I’m trying to be more moderate. Really. But I’m standing at the corner of a National Geographic moment and a slap in the face. I’ve just met Ma Moo Ooh – or at least that’s how I think she spells her name. She is thirteen years old and her job is to pose for photos with tourists visiting her Padaung aunt’s weaving shop on stilts above Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
Right now I’m distracting her but a glimpse at the smile on her aunt’s face tells me it’s okay. We are playing a game. Ma Moo Ooh writes a word in my spiral notebook and I try to copy her beautiful scroll while she collapses in giggles.
It’s part of Padaung custom for girls to begin wearing gold rings around the neck at age nine. Ma Moo Ooh loves her ten rings – it’s teen bling on another whole level and she suffers no lack of self-esteem. Until I ask her what grade she’s in. She looks down. Her parents made her stop school after three years.
“I cried and cried and cried forever,” she tells me in incredibly impressive English. “I love school and never want to quit.” But she did what was expected of her – pitching in to raise the family out of poverty by taking advantage of Myanmar’s exploding tourist industry.
I feel guilty and outraged all at once. Up until now, I confess that I’ve blamed religion for gender inequality in girls’ education around the globe. Religious extremism I should say – remember, I’m trying to practice moderation in my attitudes as well as appetite.
Up until meeting Ma Moo Ooh, I saw the issue of gender-based discrimination as epitomized by Malala Yousafzai. I’m reading her co-written memoir to give a talk about it back in Beaufort, South Carolina. The world will never forget her. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the latest Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.
Perhaps because she has written this moving, triumphant memoir, her shooting and the reason for it (advocating for girls’ education) seemed singular to me – a horrific incident perpetrated by terrorists with religious fanaticism at their core.
I am in no way equating Ma Moo Ooh’s situation with Malala’s but what is dawning on me is that I can no longer compartmentalize the issue. It’s not just fanatics like the Pakistani Taliban or Boko Haram to blame but also a worldwide lack of commitment to girls like Ma Moo Ooh and Malala.
I’m not a mother. My outrage is not just because this is happening to little girls who could be our collected daughters. It’s is also rage for the consequences to their lives as women. Two-thirds of the world’s non-literate adults are women. Still. Today. Or at least as recently as 2012 when these results were reported to the United Nations’ Committee on Ending Discrimination against Women.
So if I’m trying to look beyond religious beliefs as the root of this inequality, why is it still happening? UNESCO experts and others who have written about the issue point out that it’s often about money. It’s the opportunity cost of a poor family losing someone to watch over younger siblings or contribute wages when their daughters go to school instead of staying at home. The neck rings that make Ma Moo Ooh feel beautiful and connected to her tribe are also economic shackles that feed her family.
I sit next to a little girl comparing our handwriting and trying not to cry for all the opportunities she will be denied. And now I understand the insistence of advocates ranging from South Africa’s Campaign for Education to the World Bank: insistence that governments have to bear the costs of educating boys and girls. Private donations and non-profits and singular efforts are not enough. Beyond building schools, governments have to make education truly free – no hidden costs for uniforms or textbooks. The United States subsidizes scores of other foreign aid projects – why not also the opportunity costs of daughters going to school instead of dropping out to become shepherds for the family’s animals or babysitters for the younger children?
It’s easy to think of this problem as too intractable to cure. But the uplifting part of all of this is that change is happening. It didn’t happen in time to save Malala from an assassination attempt. But if a girl with a bullet through her brain can still have faith then so can I. So can every other mother.
It’s not easy – one fifth of the world’s children aged 5-17 years are exploited by child labor, but even in Africa, where education disparity is proportionately among the worst in the word, the perception that it is more valuable to educate boys than girls is changing. The introduction of free primary education in Uganda, for example, caused total girls’ enrollments to rise from 63% to 83%, and enrollments of the poorest fifth of girls from 46% to 82%.
Stipend programs and conditional cash transfer programs have been employed in settings as diverse as Brazil, Yemen, Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Gambia and Kenya, and have succeeded in reducing girls’ drop-out rates and delaying early marriage.
But still, I can’t help thinking of how far we have to go. Some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last year are still missing and it feels like our country thinks that hashtag activism is the answer. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls won’t save the next Malala.
And don’t forget the organization that has always considered education a human rights issue: Amnesty International.
If you’re passionate mostly about improving the situation in Pakistan, consider donating to the alliance formed by Oxfam, Plan Pakinstan, Care International: the Girls Education Alliance Pakistan.
But back to the Padaung women and girls in Myanmar. It’s time to get into my boat and head back to my hotel on Inle Lake. I will probably never see Ma Moo Ooh again but I will never forget her. I’m just about to close my little spiral notebook when she wants me to learn another phrase. I repeat it after her and when she is finally satisfied enough to stop giggling at my pronunciation, I write it down the way it sounds to me.
Ta-Lye-Bahn-Na. I do a double take. My phonetic spelling out of Ma Moo Ooh’s phrase looks like Taliban. She repeats the phrase. It is musical, as lovely as the expression on her face. “It means thank you, where I come from,” she tells me as she squeezes my hand goodbye.