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130 million girls deserve an education so they can become empowered women

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The other night I watched the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016). This biographical drama stars Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant mathematician who created complex formulas in his head. The difficulty arose when those in power required written proof of his theories.

Set in 1913 Madras, India, the movie opens with Ramanujan living apart from his new wife while trying to find work. Eventually, Ramanujan, employed as an accountant, is able to bring his wife and mother to live with him. Within a very short time, Ramanujan's employer recognizes his brilliance and helps him contact Professor G. H. Hardy at Cambridge University, England. Ramanujan then accepts an invitation from Hardy to go to Cambridge. He does so with the hope that his work will be published.

Five years later, having survived racism, shoddy housing, a lack of nutritious food, the First World War and living apart from his wife, Ramanujan returns to Madras riddled with tuberculosis. A very small portion of his work has been published, but he hopes to return to Cambridge to continue his work and increase his publications. Within a year Ramanujan is dead.

One could say that Ramanujan's life was both frustrating and sad. He most certainly was a casualty of many intersecting oppressions. But for me, the real victim of this story is Janaki, Ramanujan’s wife. Limited by caste, uneducated, forced to live with a mother-in-law who undermined her, widowed but prohibited from remarrying, and living a life without any hope of self-determination, Janaki's life is the real tragedy.

If I compare Janaki's situation to that of my three daughters, even taking into consideration that it's almost 100 years later, I have a lot to be grateful for.  My daughters were born healthy, active and ready to explore. They attended elementary and secondary schools that were well funded and staffed by wonderful, caring adults. My daughters were also fortunate enough to be able to go to camp, take art and music lessons, and to join sports teams if they were interested.

These enriching experiences, along with the ability to work and access student loans, enabled my daughters to go to the college or university of their choice. I'm very proud of my daughters' accomplishments. Likewise, I'm appreciative for a public education system that was adequately funded and filled with teachers and mentors which made it possible for my daughters to fulfill their dreams and reach their goals. I wish life was this wonderful for more girls and young women.

Historically, school has been neither welcoming nor safe for Indigenous children living in Canada. The residential school system may have officially ended when the last school closed in 1996, but it left tremendous devastation in its wake.

Created with one goal in mind, to "kill the Indian" in over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, this system was in place for 150 years. According to Indigenous teachings, this dark chapter in Canadian history will take five generations to resolve. In the meantime, Indigenous parents and children have every right to continue distrusting Canada's educational system.

Across Ontario, non-Indigenous students are allotted $11,000 per year to cover schooling costs while on reserve, children receive anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 per elementary and secondary school-age child. Funding gaps like this exist across the country.

Inadequate funding for education and deliberate underfunding of family and child support services on First Nations reserves by the federal government, created and maintains inequalities based solely on the child's origins.

What's needed is a new way of looking at funding for on-reserve schools. This new paradigm needs to focus on positive outcomes rather relying on the status quo approach of minimizing inputs and their associated costs. Children and youth living on reserve face unique circumstances requiring multi-faceted solutions. A comprehensive plan is needed to help this growing segment of our population achieve their full potential. And, let's remember the roadblocks these children experience are directly attributable to colonialism and Indigenous people being told they were culturally inferior.

In addition to receiving inadequate education and support services, Indigenous women and girls are also fighting a battle for equality that can be traced back to first contact. In 1876, The Indian Act officially relegated First Nations women to non-person status based solely on their ancestry and sex. This legislation remains in place today.

Discrimination and sexism are not unique to Canada. In fact, half a billion women worldwide are unable to read what's written here. Another 130 million girls are currently being denied an education. And, this is happening despite documented evidence that education not only raises women and girls out of poverty, it improves the lives of their families, communities and countries.

For over a decade, ONE has been working to end global injustices. Founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver, ONE is funded almost entirely by foundations, individual philanthropists and corporations. Over seven million global members campaign and advocate to eradicate extreme poverty and preventable disease. ONE fights for justice and equality so that more people can thrive instead of just survive.

To this end, ONE has created a petition to help millions of girls get access to an education. The petition will be delivered to world leaders on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day.

Because we know educated girls grow into empowered women, ONE is asking you to join them to help get every girl into school and to make sure she gets a quality education once she's there.

This is a small ask that will vastly improve the lives of women and girls around the world and hopefully, on reserve in Canada.

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