Paperbacks for Peace

Emma Louise Backe, The Global Women's Institute

July 20, 2015

Photo Source: Emma Louise Backe

I grew up within walking distance of my local library, a place that became my safe haven and center of intellectual, as well as emotional discovery. Growing up as a young girl, I never resented going to school in the mornings because it was a continual opportunity to understand the world in new ways and discover alternative perspectives. Even during our recess breaks, I would retreat to the library, a place where possibilities for the future seemed endless. Each row of books represented a potential conversation with people I would never meet, yet could encounter and empathize with through the simple act of reading. As I learned more about the world, it frightened and pained me to realize that there were thousands of girls who didn’t share the same educational opportunities, had never even held a book in their hands.

Malala Yousafzai’s campaign #booksnotbullets resonates not only with the sentiment that women and girl’s education should be promoted, rather than feared, but also reminds us of the intellectual, political and economic violence wrought by the absence of gender equitable education. Driven by my own belief in the power of education, I ran a book drive in high school to send hundreds of donated books to a school in Ghana. Students responded with letters and videos thanking us for the simple opportunity to read freely and widely, a seemingly small act yet a monumental change in their learning and development. While visiting South Africa, I taught reading classes in one of the townships surrounding Cape Town, using books to build literacy while teaching life skills and lessons the students would carry into their lives outside the classroom. Those lessons could be emissaries and guides in what may seem a dark and dangerous world.

As I read more widely, so followed my travels. While serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Fiji, I traveled to primary and secondary schools around the coast of the island nation, teaching classes and talking with students of all ages. Even on days when the electricity wasn’t working and floods threatened the safety of the roads, children and adolescents resolutely trekked to school. Many clutched some of the very same books that I grew up on, dog-eared paperbacks I had read in my library thousands of miles away. Education was many girls’ lifelines to a future where they could decide their own paths, perhaps ones more brightly lit and easily navigable than those available without schooling.

Through my work at George Washington University’s Global Women’s Institute (GWI), I am thrilled to continue my work in education. GWI has worked with the Malala Fund to develop a Resource Guide that promotes women’s education and stimulates conversations for men and women, girls and boys alike to discuss the role of gender in learning, what it might mean to be a young girl who wants to learn yet has no access to educational opportunities. As a part of the Futures Without Violence Open Square Summit, GWI also investigated and wrote an education brief about the forms of violence female students may suffer, a publication we hope will help eliminate persistent obstacles to education. Malala Yousafzai is a diplomat for girls’ education, but books can be our ambassadors. What if we could spread peace by turning a new page in how women and girls learn? What are the stories we want our children to tell about the lives they have led, their educational journey into adulthood?