Giving women all over the world a voice is empowering in ways we cannot imagine. It fosters the Girl Effect so that when we listen to them, we change their social conditions. This is crucial to solving the most persistent development problems we face in the world today. When we include girls in education, health and economic investment we have a better chance of preventing issues such as child marriage, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty. Girls can't do this alone though. They need the world to listen to them and invest in their potential.
This is also part of the United Nations Millennium Goals to promote gender equality and empower women to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education. And there is none as valuable as freedom of speech.
Once they are free to speak, and be heard, women and girls can become empowered as described in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by husband-and-wife Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn who argued that "the key to economic progress in the world lies in unleashing women's potential."
Pakistan is my country of origin and its first female fighter pilot, Ayesha Farooq fought her mother to pursue her dream and realize her potential. She is quoted as saying "In our society most girls don't even think about doing things as flying an aircraft," and I feel very proud of her courage which will have lasting empowering effects for other girls who dare to dream these seemingly impossible dreams. Yet, with these significant social changes, I can't help but wonder, as she is lifted from the intergenerational cycle of silence and powerlessness, what are the cultural implications? In Pakistan or the Eastern Society as I was raised to be quiet and obedient. I couldn't speak my mind or express my opinions because it was considered rude (badtameezi) or aggressive behavior. I was told "girls don't behave like this."
Today, in many cultures, from decision making to shopping, an unmarried woman needs permission from her father; a married women needs permission from her husband; and a widow needs permission from her brother. Many girls also do not have a voice in their own about who they choose to marry and when because they are still subject to the traditional practice of arranged marriage.
I am constantly reminded of this when my women friends and relatives tell me how lucky I am that my husband allows me to have my own career and make my own decisions. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. He's very supportive of me, my decisions, and my career. He's also helpful when it comes to participating fully as a partner in our family so that we can both accomplish our career goals without sacrificing the needs of our family. Since these are only cultural values, they are learned behavior which means they can be unlearned and the cycle of social oppression can be broken.
By comparison, women in the Middle East may undergo the issue more, but they are not alone. After reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg -- in which she examines why women's progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled, explains the root causes, and offers compelling, commonsense solutions that can empower women to achieve their full potential -- This is about women's rights, worldwide. She gave a perspective of what woman are capable of if they are given the chance, and how men can benefit by supporting them in allowing them the right to speak up and be heard. Thirty years after women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry. This means that women's voices are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. Astonishing.
In 2010, Sheryl gave an electrifying TEDTalk in which she described how women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers. Her talk, which became a phenomenon and has been viewed more than two million times, encouraged women to "sit at the table," seek challenges, take risks, and pursue their goals with gusto.