As readers of A Girl Called Problem know, one of the central challenges faced by thirteen-year-old Shida in the novel is a traditional belief by some in her village that girls should not attend school. Even one of the teachers at her school holds this belief and makes it difficult for Shida and her female cousins to be there. In my author’s note at the end of the book, I discuss how access to education continues to be a major challenge for many girls in East Africa and other parts of the world. The good news is that many development organizations and leaders are beginning to understand the power of educating girls.
Among those leaders is President Obama. This week, he dedicated a good portion of his speech in Kenya (a day’s drive from where A Girl Called Problem is set in the Mwanza region of Tanzania) to talking about the importance of educating and empowering girls and women. Here’s what he had to say:
Well, so around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women and treating them differently, and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change. They’re holding you back.
Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports center: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.
As the first Kenyan-American president, Obama is in a good position to offer this critique, and, citing the United State’s reexamination of the confederate flag, he was quick to point out that all societies have bad traditions that hold them back.
Shida would have been standing up and clapping throughout his speech!
Here’s the full speech. For the section where Obama focuses on girls, listen to minutes 27-33.