SAN FRANCISCO–Is there something inherently powerful about being female? I believe so. There is an inner strength and boundless energy that lives inside every young girl and woman. In fact, these innate “superpowers” live inside each one of us, irrespective of gender – the intangible magic that characterizes our humanity.
We typically define superpowers as extraordinary skills or abilities used to defeat evil in fictional stories – superhuman strength, invisibility, laser vision, flying and time travel. Often overlooked are the (usually hidden) qualities that superheroes must also possess to outwit their opponents, solve complex challenges and ultimately defend the public good.
So, what are these hidden superpowers? I am referring to life skills— leadership, negotiation, self-confidence, communication, empathy, critical thinking, perseverance, and resilience. These skills are not reserved solely for the super human. We all have the capacity to develop life skills, realize our full potential, and contribute towards a stronger global community. However, this is only possible when we discover, develop and activate these superpowers that lie within us.
When an individual is oppressed or disenfranchised, the development of life skills is hindered and, in some cases, grinds to a halt. We see this often with girls due to rigid gender expectations that can have detrimental and long-lasting repercussions. When girls are inhibited from advocating for themselves and cannot become agents of social change, we experience negative effects in the form of higher rates of child marriage, forced labor, wage gaps, sexual harassment and gender-based violence. But when girls know how to channel their skills and potential, their lives and the futures of so many others who come after them can be indelibly altered for the better.
Just one generation ago, child marriage was not uncommon in my family. As a 13-year-old, my mother faced immense pressure to get married. She refused and instead enlisted in the Indian army to train as a nurse, forging a new path for herself, her siblings and her future children. Thanks to my mother’s fortitude and perseverance, I had endless opportunities to learn, to explore, and to become whoever I wanted to be. The tradition of child marriage stopped within one generation in my family thanks to a superhero that I call Amma.
Around the world we are witnessing girls and women utilizing life skills to activate their voices and demand change that is long-lasting and will collectively ensure a gender equal world. The streets of Washington, D.C. and dozens of other cities around the globe were recently flooded for the third annual Women’s March. The U.S. currently has the most female representatives elected to the House in history. They include the first women to hold office from several historically marginalized groups. The rally cry for a balanced world is getting louder each day and women are unleashing their superpowers to ensure it happens. In India, a country with one of the highest number of child brides in the world, three million women stood up in Kerala to form a 385 mile human chain in support of gender equality. These women recognized bias against them and employed life skills to make a statement that attracted international media attention.
Research shows that for marginalized girls in low-income countries, whose life outcomes are threatened by poverty and gender-based discrimination, life skills education can arm them with the knowledge, tools, and attitudes to rewrite their futures. At Room to Read, we have invested in a randomized controlled trial, an impact evaluation to contribute to the body of knowledge that life skills can be taught and positively impact girls’ aspirations for their futures. Key findings in a review by Gender & Adolescence Global Evidence(GAGE) show substantial evidence that girls’ clubs and life skills have a positive impact in changing discriminatory gender norms and enhancing social and psychological well-being in girls. The research also indicates that they play a role in enhancing public engagement and overall economic well-being. This growing body of evidence is reinforced for me every day in the stories of young girls like Phimya.
Belonging to an ethnic minority group in Laos, Phimya was often ridiculed in school because she was not a native speaker of Lao, the national language. The discrimination she faced made her afraid to raise her voice and speak in class at all. Phimya began receiving coaching and mentorship to develop life skills as a participant in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program where she learned that she is equal to others. Her sense of self-worth catapulted when she discovered the confidence latent within herself. Phimya has since gone on to university where she’s currently studying to be a social worker, so she can give minority children in her community the skills and educational resources that she benefitted from. Phimya not only changed the course of her life through life skills, but she will now pay that gift forward to future generations.
From grass roots activism to worldwide action, we are living in a time when women and men are collectively standing up and speaking out against injustice in order to build a better and more gender-equal world. This International Women’s Day, I am hopeful. Endless opportunities exist when humanity unlocks the superpowers that each of us was born with. And as we all know, superheroes never give up until they save the day.
Dr. Geetha Murali is the CEO of Room to Read, a non-profit organization for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world
Photos: 1) Phimya reading in Laos, courtesy Room to Read 2) Dr. Geetha Murali, courtesy Room to Read