Fighting for Education for girls …it’s a must! 1

by Audrey Matura-Shepherd on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I do not know how many Belizeans have been following the news of the 14 year old Pakistani girl Malala Yousufzai, who was targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for supporting education for girls.  It is indeed a sad story and one which I think reflects how too many Belizean take for granted the freedom and opportunity they have to get an education.  Our boys and girls equally should be assured of this as a Constitutional Right, yet it is not a legal right, although, unlike Pakistan, by violence we do not stop our girls, nor boys, from obtaining an education.  Rather we stop them from a full and advanced education indirectly, by the mismanagement of public funds, thus we are not able to give free education up to the tertiary level.  We further deny them this by the level of poverty created and the system of political patronage created so that sadly citizens must go cap in hand to beg the Minister of Education for a “favour” so their children can go to school… what nonsense is this? Or scholarships form my tax-paying money is determined at cabinet, instead by a panel of professionals, on a merit and financial needs basis.  But if we make it a fundamental Constitutional right free form political patronage – and with proper funding from our taxes – they stars would be the limit for our students…but back to earth for me!

The only mention of some access to education in our Constitution is found in the preamble where it states:

WHEREAS the people of Belize – (b) respect the principles of social justice and therefore believe that the operation of the economic system must result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to subserve the common good … and that a just system should be ensured to provide for education and health on the basis of equality…” 

There is the school of law that says this clause is not justiciable and so no court would enforce it as a right…blah blah blah!

Sadly, instead of using their parliamentary powers and recently-lost super-majority our government opted to change the Constitution through Amendment 9, turn the 8th by rather curtailing our freedoms and changing the basic structure of the Constitution… well the Supreme court ruled that unlawful and  us the passionate opponents of this amendment have been exonerated![pullquote align=”right”]”I WILL GO TO SCHOOL – WHETHER HE LIKE IT OR NOT!”[/pullquote]

Back in those days

The good news about Malala’s situation is that she has been flown to Birmingham to be treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and so hopefully the Taliban will not be able to reach her there to finish her off.   Reports are that the Taliban said that if she survives they will finisher her off and make sure nothing about her is kept alive.

But to me it is not inconceivable that men in this so-call modern era would be opposed to girls getting an education – for me it is real and I lived it, but the difference is that I lived in Belize.  I could not help to be thrown back into a past I sometimes wish to forget, when I heard about the faith of this child.  Her plight is still the plight even in democracies such as Belize and the so-call free-world!

So back to Belize…  I grew up in Corozal and I come from a very mixed ethnic background with my father’s side being predominantly East-Indian “coolie’ as some would say in a derogatory manner and my mother side being predominantly Mestizo.  Of course in that mix there is some African and European because of the history of us as a people.  My mother was an orphan and my father a neglected and abused child, and both never went further than standard three or four.  Another common denominator they both had was that they came from ethnic groups that did not believe in educating girls.

As I would put it, back in those days these people were illiterate working class, with a cultural belief that females did not need an education because they would be married and their husbands would provide for them – thus the men needed the education as they would be the head of the home and the bread-winner and the female would stay home barefoot and pregnant.   I lived in that era and I heard these very words and explanation from my parents, but my father was resolute in this stance.

Thus, it came as no surprise that as I approached standards five and six he kept saying and emphasizing that no female in his home would go to school beyond primary education, as a matter of fact both of my  sister were taken out of school before reaching standard six, but I kept hanging on and hoping.

Get a husband not education!

So I persisted in school and on one occasions visited with a relative in the “big” City and was in awe when I went to my cousin’s graduation from Palloti High School – it was angelic and there and then I knew I wanted to go to that school.  So stupid little me with all my dreams began discussing this and verbalizing that I will go to high school, much to the objection of my father.

However, on one particular day while I was cleaning the refrigerator and grumbling about manual labour and saying I will get educated, have a great job and pay someone to do this work for me, my father stopped me in my day-dreaming and said that I could cut-out those plans because as soon as I became a young lady (for them it’s when you begin to menstruate) he will chose me a husband and I will come to my senses and see that there is no need for me to have an education.

