Friday, November 21, 2008

Hero of the week: Greg Mortenson

by Laura Smith-Gary

On this Friday, I want to celebrate someone taking real and practical action to improve the lives of women -- Mr. Greg Mortenson. This man gives me hope.

The banner stretching across the top of the Central Asia Institute's website is simple. "Mission:" it states, "to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote areas of Pakistan and Aghanistan." The picture above the banner is a dazzling sweep of a mountain range, with a boxy stone building in the foreground beside a pizture of five little girls in brightly-colored head scarves, each peering intently at a book in her lap.

Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute, is partnering with villages in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to help them build schools. These are the mountains, you may recall, where al-qaeda is regrouping and radical madrassas are springing up. The warlords who run the northern reaches of Pakistan have consistently blocked any attempt by the government to pass laws punishing the murderers who perpetrate "honor killings," and honor killings take place with terrifying regularity. Women are most commonly seen as the property of their male relatives, and the idea of equality between the sexes is nowhere to be found. It is an area of poverty, despair, and deeply entrenched anti-women mindsets.Yet it is here that schools are being built -- schools for girls.

Mortenson's project is effecting change on a number of levels. The Central Asia Institute's "community-based" approach to education means that community members are invested in the schools and in the education of their children, male and female. It also hints at Mortenson's long struggle to work within the culture and community -- "community-based education" means coaxing village elders to allow boys and girls to study together, obtaining rulings from Islamic leaders confirming that these schools are not engaged in Western propoganda or Christian evangelism (and thereby protecting them), and convincing herders and farmers to invest their precious stores of time and energy into pouring concrete and mortaring together bricks.

Then there's the education itself -- "especially for girls." One of the first triumphs recorded in Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea is the success of one of the female students of the first school built. Now studying to be a doctor through a CAI scholarship, she told Mortenson that she's planning to return to her village to serve medically and to educate other women. The pride of her grandfather, a village elder, is almost as touching to me as her own determination, and evidence of the fundamental changes in mindset that are intertwined with the advent of education for women in this part of the world.

While I think "studies show" is usually an empty phrase, investigations by the UN and human rights watch groups have found that the level of education of women is inversely proportional to the level of violence against women, and (more evocatively) that when education of women increases, violence decreases. Some international surveys have pointed to education as the only reliable factor -- rather than affluence, religion, race, official political rights, or any other indicator -- in predicting the level of violence toward women.

Other factors are important, no doubt, but it seems indisputable that an inclusive effort to increase the number of women who are educated is not only beneficial in increasing the number of educated human beings but in fundamentally changing the community's perception of women and men's rights over them. Since the first schools, the CAI's mission has expanded (usually by the prompting of the villagers themselves) to providing scholarships for further education, helping groups of women begin cottage industries, and providing information and training around public health. Each step of the way, women are encouraged to become more financially independent, learned, and healthier -- with the the support of their male relatives and the congratulations of their communities.

When it comes to violence against women, especially in predominantly Muslim areas of the world, outrage is plentiful and effective action hard to come by. Greg Mortenson's action, which gives villages a chance to promote prosperity, education, and female empowerment themselves, may actually prove successful.

The Central Asia Institute's website is www.ikat.org -- their approach and impacts are described far more eloquently there.

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