F. finally texted that she’d arrived safely in the Netherlands. Just like that, from one day to the next she went. She’s gone there to be with a friend.
She was the only female student in my literacy class. Until she joined my class she had never attended school in all her 16 years. She perched uncomfortably at the very end of one of the sofa benches because she didn’t dare move closer to one of the unknown male students. It wasn’t until I looked carefully at the photo that I saw the cushion placed between her and Y. like a kind of bunting board.
I realized while listening to a couple of students arguing in another class that even in 2023 there are young people who believe that males and females should not study together or share classroom space. Ironically, they also understood that it’s important to behave like the people around you behave when you are in a new country.
Down the hall though in the other classroom, however, it wasn’t so easy to just suggest that F. move in closer to Y. in order to see the board or the laptop screen more easily. I tried once or twice to urge her to shift over but she wouldn’t budge. Meanwhile, Y. kept moving away and never made any sign that F. was welcome to share a bit more of the space between them. Perhaps Y’s beliefs were formed in the same place as the student in the other class who said that males and females should not study together. Maybe Y. put the cushion between himself and F.
It was International Women’s Day when F. texted me to announce she was leaving. As we put that event behind us for another year, we need to recognize that lack of education drives disrespect for gender equality. A recent CBC article describes the work of a Calgary-based NGO, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, that aims to provide education online to young women whose right to learning has now been taken away by the Taliban. One of the Grade 7 students comments that “If the girls are educated, in the future the society will be educated.” And her classmate already recognizes that without education Afghan women will have no power.
I hope F. finds more classrooms in the Netherlands, gets to be comfortable on any bench she chooses to sit on and takes some of the power that’s hers by right. It’s often said that woman and girls don’t just make up half the world’s population but also half the world’s potential. I look to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the United Nations to see where things stand. SDG #4 calls for inclusive and equitable quality education along with lifelong learning for all. Right behind it SDG#5 sets out to achieve gender equality by empowering all women and girls. There’s a connection there but, sadly neither of these goals are on track to reach their 2030 deadline according to the 2022 report. We have to do better.