Neither One Childs Fight Nor a Fight for One Child
(Beijing review, 03/06/2004)
Ma Yan is not a heroine, nor a prodigy, but an ordinary schoolgirl whose dream used to be, and still is, going to school. She had dropped out from her primary school twice because of poverty. As a persevering and assiduous girl, she won sympathy and support from foreigners to continue her studies. Now, the 16-year-old is a little famous figure not only at home, but also in France and other countries, after her first book-Ma Yans Diary : The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl-was published in nine languages.
Her sad story with a happy ending began three years ago at her home village in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, one of the remote, poor areas of China. At the time, Ma was distraught because her parents couldnt afford to keep her in school. She wrote down her thoughts in a series of journals, which she didnt realize would change her life. One day in summer of 2001 Mas account of the struggle against hunger and poverty was given to a group of visitors from Beijing, along with a letter that Mas mother had received from her daughter.
One of the visitors, Pierre Haski, correspondent of the Paris newspaper Libération, was touched by the letter, in which Ma lamented that there was no money to keep her in school. I want to go to school, mom. I dont want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever ! the poor girl wrote. One month after reading this journal, Haski and his interpreter returned to the small village and met Ma and her parents. Ma was back at school, only because her parents borrowed money and her mother had taken a laborers job to pay off her loan. The visitors gave them some money to allow the 13-year-old to stay in school and pay off the loan.
After Libération published Haskis report about the schoolgirl and her plight in January 2002, the reporter began receiving checks from readers. As a result, Haski set up the Association for the Children of Ningxia to use the donations to keep other farm girls in school. In addition, a French publishing house proposed to publish Mas diary, so he returned to Ningxia with a contract.
Ma and Haski, whom she calls Uncle Han, decided to give 25 percent of their royalties to the association. After her book came out in October 2002, the associations membership grew to 300, and more donations poured in. Thanks to its publication, Mas family is no longer poor, and 250 other Ningxia youngsters, mostly girls, now have scholarships to continue their study.
Ma is now a junior high school student in Tongxin County, her hometown, where a so-called Ma Yan effect is functioning. More farmers, for example, began changing their traditional idea of treating men as superior to women, sending their daughters to schools. At the school Ma attends, the number of female students have increased from 170 to 370 in the past two years. Interestingly, a wave of journal writing is spreading among local children and teenagers. In Mas school, almost every student writes a diary. Some, it is reported, want to experience the same good luck as Ma.
Yes, Ma is lucky to have found foreign support. She understands that it is reporting that has changed her life. Ma said her ambition is to study journalism at university. Her reasons are based on her own changing circumstances and those around her. Uncle Han and others traveled across the country and found poor children like us. Id like to be a journalist so I, too, can help poor children, she said.
Substantially, what is discussed here is neither one girls fight for her educational right, nor an international campaign for only one child. Ma knows there are still many poor children in Ningxia and other underdeveloped regions, mostly in west China, whose right to go to school is being threatened. But she may not know that now more than 100 million primary school-age children worldwide may not be sitting in class as she is-and about 60 million of those missing out are girls. And the crisis extends to another 150 million children who will never complete their primary education.
What makes these statistics alarming is the colossal numbers for a world that is entering a hi-tech era. No country can reach real sustained economic growth without achieving near universal primary education. Particularly for girls, education is related to lower infant mortality rates and higher life expectancies. What makes the statistics terrifying is that the world community is too tardy to curb the problem efficiently.
This is a vicious cycle-poverty is often the cause of dropping out of school, and the latter leads to poverty. Children of poor families are particularly apt to be dropouts. Poverty, with its attendant evils-ignorance, unemployment, drug abuse, school dropouts, violence-is the tumor of our globe. Education, in a fundamental sense, is the key to break this cycle.
It is increasingly recognized around the world that the most readily identifiable tragedy in modern life is the illiterate child. On International Childrens Day, June 1, all adults should ask themselves : What the best gift can we give to our children ? Perhaps the most meaningful thing we can do is to help the poor children in any way we can.
Mas case indicates that journalism can play a positive and concrete role in this endeavor. This is not only the responsibility of government and its educational departments. There should be no professional boundary in promoting education. All professions and trades are the products of education and should contribute to schooling. But the role of journalism is special. Mass media can help us know where these poor kids are and how serious their situation is. Moreover, the fourth estate and public opinion serve as a supervisory force for governments educational policies and funding.
Her story also illustrates that there is no national boundary in supporting the young in difficult circumstances. When Ma grows up and realizes her ambition of being a journalist, we do hope she and her colleagues may broaden their horizons-do something beneficial not only for Chinese youth, but also for those poor children in countries and regions around the world.