By Laura Bickle
Award-winning Toronto humanitarian and journalist Sally Armstrong has devoted her career to speaking up for the oppressed of the world. Her book, Ascent of Women, chronicles what the former teacher hopes will become a global revolution as women in segregated societies challenge antiquated views. Armstrong, who has served on the UN’s International Women’s Commission, believes that education is key to advancing these women’s rights — not only by advocating that girls have access to schooling in developing countries but also by discussing the issue within the Canadian classroom.
What drew you to this work?
After years of reporting in conflict zones, it became clear that education is everything. In Afghanistan, they refer to their illiteracy as being blind. The thugs in power keep the people illiterate so they can’t see what’s going on or challenge the terrible things that they are doing.
How can we break this cycle?
Poverty gets in the way of learning. If you educate the girl child, if you give her some health care and some education, she will marry later. She will have fewer children, and they will be healthier. The World Bank claims that’s enough to turn the economy of a village around.
Any surprises along the way?
Three years ago, I realized that the earth was shifting. Women began to question things they had once never dared to ask: “Tell me where it’s written in the Koran that my daughter can’t go to school.” It is not written in the Koran. “Show me where it is written that I can’t go to work.” That’s not there either. So people would wonder: “What else have you told me that isn’t true?” What caused the movement to finally lift off was Facebook, that’s when women started communicating with each other globally.
How involved are our students?
There’s a lot of great work being done by teachers who have a terrific understanding of the need for young people to go forth with knowledge. For example, 500 students at David Suzuki SS [in Brampton] recently sat through a 45-minute speech [on human rights in war-torn countries] and then asked intelligent and probing questions. I was dazzled by how much they know.
Any classroom tips for teachers?
What students need to understand is that children over there are not that different from them. They also fight with their brothers and sisters and like to race down the soccer field with victory in their eyes. And they also deserve the same opportunities. We should talk to students in ways that they understand. Kids get it.
How can our students help?
Young people who understand that women’s rights are human rights are the ones who will carry this message forward.
On November 7, Sally Armstrong will be the closing speaker at the 2014 College Conference on Inspiring Public Confidence. For more info, visit events.oct.ca.