RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Fifteen can be a tough age. People don't always take young teens seriously, even though decisions made at 15 can affect the rest of one's life. In some places around the world, it's even harder for girls. That's why over the next few weeks, we'll meet 15-year-old girls all over the world, some very vulnerable, looking for ways to gain more control over their lives. We start in Zambia, where East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner and reporter Laura Starecheski ask what happens when girls there are coached in the art of negotiation by the gurus at Harvard Business School.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, we're going to get to the Harvard stuff in just a second.
LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: But first, a little brainstorming session at a high school in Lusaka.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So we have to come up with a lot of ideas, as many as you can.
STARECHESKI: The 50 teenage girls crowded into this tiny classroom are participants in a research study. They volunteered for this weeklong negotiation course taught by local university grads. Today, the girls are brainstorming ideas on how to ask open-ended questions to figure out what their parents really want.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So finding out the other person's interests helps you think of solutions to meet both your interests and theirs, OK? Repeat after me. Finding out the other person's interests...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Finding out the other person's interests.
STARECHESKI: Kathleen McGinn is a professor of negotiation at Harvard Business School, and she helped write this curriculum.
KATHLEEN MCGINN: So the way that the girls' negotiations training works is the same way that negotiation training with MBAs, with undergrads, with executives works.
WARNER: She says that most Zambian schoolgirls have to advocate for their interests in a way that American high schoolers rarely need to.
MCGINN: In the U.S., it's illegal to take your kid out of school. And in Zambia, you have to pay to keep your kid in school.
WARNER: And because most Zambian families live below the poverty line, most Zambian schoolgirls never make it to 10th grade because their families can't pay. But what McGinn believes is that there is more hidden opportunity that can be found by these girls, and she hopes that this research study will show that just a week-long negotiation course can keep some of these girls from dropping out of school.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: How can we become better negotiators?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Practicing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Very good.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So you need to practice.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So the more you practice...
STARECHESKI: One of these students, 15-year-old Madalitso Mulando, has already had a lot of practice. She took this course two years ago when it was first offered. She found it so useful, she's back for a refresher, even though it means walking an hour each way from her house in Kanyama slum, past chickens and mobile phone shops on flooded, muddy roads.
MADALITSO: You can come in. Just come in.
STARECHESKI: Let me take my shoes off.
MADALITSO: No, don't take them off. Let's go.
STARECHESKI: Are you sure?
Inside, her parents' graduation photos are the only decoration.
MADALITSO: I've not yet swept. Yeah, sorry.
STARECHESKI: Which is your bed?
MADALITSO: It's here.
STARECHESKI: Madalitso shares her room with her sister, two nieces and a stack of dog-eared textbooks.
MADALITSO: I like biology, yeah (laughter).
STARECHESKI: Math and science are Madalitso's subjects. Her big plan? Medical school.
WARNER: But she almost didn't make it into 10th grade. Most Zambian schoolgirls don't. In Madalitso's case, her older brother and sister went to college, but her mom's grocery stand closed two years ago. Her father's hardware store is failing. And one night this January, her parents had to tell her that they couldn't afford to pay Madalitso's $150 tuition.
MADALITSO: Yeah, I was alone. I was in my bedroom, like, alone. And then I started, like, crying. And I was like, maybe I'll never go to school again because mom and dad didn't have many money.
WARNER: Now, this wasn't the first time this had happened to her, but this time around, Madalitso vowed to use her new negotiation skills and start doing some fundraising with her extended family.
MADALITSO: I learned a lot in negotiation. If you want to ask something, you need to tell them what you want.
WARNER: In other words, if she were going to cold call her relatives, she would have to be crystal clear about her intention to finish school. As we mentioned, most schoolgirls in Zambia do drop out, so she would have to prove that she was worth investing in. She took some deep breaths, and she asked to use her mom's phone.
MADALITSO: I first called my cousin. I was like, I've passed my grade nine, but it's kind of difficult to pay my school fees.
WARNER: And her cousin was impressed enough to send her $55.
MADALITSO: Then I called my sister.
WARNER: Her older sister gave her almost 70. But even when she had tuition, she still needed something else. She needed books. And so she called the person that her mother least wanted her to call.
NEBAT MBEWE: Nebat Mbewe, I'm the uncle for Madalitso. I should say I'm in a privileged position to help others.
WARNER: He's managing editor of a big Zambian newspaper. And he's helped Madalitso's family financially several times in the past. But...
MBEWE: I made it clear right from the beginning.
WARNER: He would not be their piggy bank. He wouldn't bail them out for what he called her parents' business mistakes.
DORCUS MULANDO: It's not good.
WARNER: Madalitso's mother, Dorcus Mulando, says the idea of begging from her older brother was shameful. He'd refused them so many times before.
MULANDO: No, I just said that OK, you can call him. The answer he'll give you, if he says he doesn't have, don't get hate.
WARNER: Don't get hate in your heart, she warned her daughter. Like most of us, she saw the world as a fixed pie. Her brother had more, she had less, any act of asking felt shamefully like begging. But Madalitso saw it differently. She was expressing to him how much she wanted to finish her education, something he's often encouraged her to do.
MBEWE: Now that you're mentioning it, she was more focused on exactly what she wanted and how that would benefit her. The minute someone says education, that certainly hits a nerve in me.
WARNER: So she negotiated well with you.
MBEWE: Indeed, she did. Excellent. She did a good job (laughter). Yeah.
WARNER: He shelled out the $25 that she needed to buy all her books for the year. And Madalitso was able to enroll in 10th grade. For a poor country like Zambia, these small choices matter. There's World Bank research that shows if girls in developing countries complete high school, there's a better chance they'll earn more; their kids will go further.
STARECHESKI: Back in the family kitchen, Madalitso soothes her baby niece while, at the same time, issuing orders to her 7-year-old niece, Chichi.
MADALITSO: Chichi, (foreign language spoken).
STARECHESKI: And for Madalitso, making it to 10th grade is only the beginning of a long string of negotiations to come. She's already trying to come up with a plan for how to pay for 11th grade, not to mention medical school. And by the time her niece, Chichi, is 15, eight years from now, she hopes Chichi will come calling to negotiate with her. I'm Laura Starecheski.
WARNER: And I'm Gregory Warner, NPR News, Lusaka.
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