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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Unlikely 'bonsai' conquers the face of Everest

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — Early in the morning of May 19, a Saturday, when most of us were fast asleep and others were just rising from slumber, a young Bangladeshi woman quietly made history. At 9:30 am Nepal time, Nishat Mazumder conquered Mount 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 all the way to the summit is rare ,and rarer still is Nishat's feat.

Born in a small town of Lakshmipur, 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 interests, Nishat's destiny would have been no different from millions of other girls in her country and the developing world who are deprived of education and often forced into early marriage.

One girl in seven in developing countries is married before she reaches 15.

There are millions of girls out there who have never crossed their village boundaries, let alone dream of something as out of character as climbing a mountain.

Throughout the developing world, the lives of girls are blighted by deep-rooted prejudices and inequalities. Girls face discrimination even before they are born in the form of female feticide practiced in several countries mainly in Asia due to preference for a male child. Many succumb in their early years to neglect. An estimated 170 million girls are "missing" globally because of sex-selective abortion and death from infant neglect.

If girls are lucky to survive through their childhood, they continue to face discrimination and multiple barriers to enjoy their rights and realize 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 who marry young, experience intense pressure to become pregnant.

In Bangladesh an estimated one-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 childbirth, which is the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19.

Denied basic education, forced into early marriage and deprived of basic rights, girls lie at the bottom of socio-economic indicators. More than two-thirds of the world's 1 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 in poorer countries. Nearly 77 percent 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 realized by the state and the society.

As a child Nishat could never fulfill her desire to play outdoor sports.

"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 dwarf trees. "In our society, girls are brought up like 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 symbolizes the power of education and the difference equal chances can make in a girl's life. She has dedicated her effort to the child rights organization Plan's "Because I am a Girl" global campaign aimed at ensuring that girls complete at least nine 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 to 20 percent. Children of women who have completed primary school are 40 percent less likely to die before age 5. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.

In short, keeping girls in education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and inequality in which millions across the developing world are trapped.

In a euphoric Bangladesh, plans are afoot to receive Nishat amid 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 a bonsai to Everest is a new metaphor for girls' rights. It has opened a new window of hope, pride and aspiration.

Davinder Kumar is an award-winning development issues journalist and global press officer for the child rights organization Plan, and a Chevening Human Rights Scholar.

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