By Davinder Kumar
Early morning on May 19, when most of us were fast asleep and the rest still rising from slumber, a young Bangladeshi woman quietly made history. At 9.30 am Nepal time, Nishat Mazumder conquered Everest. The 31-year-old became the first woman from Bangladesh to reach the highest point on the planet.
Even though expeditions to Everest have been more frequent over the years, making it to the summit is rare and rarer still is Nishat’s feat. Born in a small town of Lakshmipur in southern Bangladesh and raised in a conservative society in a predominantly Islamic nation, Nishat could have easily slipped into oblivion. Had it not been for her parents who educated her and allowed her the freedom to pursue her interest, Nishat’s destiny would have been no different from millions of girls in her country and rest of the developing world who are deprived of education and are forced into early marriage. One girl in 7 in developing countries is married before she reaches the age of 15.
There are millions of girls out there who have never crossed their village boundaries, let alone dreaming of something as out of character as climbing a mountain or challenging a male bastion like Nishat. Throughout the developing world, the lives of girls are blighted by deep-rooted prejudices and inequalities. Girls face discrimination even before they are allowed to be born in the form of female foeticide practiced in several countries mainly in Asia due to preference for a male child. Many succumb in their early years due to neglect. An estimated 170 million girls are ‘missing’ globally due to sex-selective abortion and death due to infant neglect.
If girls are lucky to survive through their childhood, they continue to face discrimination and multiple barriers to enjoy their rights and realise their full potential. About 53 million girls in developing countries are denied access to primary schools. A huge number- about 10 million girls each year, become child brides. Girls that marry young, experience intense pressure to become pregnant. For example, in Bangladesh an estimated third of all teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are mothers or pregnant. They often face serious health risks due to complications associated with pregnancy and child birth which is the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19.
Denied basic education; forced into early marriage; deprived of basic rights; girls lie at the bottom of socio-economic indicators. More than two-thirds of the world’s one billion people living in extreme poverty are girls and women. They have little control over assets and an even lesser say on their own reproductive health. Globally, young women are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than young men. The impact is more disproportionate when it comes to women in poorer countries. Nearly 80 per cent of all HIV-positive women live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Put in context, Nishat’s success is extraordinary given the multiple social and cultural barriers girls in developing countries have to negotiate in their daily lives. Nishat’s story is a milestone, a triumph for the efforts in the developing world to ensure that every girl’s fundamental rights and freedoms are realised by the State and the society.
As a child Nishat could never fulfill her desire to play outdoor sport. “I used to watch my brothers play football, but I never dared to play. I was afraid of what people might say if they saw a girl playing football,” she says. Drawing from her personal experiences, Nishat likens the plight of girls to dwarfed trees. “In our society, she says, girls are brought up like a ‘bonsai’. “From a young age their branches and leaves are clipped with words like – you can’t do this because you are a girl. As a result, many of them grow up without ever reaching the height they were meant to,” says the Everest conqueror.
In her momentous achievement, Nishat has symbolised the power of education and the difference equal chances can make in a girl’s life. She has dedicated her effort to child rights organisation Plan’s Because I am a Girl global campaign aimed at ensuring that girls complete at least 9 years of basic quality education in the world’s poorest countries. Educated girls are empowered girls and they can transform their own lives and the lives of all around them. An extra year of school for girls will increase their lifetime income by 10-20%. Children of women who have completed primary school are 40% less likely to die before age 5. When a girl in the developing world receives 7 or more years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children. In short, keeping girls in education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality that millions across the developing world are perpetually trapped in.
In a euphoric Bangladesh, plans are afoot to receive Nishat amidst grand public celebrations. For a nation braving extreme challenges of poverty, development and climate change - Bangladesh has discovered great optimism in the achievement of an ordinary young woman. The rise of ‘bonsai’ to Everest is a new metaphor for girls’ rights. It has opened a new window of hope, pride and aspiration.
(Davnider Kumar is an award-winning development journalist and press officer for child rights organisation Plan International. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar.)