Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Power of Literacy in the Lives of Marginalized Girls

Did you know that one of the most "vulnerable and marginalized groups" in regions where basic rights are denied is the adolescent girl? In 2002, a young girlGulalai, and some friends took a bold stand in an effort to promote the women's rights movement in Pakistan. Then in October 2012, a sixteen year old Pakistani, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for advocating the rights of girls to attend school. Thanks to UNESCO and these young female activists, global awareness regarding the plight of young girls in developing countries who face daily challenges has been brought to light. Because Americans are privileged to have an education, we sometimes forget that there are those who are denied the basic right to learning and that social injustice does exist around the world. 

To promote girls' rights across the continents, the United Nations celebrated the second International Day of the Girl Child on October 11, 2013Center stage was Malala who, as an ardent blogger and charismatic spokesperson against social injustice, continues her fight for education for all. Recognized as one of the most influential voices of this generation and the youngest person to be nominated for a Noble Peace Prize, Malala's message is clear, education is for everyone. But according to the Global Partnership for Education, "women represent nearly two thirds of the world's illiterate and 31 million girls are still out of school around the world." Kofi Anna, former United Nations Secretary General, said, “Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life…” It is unfortunate that ten years after Anna's call for the elimination of worldwide illiteracy, the issue still exists.

Even though going to school remains a security issue for young women in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, young leaders like Gulali and Malala are drawing community and worldwide attention for those who venture to attain a basic education. Their call for equal access to education is reflected in a picture book, Nasreen's Secret School by Jeanette Winter. Although this book was not written to specifically tell Gulali and Malala's stories, Nasreen's tale is based on a true story of courageous young girls and their families who defied the Taliban to attend a secret school. Set in war-torn Afghanistan, the book describes a grandmother's unwavering determination to have her granddaughter receive an education. As a story depicting the power of literacy, Nasreen's Secret School was selected as a text for the NYS 3rd Grade Module 1, Becoming a Close Reader and Writing to Learn. Despite the fact that the story has a global message of hope and courage, illustrations depicting war have caused a stir in some school districts. A group of New York City parents, troubled by some of the images in the book and what they perceive is an introduction of a war perspective to third graders, have raised their voices in protest, leading to the publishing of the New York Post article, New York approves war-oriented reading textbooks for third-grade classrooms on March 18, 2013. 

In reply to the emotional reaction to the utilization of Nasreen's Secret School and The Librarian of Basra, NYC Chancellor Walcott "emphasized that the ultimate decision on using the material rests with principals, but suggested that schools were the right forum for kids to learn about serious topics like conflict." This message has been echoed by the NYSED Education Department through a letter to families that was inserted in the NYS ELA Grade 3 Module 1, Unit 1, Lesson 6 on engageny. The letter notes "the importance of literacy and books, even during times of war" and  hopes to alleviate parental concerns about the introduction of this story in the curriculum. 

While it is true that there are images and references to war and violence in Nasreen's Secret School, the deep seated message is one of hope in the power of education to transform young girls' lives. Jeanette Winter emphasizes this idea towards the end of the book. "Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom." The author does not make a political statement about war in this book nor in The Librarian of Basra. Rather, the words in the story infer that books and literacy do influence and transform lives.  If still inclined to doubt the validity of this book as a story for young children, one can rest assured students are being directed in structured discussions on the power of literacy by capable and sensitive teachers. But, the ultimate decision about the inclusion or exclusion of Nasreen's Secret School and The Librarian of Basra in the classroom does rest with each district after a thoughtful reading.

As we read these books, it becomes evident of the power of literacy in the lives of marginalized girls in third world countries and the fact that education gives voice against social injustice. Perhaps, you have a commentary on this issue. If so, please share your impressions.


  1. I believe that schools are a perfect place for children to learn about conflict and human rights. Any third grade student can share a story about bullying and feeling lack of respect. I keep wondering to myself, when did we become a Nation so insecure and fearful to educate our children about real life issues that so many human being face every day. I have seen lessons taught with these “so-called” inappropriate books, yet the students that I have observed have handled the subject matter with the maturity and the respect it deserves. I question why some adults are not able to do the same.
    Charles T. Russo
    Single Parent of Three Beautiful Children and Superintendent of Schools

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment and thank you for expressing your thoughts so eloquently.

  2. Another beautiful and informative post, Carol!