Recently, NAFSA announced that Shiza Shahid, co-founder and ambassador of the Malala Fund as a plenary speaker at the 2015 NAFSA Annual Conference in Boston. Ms. Shahid has been an outspoken advocate for the empowerment of girls through increased access to education ever since she was a young woman growing up in Pakistan.
The importance of the cause that Ms. Shahid is championing may seem self-evident to most of us living in the West. The realities of the lives of young girls in rural and impoverished regions of the world can be quite abstract – even to those like me who was born and raised in India but in an upper middle class, urban household. It was only because of an experience that I had many decades ago when I was in my early 20s that I realized, in an emotionally charged way, what the lives of many girls in these settings can be like.
It was the spring of 1982. I had recently returned to India after earning my master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at Ohio State University and was working for an NGO. Our team was assigned to a project in the Almora District in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. As we hiked from village to village to conduct our surveys, we saw spectacular vistas of the Kumaon hills where the district was nestled. Yet in the midst of this beauty was extreme poverty as traditional farms were threatened by drought and environmental stresses. The high rate migration of males in the region to urban areas meant that women and young girls were responsible not just for discharging household tasks but also for maintaining the tenuous agricultural livelihoods. It was always difficult for me, having grown up in a relatively affluent environment, to see a young girl half my age carrying her own weight in a water jug on her head or coaxing a bull to plow the field.
For me, the most gut-wrenching memory was when I attended the wedding of the teen daughter of a local Almora peasant family we had come to know. The match, of course, was made by her parents and the groom’s parents when they were both young children, with the wedding taking place shortly after both had reached puberty. For the wedding, the groom’s family and guests traveled to Almora with much fanfare. The ceremony itself took place late at night with food and revelry going on into the wee hours of the morning. Then, just as the sun was rising, the groom’s party departed for their home village, taking the young bride with them. I could not imagine what it might be like to leave my parents, brothers and sisters and my village when I was still in middle school to live with and serve a husband, and more importantly, a mother-in-law whom I had never met. The mother of the bride was distraught to the point of hysteria at the departure of her daughter to an unknown future. And, in the face of the young bride, I saw a frozen expression of fear and foreboding yet resignation. She had no choice but to go along with the proceedings. It was hard for me to contain my own emotion, largely anger and frustration about the young girl’s disempowerment and helplessness.
This is why I am awed by the work of Shiza Shahid and the Malala Fund. Through their work in education and empowerment, they will make a very real difference to the futures of young girls like those I met in Almora many decades ago. Thank you NAFSA for arranging for Shiza Shahid to be our plenary speaker! I can’t wait to meet her and hear what she has to say.
Kavita Pandit, PhD serves as a member at large on the NAFSA Board of Directors and as associate provost for international education at the University of Georgia. Her academic interests are in the areas of international economic development, population, and immigration.