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Mighty Girls: The Power of Storytelling

October 11, 2023

By Anuja Patel and Aryasatyani Sintadewi

The cover of Aduh! (“Oh No!”), by Urfa Qurrota Ainy, illustrated by Hanny Juwita, from the Mighty Girl series developed in The Asia Foundation’s BookLab

How we educate our children and the materials we use to do it play a powerful role in our societies. In Indonesia, for instance, girls have now achieved numerical parity with boys in secondary education, but a closer look at the data shows that Indonesian girls still do not pursue their post-secondary education as far as boys. When they drop out early, their reasons for doing so often reflect gender norms, such as early marriage for girls or their responsibility to provide unpaid care, that are commonly reinforced in textbooks and other educational materials. This reality shows us that striving for parity of participation in the schools is not enough. We also need to focus on how the gender norms that we convey in our schools and educational materials may either help or hinder people of all genders in realizing their full potential.

Addressing this issue is a matter of fundamental human rights, but it also has an impact on sustainable development. Countless research studies have shown that greater educational attainment for women is associated with smaller families, higher earnings, and even lower carbon emissions. Educating a girl does not just benefit her; it has resounding, multiplying effects throughout her community, because women raising families tend to pass along their values and beliefs, and women are more likely to invest the higher earnings that come with higher education in their families and communities.

Teaching children early in a way that reinforces positive values, and adopting strategies to fulfill those values, can lead to greater retention of girls in school and high-paying jobs, and ultimately to a society that is more just, peaceful, and equitable. Storytelling that represents the diverse experiences and opportunities of different people is a powerful way to communicate these values. Representation matters, and storytelling can be a powerful way to achieve this representation. Engaging girls and women in the storytelling process can ensure that their ideas are expressed, and their voices are heard.

Books as Bridges

In Indonesia, The Asia Foundation’s Books as Bridges project is working to amplify the voices, leadership, and creativity of adolescent girls and female authors and illustrators.

A Books as Bridges resilience and self-awareness workshop for adolescent girls in 2023. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

This year, the Foundation worked with local youth-empowerment organizations to conduct resilience and self-awareness training for adolescent girls throughout Indonesia. Young women who were trained as mentors conducted the workshops, and girls reported afterwards that they felt more confident acting as leaders. One said her male family members even started helping with household chores after she explained what she’d learned.

In addition, we conducted a BookLab to recruit and train aspiring female writers and illustrators to produce children’s storybooks on STEM topics, which were then published on The Asia Foundation’s free Let’s Read platform, where they can be accessed by readers worldwide. To extend the reach of the work, the books were announced on social media with local partner organizations.

The Books as Bridges illustrators’ workshop. (Photo: Aryasatyani Sintadewi / The Asia Foundation)

On the island of Java, we worked with another group of girls to publish an illustrated series called Mighty Girls that has already accumulated over 1.2 million downloads from the Let’s Read website. The Mighty Girls are scientists, students, and space explorers, helping to open new futures for girls outside of traditional paths.

Left: Roti Harapan (“I Have to Find a Way”), by Jessica Valentina, illustrated by Stephanie Susilo. Right: Menari Bersama Singa Merah (“The Red Lion Dancer”), by Jessica Valentina, illustrated by Alima Nufus.

This women-led approach to authorship and outreach is helping a growing audience of girls and women—and boys and men—to question and transform traditional gender norms: Perhaps women can be scientists. Perhaps fathers can be caregivers. When you see it, you can believe it and be it.

This is especially true when it comes to the representation of women and girls in STEM. The fact that only 20 percent of STEM jobs in Asia and the Pacific are currently held by women underscores the need to model these roles and opportunities early. Educational materials and institutions can be pathways to a reimagined vision of what girls can do, be, and become.

Books as Bridges 2023 STEM-themed BookLab. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

On October 11, the world observed the International Day of the Girl. Let’s continue to reinforce positive gender roles by supporting girls’ leadership and storytelling. And let’s encourage boys to do this too, both as allies and as beneficiaries of a gender-equal world.

Anuja Patel is a program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality program, and Aryasatyani Sintadewi is a Books for Asia officer in The Asia Foundation’s Indonesia office. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Let's Read

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