Well I must say I was “upstart” as we say and I answered him back that he will not chose me a husband and that when I so elect to have one, I will chose him and it will not be before I go to high school… and I added that the reason I will chose him was because I will have to sleep with him so the choice is mine.  Well, all I felt was that slap across my face and I tumbled down into the ‘refridge’ (short for refrigerator) – but I refused to cry and I stood up in rebellion and while I dare not speak again in my mind and thoughts, which he could not assault – it was engraved that “I WILL GO TO SCHOOL – WHETHER HE LIKE IT OR NOT!”

My father and I became mortal enemies and he in his many speeches, cussing-up sessions and rage would incessantly repeat no female in his house would get a higher education.  So the way out for me was “not to be in his house” and find how to move out as soon as possible.  I begged my mom to intercede for me even though I knew he dominated and I pleaded with a half-brother far older to help me get out of there and go to Belize City to Pallotti… I could not wait to get out of my father’s house.

My way out!

I nagged my mom until she agreed she will try and help if I get above 90% in the BNSE and GCE, which were the PSE equivalent then… I took both and got above the 90’s and I nagged her to send me and my brother encouraged and my father objected and said he would not waste his money on me because he knows I would just come back home pregnant…so at 13 years I left home and lived with an aunt.  Those were not easy days.

So my mom struggled to help me through first form, but before the school year ended informed me she could not keep scrapping the food allowance to help me especially since my two brothers would start high-school and they needed it more.  After all, she explained when I get married my husband would provide for me and explained that because my brother would become providers of their own home they needed the education.  I cried rivers of tears and felt my world ended.   But Sister Rosario saw me crying by the school stairs, asked what was wrong and I explained.  She told me I could go on a work scholarship and that would cover my tuition and other fees and so my mom would only need to provide books and uniform.  Of course my mom could no longer pay my boarding and lodging and I had to live at the mercy of my aunt…but this was my way out of a life where girls/women were still chattels and second-class citizens as a result of culture and dark-ages beliefs.

At age 13, going to 14 – I resolved that I could sacrifice it the next three years and would endure any hardship, but at all cost I would get my high school diploma.  So the following school year, after classes I would go clean the convent floors and polish the cupboards and help make communion wafers….and I worked and worked and worked.  I could hardly stay awake at times to do my studies but I was bright enough – so I would always place in the top three in the class and gradually slipped to a fifth overall, but I was proud.

I graduated, invited my father to the ceremony and he cried…I proved him wrong… I went to study much more, but I will tell the rest of the story someday, the details are too painful but it made me realize how much an education can and did make a difference in the path of life that I lived and am living.   I was innocent then and remained committed to my resolve, despite all I endured, but now that I am grown I choke up more when I recall those days because only now I understand the magnitude of what I fought against and the people who were so mean and even cruel to me as I struggled to get a basic education.  But suffice to say that had I been born in Pakistan and like countries I would not have stood a chance with a father like mine… Malala’s dad on the contrary supports female education but had to close the door of his all-girls school at the insistence of the Taliban.

The first … but not last!

I am a first generation educated person in my family, I am the only female in my immediately family to have obtained a higher education and even amongst my brothers, all of whom attended High School, I received the highest education, paying my way through law school, without any scholarship and again against the odds for being outspoken in local politics.  Had my financial circumstances been better I would not have waited until age 30 to study law and I know I would have become a professor of law, a dream I still hope to  accomplish, if it’s God’s will, before I die.  But if there is one thing I would want to give back to Belize, it would be creating my own organization through which I can help young women pay their way through school…because when you educate a woman, you educate an entire family and you empower a nation!  I now have a four year old daughter… and I will not only educate her but help her form a social conscience and a spirit of servitude to humankind and if Belize thinks I am a force to reckon with – wait and see what my offspring’s will bring to the table!

Thank you my God for seeing me through it all – without you I could have never achieved anything; also bless the Malala’s of this world and in Belize strengthen our women to rise to the service of each other through education!

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