Paving a better future: Keeping girls in school
“Your education will shape the future of your younger brothers, sisters and your cousins, will help change the fate of your community, and will give me and your mother peace.” This is what my father once told my eldest sister.
When my eldest sister was about to finish her lower secondary school, the extended family and perhaps the community expected and believed that her education road should come to an end. This was in mid-70s, when my country – Laos – just got out from a long and devastating civil war.
My family was from a small village in a central province of Laos. We were poor. My parents did not receive any education, thus could not read or write. They had 5 kids to raise, and one big extended family to take care of.
At that time, in our community, education seemed not to be a priority - especially girls’ education. Income generation for family survival was. Girls, after primary education, were taken out from schools to work and support the family. Girls married and had children at rather young ages.
My parents already broke social norms by keeping the eldest sister in school. However, no one expected that they would send her to upper secondary school (or high-school). Questions and pressures came from all directions. Friends, relatives, elderlies, community leaders and members warned them about consequences of their apparently “naïve and stubborn” decisions.
Education was useless for girls and women. If she were highly educated, she would never get married. Her mind would be corrupt and she would run away with a man. She would be stubborn. She had the responsibility to take care of her family and siblings as the eldest child. Girls were not smart, thus would not go so far. She would set bad examples for other girls in the community. These were some of the “advice” my parents received from the community.
Another pressure that they had to bear with this decision was economic pressure. Could they afford to keep her in school? For how long? Would they be able to send their other four children to school? Was high school education enough for their children to get a proper job? What would they do if the children wanted to go to university? What connections did they have?
However, by reflecting on their own difficult life-experiences of being poor and illiterate, they knew, without any doubt, that they did not want their children to live the lives they had lived. They knew education was a pass to exit this door of poverty and hardship. They would not follow some community norms that did not support girls’ education. They would not give in to the difficulties.
They worked longer hours, took out savings, and borrowed for my sister’s education. They endured the criticisms. The struggle did not end at the time she got into the upper secondary school. It continued until she finished her university.
My sister was the first woman to receive a university degree, have a formal employment, and later received a scholarship to study overseas, in the entire extended family and the village.
After graduation, she supported us, her siblings, to have proper education. She is doing well professionally and personally.
My parents’ efforts and commitment to have my eldest sister educated had paved a new way of thinking for people in the community. It was their revolution. My parents had proven to their families and communities that giving girls and boys an education can give them a brighter future.
“You and I know and understand so well the sufferings of being an uneducated woman. I will do my best so that my daughters would not see those sufferings,” said my mother to my grandmother. This is the belief that my family lives by.