Saturday, August 22, 2009

half the sky

Tomorrow's New York Times Sunday Magazine, "Saving the World's Women," is a special edition that focuses on the theme of Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl's new book: Half the Sky.* I can't speak much to the book, but I am endorsing the magazine.

Yes. I am a self-described Kristof groupie, but that isn't why I'm making his article a weekend homework assignment. It's because the message of this particular article/magazine makes a perfect case for our work here at the College. Kristof writes: "there's a growing recognition that if you want to fight poverty and extremism, you need to educate and empower women and bring them into the economy." That, quite simply, is what we do.

Kristof argues that it is the abilities and potential of women that offer the most promise for healthy global development. "In many poor countries," he writes, "the greatest unexploited resource isn't oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren't educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy." Here at the UAC-CP we are changing that...albeit poco a poco.

When Sr. Damon Nolan founded the College 16 years ago, her principle goal was to ensure that higher education was available and affordable for the rural poor and she put special emphasis on the importance of educating women. Today, women compose slightly more than half of the UAC-CP's student body (which averages 700 students a semester). Last I did the math, 52 percent of our graduates are women (and a handful are working on master's and doctorate degrees). Frankly, that's a stunning number when one considers that many of our students' mothers are illiterate; they never had the opportunity to attend school.

The other morning on my walk to work I stopped to talk with a couple Carmen Pampa Community members--both men, both in their late 70s. When the topic of conversation turned to the UAC-CP, I tossed out some numbers--current number of students, numbers of graduates, etc. "And the majority of them are women!" I added with emphasis. Having read Kristof's article the night before, I then launched into some of the arguments he presents, highlighting the importance of education for women.

Don Emilio agreed that it's been a long time in the making--providing women with equal opportunity. "Not long ago," he said, "there was the idea that women were only good for working at home--cooking, cleaning, taking care of the family. But that just isn't true." Now, Don Emilio said, one of the greatest barriers isn't trying to convince people of the importance of education, it's the ability to afford it. "Sometimes it's just too much to get food on the table."

I don't think Kristof would like the excuse that "there just isn't money." He quotes Larry Summers, former chief economist at the World Bank: "Investment in girls' education may well be the highest-resturn investment available in the developing world." It makes too much sense to invest in women now.

Of course we have a lot of work to do here. We still have unfortunate incidences of young women having to drop out of school because of unplanned pregnancies. I also know of cases of women in unhealthy relationships--within their family, with boyfriends, and with themselves. But we also have women who have stood up to alcoholic parents, left abusive boyfriends, and obtained post-UAC degrees with children in tow. I firmly believe that this is part of the College's role as an educator--to teach our students to be confident and independent, to give them the tools to realize their full potential.

In interviews, I always ask our students and graduates where they would be today had they not had the opportunity to study at the UAC-CP. Last December, I blogged about UAC-CP graduate Mauge Quispe. She asked herself that very question and then followed it up with her answer: "I know that I would be working in the field with my parents. I would be so far from where I am today...Will people every know how grateful I am for what they did to help me become who I am today? I'm indigenous...I'm Aymaran, I'm a woman. Look at me!"

*Kristof explains that the name of their book comes from a Chinese saying that "Women hold up half the sky."

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