By Ritu Sharma
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
As she looks forward to the U.S. presidential inauguration Ritu Sharma finds herself thinking about girls of color around the world. When she was growing up the princess-like aura of presidential daughters was limited by race. No longer.
(WOMENSENEWS)--As our nation prepares for the momentous inauguration of our first African American president, the rest of the world is watching with much anticipation as well.
There is little precedent for the enormous interest this U.S. election generated overseas, and the celebrations from Kenya to India to Senegal when Barack Obama was elected were truly amazing.
Clearly, not all of them were celebrating based on the significance of the event to just African Americans.
While the election may have confirmed the best impressions that people worldwide have about meritocracy and democracy in our country, it still does not explain all the jubilation.
Instead, I believe much of the world is simply elated that America will soon have a president who looks something like them; that it's possible for someone who looks like them to occupy the most powerful political position in the world.
Amid all that, I've been thinking about little girls in the developing world. What might it mean for them to see Sasha and Malia growing up in the White House?
I have a deeply personal reason for having this focus on the next first family.
As a cocoa-complexioned girl who grew up in ethnically diverse southern Arizona, I never imagined anyone who looked like me would have sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom. It was never said out loud, but always understood, that perhaps someday a woman would be in the White House, but not a president (with a family) of color. The princess-like aura of presidents' daughters was then also limited by race. No longer.
We won't see the Obama daughters in the media spotlight, nor should we, but we'll all know they're settling in, thriving and playing with their new hypo-allergenic puppy. The hope their father symbolizes for what is possible to so many people worldwide just might ripple from these two girls to children, especially girls, around the world.
In my travels from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to Zimbabwe, I find that four words too often sum up the existence of female children: "I'm just a girl."
And yet, girls everywhere are our best hope for a prosperous, safe and stable world. When their lives improve, the entire community benefits.
For many, being a girl means they must work in the fields while their brothers attend school. But a single extra year of primary school increases a girl's eventual wages by more than 10 percent, and a year of secondary school increases it by up to 25 percent. When those wages stay in her hands as a mother, her children are healthier and better educated. A study in Brazil found that a child's chance of surviving increases by 20 percent when his or her mother has her own income.
Being a girl in many countries means that she must eat last and least after the men have finished their meal. This is despite the fact that girls and women produce most of the food in the household: Rural women alone produce half of the world's food, and up to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries.
Violence, particularly from family members, continues to be the No. 1 threat to girls' mental and physical health. Worldwide, 1 in 3 girls and women will be the victim of abuse--physical, sexual or psychological--because of their gender, at some point in their lifetimes, and not just at home but also at school or work.
Despite the odds stacked against girls, investments in them and all that they are capable of are producing a sea change in societies worldwide. This is especially seen in education, which is one of the best and most basic investments to make in girls.
Over the past two decades some of the poorest countries in the world have made a remarkable commitment to revamp their public schools, increase their expenditure on education and make a real effort to get girls in school.
In Africa for example, after Mauritania made education both free and compulsory, the country's schools changed radically in just six years: from having only 67 girls for every 100 boys to having 93 girls per 100 boys. In Lesotho, where AIDS was causing many thousands of girls to leave school, an innovative program that eliminated school fees and provided free meals reversed the trend. And when the government of Bangladesh started to provide a stipend to female students, the enrollment of girls went up to double the previous national average.
Such initiatives open girls' windows on themselves, helping them see what is possible for them. This is true even for girls in our country. Discovering that something is possible is the foundation for self-esteem, which is one of the most important prerequisites for success. The implicit "you-too-can-have-the-dream" message that Obama's victory has beamed across the globe, will also, through his daughters, reach hundreds of millions of girls who never thought that someone who looks like them could be growing up in the White House.
While Sasha and Malia must be focused on just being kids, not celebrities, I hope that they will peek out of the White House to see and come to know girls around the world. That would give other girls a look into a world where being a little girl of color poses no problems, sets no limits and creates no boundaries.
Even if they are a world away, and their lives are completely different, I know in my heart that Asian, African and Latin girls will see a part of themselves in the Obama daughters. Perhaps a part that says, "Anything is possible for me, too."
Ritu Sharma is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide, which advocates for international assistance and trade policies that prioritize the needs of women and girls worldwide.
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