Looking for Hope in the Issues

Published on December 24th, 2010

As I sit behind the computer screen to start writing this blog post, I discard all my ideas for posts that I’ve been considering. It’s Christmas Eve, and I don’t have the heart today to write one more screed about the huge negative impacts of overpopulation and mass unchecked illegal immigration. Since the message of Christmas is one of hope – a message I believe that transcends any particular religious belief or lack of belief; all comers can subscribe to that – I’m looking for any good news behind these challenging issues. I’ve been finding it not surprisingly where many others have found it – in the work of Greg Mortenson, which now is well-chronicled in the bestselling “Three Cups of Tea” and the follow-up 2009 book, “Stones into Schools.” A mountaineer, Mortenson, weak and confused after a failed attempt to summit K2 in 1993, wandered into an impoverished village in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. After being nursed to health there, he returned to the States with a promise to return to the village and build a school. That was the beginning of what’s been a remarkable journey, thus far, in courage and perseverance that’s led to the creation of the Montana-based Central Asia Institute and the construction of some 130 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan which provide, or have provided, education to more than 51,000 students, with a focus on girls’ education. There’s probably no one who would offer an argument that Pakistan and Afghanistan aren’t among the most challenged areas in the world. From the Soviet invasion in 1979 on through the worst repression under Taliban rule that completely subjugated females, Afghanistan continues to be an incredibly unstable and dangerous place. It had the second highest fertility rate, was in the top 10 for the lowest median age (16.4) and, thus not surprisingly, ranked in the top five for fastest growing populations, according to The Economist’s “Pocket World in Figures” (2008). Its neighbor, Pakistan, continues to be in conflict with India and has struggled with the aftermath of earthquakes in 2005 and 2008 which left millions homeless. It also has one of the largest populations – only below India, China, the U.S., Indonesia and Brazil. The word “challenging” is, I’m certain, woefully inadequate to describe how it is for Americans to try to work in these areas, particularly given the vast anti-American sentiment, reinforced through kidnapping and murder. So against this backdrop, building schools and educating girls are incredibly amazing and inspiring feats. As is becoming the common mantra, the key to lowering birthrates is educating and empowering women socially and politically. As Mortenson writes in the end notes of “Stones into Schools,” educating girls “leads to increased income for the girls themselves and for nations as a whole.” Even small increases in the number of females with secondary education can have a significantly positive effect, he writes. Mortensen also points to the fact that “educated women have smaller, healthier and better-educated families,” citing a 2000 Brazilian study that found “literate women had an average of 2.5 children, while illiterate women had an average of six children.” Further, infant mortality is lowered when women are better educated. And, girls who follow through on their education tend to marry later and are then better prepared to care for children. Educated females, too, are more likely to encourage their children to be educated. As well, when females are educated, they’re more like to “stand up for themselves and resist violence,” Mortenson writes. Perhaps obviously to most of us, much good is derived from educating girls. So, education means lower birth rates, which mean healthier families; healthier and better educated families can create better lives and stronger, sustainable societies. With sustainable societies, there’s less inclination to emigrate for reasons of economic necessity, war and poverty. While there are more than 120 million children of school age throughout the globe who are illiterate and for a variety of reasons are not being educated, Greg Mortenson is showing a way through. The work he’s done during the past 17 years gives hope – in the power of change, in the example that one person can make a difference and that negative conditions are reversible.

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