and government should be thinking about it. Through her Let Girls Learn initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama has repeatedly said that a country that does not invest in the future of its girls is a country that is hindering its own progression and development.
It is hard to constantly see the harsh reality of young girls and women in Peru and to combat those deeply embedded notions about women, in my role as a volunteer I try to talk about my life in the States as much as possible – about how I lived alone, about how my parents and my friends’ parents encourage both their daughters and sons to pursue a life of their own choosing, and about how all of my girl friends have jobs, their own apartments, and/or are in graduate school. In doing that, I would hope that the girls will see that it is okay and perfectly normal to want to have dreams to pursue an education and career and that what they want for their lives matters.
Today is International Day of the Girl and I just wanted to remind people that there are girls all around the world – potential diplomats, mathematicians, educators, scientists, writers, philosophers, human rights activists, and mothers who will contribute to their countries by raising future generations – who are being locked out of a world of possibilities simply because they were born with two X chromosomes. Please remember to take the time to see what you can do to help young women have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
And if you want to learn more about the state of education for girls in Peru, check out this short documentary from UNICEF: