Women’s education is emerging as a top priority of the international development community, yet gaps in education exist on a global scale—as evidenced in my home community in Karze County of Tibet.
My own birth illustrates the challenges faced by many Tibetan women from the moment they enter the world. I was born in a narrow horse stall on a pile of straw covered with a worn-out, hand-woven rug. Long, thin pieces of timber separated the horse stall from the nearby cow and yak stalls and is one of the filthiest areas of a typical two-story, mud-walled village house.
My mother vividly recounts how my father piled black stones in front of our family’s gate when I was born and burned a piece of dried yak dung on top of them. The color black has a negative connotation in Tibetan and Buddhist culture. Black stones are used when a female child is born. Ironically, this practice is a way to banish evil spirits and protect the newborn child, but for girls it is the first of a lifetime of messages teaching them that they are less worthy than boys.
As a newborn girl, my arrival was not a noble or joyous event for my family. Given the Tibetan cultural view that privileges the male lineage and sees newborn girls as already “taken” or wedded to other families, my parents felt disappointment. I shattered their expectations and prayers for a boy.
Even though I hold no grudges against my parents for the disappointment they experienced at my birth, I realize that a more critical educational system would have created different social conditions for my parents, thus lessening the burden they may have felt at having a girl instead of a boy.
Tibetan girls tend to internalize the socially constructed beliefs that they are born inferior to boys and are the property of other families. Therefore, they rarely attend school and usually remain home herding livestock, doing house chores, and collecting yak dung. By the time they give birth to their own children, most women in my culture have accepted their fate.
These conditions create barriers for women to access education in my community. I myself had to withdraw from school in 8th grade because of family obligations. The turning point in my life came when one of the Great Lamas in my village offered financial support for my schooling because he recognized my talent and potential.
This was the first of many steps that led me to discover the world outside my village. A scholarship and more financial support brought me to Xining City, a three day bus and train trip from my village, for four more years of studies. My time in Xining gave me the opportunity to take gender studies and development studies with the Shem Women’s Group. I met inspiring women mentors who made me more conscious of the position of girls in our society and helped me to believe that I could be a source of change.
Today, I firmly believe that quality education for girls can bring about multi-dimensional changes in communities. I propose a bottom-up approach to reform, where civil society and individual grassroots leaders play significant roles in shaping societal attitudes regarding gender and women’s education.
Education ought to be primarily for improving the lives of people. We need to improve local-level school governance in order to ensure that education programs are built to meet local people’s needs. We need to work on improving more than the quantity of education; we need quality education to transform individuals and allow them to perform well in society.
I understand changing cultural attitudes towards women takes time. However, I have witnessed the changes that have occurred in my home community since I myself became an active proponent of girls’ education and social causes. Many rural families have benefitted from my small-scale development projects, and more girls are now attending school.
Structural reforms, leadership initiatives, and social change start from individual educators like myself. We are in a position to establish close connections and mentorships with parents, share our own educational experiences with women, and inspire other young girls to be a strong force of positive changes in society.
Through one-to-one conversations, we can promote the importance of education, raise awareness about health, and help empower girls to realize their full potential. Such efforts will help all of us to discover our own talents and will challenge us to vault over obstacles and unfold our lives with gusto.
Jampa Latso is a contributor from Tibet. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here