–By Sara Johnson
For as long as I can remember the people in my life have emphasized the importance of education. I come from a family of teachers who valued education highly, recognizing it as the great equalizer for women in the work world. In addition, I come from a country that also values education, so much so that it offers it free to its citizens.
In my lifetime, I’ve learned the truth of what education can bring. It has opened countless doors for me personally, and in my travels here has proven again and again to be the one thing that changes lives in a profound way.
We arrived in Laos last night, a country so beautiful it takes your breath away. The city where we are staying, Luang Prabang, is charming, filled with shops, markets, temples, and views. It is reminiscent of Ennis and as such put much of our group immediately at ease.
But behind the tourist facade the same situations loom for young women who fight daily to remain safe, free, and healthy. Women who long for the education opportunities we take for granted daily in the United States. They are desperate to receive an education, realizing it is the only hope they have of changing their lives of abject poverty.
But the cost of education is high.
In the United States the average university graduate walks away with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, a price many are willing to pay for the doors their degree will open and the advantage it gives them in the professional world. While we gripe about the years of repayment, we don’t realize how blessed we are to have that debt. At least I didn’t…until last night.
Without government loans and scholarships available here, the women face a difficult choice. Yearning with a desire to complete their educations to help their families and open new opportunities but too poor to pay the tuition to do so, they turn to other options. And this morning after a disturbing night of sleep I am still angry over that fact that the most common solution is to find a western or Laotian sponsor who agrees to pay tuition in exchange for sex.
Right now I hate that I live in a world where women working to secure a better life for their families are driven to pay for it with their dignity. And I am sickened to know that it is the men of my culture who are doing this, traveling half a world away to take advantage of disadvantaged women simply because they can. Raping them repeatedly for years in exchange for a $400 annual tuition. Yes, $400.
This seems like an injustice of immeasurable proportion to me.
When I put myself in their shoes the choice overwhelms me. I cannot fathom selling my body repeatedly for years, at the mercy of another for the price of $400. But then I’ve never know the extreme poverty these people face generation after generation. A poverty so crippling you would do anything to break the cycle for yourself and your children.
So I find myself walking around the city this morning with a restless spirit. Groups of western men abound, walking, talking, enjoying their vacations. On the surface they appear a happy part of the idyllic setting. Yet statistics tell me 80% of them are here specifically to participate in the sex trade. They travel halfway around the world to find a young Asian girl to sleep with for a few dollars, robbing her of another piece of her soul so they have a story to tell. And that pisses me off.
And that is precisely why I MUST get The Million Girl Army started. I simply cannot stomach that this is the life countless women in developing countries the world over face regularly, trading their self worth, their dignity, their bodies, and their souls for a chance at a better life. I cannot sit idly by while other women enslave themselves to strangers for a $400 tuition. And you shouldn’t either.
I am just one woman, limited in what I can do on my own to help. But what I know for sure is that if I stand with an army of one million girls and women committing their resources and their finances to fighting back against this injustice, we WILL change the world. For an army of voices is impossible to ignore, a formidable opponent.
For decades, generations of women did the same for me,fighting for equal rights and respect, laying the groundwork so that I could be here today with an education, a voice, freedom, and a blessed life. Now it is my turn to return the favor, fighting to help these women find their power and their voices. Will you join me?