It’s not easy being a girl – especially in Afghanistan. Due to deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs, Afghan females are widely viewed as subordinate to their male peers. As a result, 85% of females receive no formal education. Moreover, only 12 – 24% of females are literate – one of the lowest rates in the world.
But “sunny days” may be on their way to the central Asian country. Afghanistan’s version of Sesame Street (Baghch-e-Simsin) is debuting its first Afghan character: a 6 year old girl!
Zari (meaning “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari) is a curious, lively, and confident girl with purple skin and a mop of colorful hair. She wears causal and traditional clothes, as well as a headscarf where appropriate. With characters like Elmo and Big Bird, Zari will appear in all 26 episodes, doing segments on health, exercise, and well-being. She will also interview a doctor and other professionals to determine “what she would need to do to become one herself”.
Zari’s role is not just to teach children who may lack access to other educational content. As a girl, she is also there to promote female empowerment and serve as a role model. In the words of Sherri Westin, Vice President of Sesame Workshop, “She is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career”. Program Manager Clemence Quint adds “we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else”.
Zari also has the potential to influence the attitudes of Afghan males in a non-threatening way. Research suggests that depictions of confident, educated girls “help shaped boys’ opinions as well”. According to Westin, the first 4 seasons of Baghch-e-Simsin have already “begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters”.
Of course, Zari’s success in redefining gender norms will depend greatly on viewership. Currently, Baghch-e-Simsin is the most watched program among young children in Afghanistan. Approximately 81% of children aged 3 to 7 have seen the show. However, TVs are less common in rural areas, where Zari is perhaps needed most.
Still, we have great hope for little Zari (as well as Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa). Maybe one street can change an entire nation!
Want to support female education and empowerment? Please give to Sesame Workshop, Plan International, or our partners, WorldTeach, DIVAS/Florida Girls Mentoring Program, and Girls Incorporated of New Hampshire.
This Monday marked the 3 month anniversary of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in Nigeria. Orchestrated by Boko Haram, an Islamic Jihadist and terrorist organization, the event involved the kidnapping of over 200 girls from a boarding school in the northeast of the country.
Since then, only a small fraction of the girls have escaped. The remaining girls are believed to be held in capacity in the Sambisa forest, more than 200 miles (320 km) away. Parents of the victims fear that the girls will not return and will be raped or involuntarily married off to movement fighters. Western diplomats are also losing hope, as efforts to locate the girls have barely progressed since May.
However, information has surfaced about the motivation behind the kidnappings. In a series of videos, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has claimed that he will “sell them in the marketplace” as slaves. Shekau has also explained that he will release the girls in exchange for the group’s fighters in Nigerian jails (“Bring Back Our Girls… bring back our army”). Finally, any remaining girls will “remain slaves with us.”
But why did Boko Haram specifically target female students? The group believes that Nigeria should be a pure Islamic caliphate governed by strict Sharia law. Women should be “at home raising children and looking after their husbands, not at school learning to read and write”. In fact, the name Boko Haram roughly translates to “western education is a sin”.
Regrettably, the situation in Nigeria is not unique. Girls in numerous countries around the world are denied the right to an education. According to Save the Children, “social traditions and deep-rooted religious and cultural beliefs are most often the barriers”. For example, in the Sahel and Middle East, a dowry system encourages girls to leave their studies. In the Horn of Africa, girls avoid walking to school for fear of abduction for marriage. And in parts of Latin America, indigenous girls are “often forced [to care for] siblings, marry early, or leave school to help support the family”. As a result, studies suggest that over 70% of the 125 million children not in school are girls.
These girls pay a steep price for their absence. Research suggests that educated females “lead healthier lives and have healthier families”, with fewer children. They have increased awareness of their rights and the “institutions established to protect and enforce them”, i.e. from violence, rape, and genital mutilation. Furthermore, they earn higher wages and are more productive workers, “boost(ing) their country’s entire economy”. In these regards, education truly is “a fundamental tool of empowerment and a vehicle through which girls realize their full potential”.
Malala Yousafzai, 17, knows the power of education. Shot by the Taliban in 2012 for her determination to attend school, she is now a leading global education advocate. Last weekend, Malala visited the parents of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. She stated “I did not think that just one year after my UN speech, more than 200 girls would be kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram simply for wanting to go to school. I can see those girls as my sisters … and I’m going to speak up for them until they are released”.
We should all speak up for the Chibok schoolgirls and all girls who want an education. That means more than joining a twitter campaign (#bringbackourgirls). It means pressuring our governments and international organizations to take action. It also means donating to charities like the Malala Fund, Share in Africa, Girls Education International, and our partners, World Teach and Education For All Children.
For more information on girls’ education, please click here.
Flickr photo credit: paVan