Waris Dirie is a Somalian supermodel and human rights activist. When she was only a few years old, she suffered female genital mutilation in her home village, together with her two sisters. Born out of illiteracy and ignorance, the inhumane practice strips women of their genitals in accordance with cultural beliefs that only a circumcised woman is a good woman. Any woman who had unaltered genitals was said to sleep around with other men, and she would not be able to find a husband. Due to poverty and illiteracy around the region, families often depend on a daughter’s dowry as a source of income. As such, being able to marry off a girl is important to her parents and siblings, and the amount in dowry a girl is worth is increased if she is younger and circumcised. This has led to widespread practice of female mutilation at a very young age.
However, the people are poorly educated about the dangers of mutilation. The practice brings no health benefits and is highly dangerous to women’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, a way of life that the women simply accept. For instance, Dirie’s two sisters did not survive it – one bled to death, while the other died from childbirth complications as the mutilated genitals made her unable to deliver the baby naturally. Those who do survive still experience a lifetime of pain whenever they urinate, menstruate or deliver a child. The survivors are reported to suffer from post-traumatic stress worse than that of soldiers who fought in war.
As if undergoing the brutal practice was not enough, when she was thirteen, Dirie was offered in marriage to a sixty-year-old man. She fled across the desert to escape the marriage. Eventually, she ended up in London. With very little knowledge of English and being unable to read or write, Dirie worked as a cleaner at a fast food restaurant until she was coincidentally spotted by a famous fashion photographer, Terence Donovan, which began her career in modeling. At the same time, she was able to take evening classes to learn English and literacy skills. She later moved to New York to continue her work as a model, becoming the highlight of major magazine covers.
It was in these cities that Dirie learned female genital mutilation was not the norm among the educated. She decided to use her fame and speak out about the inhumane practice she suffered as a child. Her story touched the hearts of many around the world, sparking protests against female genital mutilation and a call for change.
Dirie became an activist for women’s education, human rights and the banning of female genital mutilation. In 2002, Dirie founded the Desert Flower Foundation, committed to saving little girls at risk of mutilation, providing them with an education and their families with funding. Without having to worry about money, the families would be less pressured to marry their daughters off early. They are also educated about the dangers of female genital mutilation and sign a contract with the foundation to ensure that their daughters will not be subject to the practice.
Today, the Desert Flower Foundation has saved thousands of girls and provided recovery options to survivors. Waris Dirie has received numerous awards for her activist work, including the Thomas Dehler Prize.
When Erin Gruwell started teaching at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, she was given one of the worst-performing classes since she was a brand new teacher. Gruwell’s class was filled with students on whom their parents and the school had given up hope. The students were uneducated and unruly, involved in racial and gang tension, and Long Beach was a dangerous place with more than a hundred reported murders in 1993. Being mostly non-white and poor at their schoolwork, Gruwell’s students did not care much about studying as they did not see much of a future for themselves. One of the students, Sharaud, had recently transferred to Wilson High after being expelled from his previous school for allegedly pointing a gun at his teacher.
Despite the circumstances, Gruwell took on an unconventional teaching method. When she discovered a caricature of Sharaud, an African American, being passed around the classroom, she took the opportunity to educate her students on the topic of racial violence. She had them participate in classroom activities that made them realize they were really all going through the same experiences, despite their vastly different backgrounds. Using her own money, Gruwell bought books for her students, including The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary. She was not even initially paid since she was a student teacher, and still had to pay tuition fees to her university. However, this act of dedication to her job helped to spark an interest in her students to read these books and learn more about how racial and gang violence impacts a society.
From there, Gruwell paid for their trip to the Holocaust Museum of Tolerance, where she invited Holocaust survivors to speak to the students about their experiences. She also invited guest speakers to fly in to Long Beach just to share their stories with the class. These speakers included Miep Gies, the lady who hid Anne Frank, and Zlata Filipovic, a Sarajevo girl who lived through a war in her homeland when she was just eleven. It was Zlata’s persistent diaries of her daily life that inspired Gruwell to get her students to write daily journals.
Eventually, all 150 of Gruwell’s students graduated from high school, much to the wonder of the school and their families. They went on to publish their journals in a collective book titled The Freedom Writers Diary. Each of the students also found their place in society. Sharaud, the boy who was expelled from his previous school, ended up going back to that very school as a teacher. Erin Gruwell continues her work with the Freedom Writers Foundation, aiming to spread her powerful teaching method across the globe.
The Rural Youth and Adult Trust offers free tuition to adults struggling with low literacy. Established by Jo Poland in 2011, the trust was set up to provide literacy help to adults, especially as some of them may not be able to afford literacy courses or know where they can sign up for some. Along with the negative connotations surrounding illiteracy, adults may be hesitant to ask for help.
When an adult approaches the organization for literacy help, they first take a reading assessment to see where they stand. Volunteers then coach the adult in one-on-one sessions for half an hour each day for about three to five days a week. The adults are taught to do everyday tasks, such as read the newspaper, spell, write and even use a computer. Most adults spend about six months with the organization learning these skills.
RYALT began in Jo Poland’s home but has since expanded from its humble beginnings to become a nationwide organization in New Zealand. The RYALT team comprises four part-time staff and more than seventy volunteers. Apart from coaching adults, RYALT also runs literacy camps for teenagers every school holiday using the funds they receive from government grants. To date, the organization has delivered hundreds of hours of literacy training to about 120 clients per year.
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