Yasaman Khorsandi || Copy Editor
There are 31 million girls and counting who are out of school all around the world, according to the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development. Although more young people attend school these days, two-thirds of the 774 million illiterate people in the world are female, according to UNESCO’s 2013 Global Monitoring report.
For many women and girls, the privilege of attending school comes down to financial resources and opportunity, but at large, there is a systemic ostracism to girls getting an education that is built into society.
While these obstacles try to keep women’s rights on the back burner of reform, programs do exist that aim to bring women’s education to a flaming forefront. WriteGirl, an L.A.-based organization, is empowering girls in the public school system through writing.
“We believe that every girl in every community has a story within her, and it’s our goal to give her the confidence and guidance to tell it,” said Keren Taylor, executive director of WriteGirl. “Our long-time motto has been, ‘Never underestimate the power of a girl and her pen.’ When you help a girl discover her voice, you help her discover her power.”
Taylor started WriteGirl in 2001 with the idea of giving girls the personal mentoring and support they need. In 15 years, 30 girls and mentors have turned the program into one that now serves about 500 every year. These female mentors strive to give young women opportunities that public education cannot.
“Public schools in Los Angeles are large, and creative writing programs are rare or nonexistent. There are also not enough college counselors to give girls one-on-one support,” said Taylor.
Aside from encouraging girls to write, one of WriteGirl’s goals is to prepare young women for college.
“Our program focuses heavily on the importance of a college education. Each year, our juniors and seniors take part in a series of intensive college prep workshops that teach them everything they need to know,” Taylor said. “We have maintained a 100 percent success rate in not only helping our seniors graduate from high school, but also guiding them to enroll in college.”
Jacqueline Uy, a senior who is now in her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, went through the program. Uy traveled with Taylor to the White House when Michelle Obama honored WriteGirl with the 2013 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
“Without my mentor, I really don’t know where I’d be today. She helped me a lot during the college application process,” Uy said. “WriteGirl, more than anything, has boosted my confidence in my aspirations. The alumnae and guest speakers have shown me that if these women can do it, I can do it as well.”
Girls’ education is as much a local issue as it is an international one, and it’s now being brought to a platform for conversation and change. Michelle Obama has committed much of her time as First Lady to her newly launched program, Let Girls Learn. Let Girls Learn is a U.S. initiative that involves countries like the U.K., Japan and South Korea as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations, encouraging people to invest in young women’s education. The White House website offers in-depth fact sheets of who they are working with, where the First Lady is traveling to and how to get involved in the movement.
In the March edition of LENNY, a feminist newsletter by actresses and activists Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, Michelle Obama guest wrote an article, saying, “As I’ve traveled the world as First Lady, I have met girls that are so smart and hardworking and so hungry for an education. I’ve met girls who make long, dangerous journeys each day to school. The fundamental issue is the belief that girls should be valued for their bodies, not their minds; the belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of education.”
In many developing countries, one in seven girls is married before age 15. However, girls with secondary education are six times less likely to marry early than girls with little to no education, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, one of the organizations that Let Girls Learn works with.
Sarah Chamberlain, a mentor in WriteGirl and a teacher to special needs children in the Los Angeles public school district, explained her experience with unequal education systems.
“As someone who works in the school system, I think boys and girls get the same opportunities on paper, but in actuality, you see girls falling behind in a lot of ways, especially in science and math, as a result of girls’ place in society,” she said.
Chamberlain has volunteered and mentored with WriteGirl since 2013, and has witnessed firsthand the positive results of mentoring young girls.
“It’s a really inspiring way to be a role model for girls who need it, and it’s empowering to be in a creative environment of all women of different generations,” Chamberlain said.
WriteGirl is just one of many programs and initiatives striving to provide opportunities for young girls to learn skills and develop confidence.
“They need to know that that their voice matters and they have a story to tell,” Chamberlain said. “It’s not everyday you see a teenage girl stand up and unapologetically be herself. They are completely empowered and that’s all because of writing.”