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Fighting for Our Daughters: An Interview with Pedro Moreno

By John W. Whitehead and Nisha Mohammed
February 19, 2009

If we want our communities to be successful, we cannot leave half the population behind with women being illiterate and disempowered.—Pedro C. Moreno, President, Father and Daughter Alliance

Partly because of the lack of education, too many girls end up in domestic servitude, early marriage, abused and/or neglected, trafficked and prostituted, genitally mutilated, unable to access opportunities and continually dependent on others for all their needs. Of the 774 million illiterate adults worldwide, 64% are women. Thus the vicious circle continues, particularly as countries move toward a knowledge society, since an illiterate mother is far less likely to send her daughters to school.

The Father and Daughter Alliance (FADA) is an organization that was formed to address the gap in educational opportunities worldwide between boys and girls. Launched in New Delhi, India in January 2009 in partnership with Deepalaya – a well-established non-governmental organization – and the Office of the Chief Minister of New Delhi, FADA will also work in Afghanistan, Benin, Guatemala and Yemen, countries where girls not attending school outnumber boys three or four to one.

FADA is a movement of family men/fathers who are committed to narrowing this gap in girls’ education. It also appeals to the father’s heart in men in traditional/religious developing countries who want to help their daughters and other girls enroll and complete primary education and then access the same educational, economic and societal opportunities that are available to boys. 

FADA’s President, Pedro C. Moreno, has substantive experience in the field of social policy and economic mobility. He has served in the private and public sectors, including the Social Emergency Fund (in cooperation with the World Bank), The Rutherford Institute, Prison Fellowship International and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. During the administration of George W. Bush, he worked for the White House Drug Policy Office. His mission in life has been to help mainstream marginalized individuals and communities, including religious and ethnic minorities, ex-prisoners, trafficked women and girls, low-income and refugee populations, out-of-school boys and girls, among others.  

During his more than 15 years working for children and families, Moreno served as a United States Government delegate to the Executive Board of UNICEF, attended and spoke at the NGO Forum of the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, helped negotiate the outcome document for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children (New York, 2002), and was a delegate to the WHO-UNICEF Consultation on Child/Adolescent Health (Stockholm, 2002). He actively promoted responsible/involved fatherhood programs (i.e., fathers respecting their wives, helping at home, and nurturing their children) during his 6 plus years at the Administration for Children and Families (HHS).

In addition to a law degree from Bolivia, Moreno received a Master’s in international law and economic development from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and completed the specialization in negotiation and conflict resolution at the Harvard Negotiation Project. Moreno has traveled in 65 countries on all continents and describes himself as “a traditional/religious family man who, after having some hard-headed ideas about these topics for many years, came to see the light and critical importance of girls’ education and full participation in all aspects of society.” He and his wife Amy have 3 children (2 sons and a daughter). Moreno is now particularly focused to make sure that his daughter (and others) has all the opportunities available to his sons. 

For more information about FADA, visit

Mr. Moreno took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer some questions concerning the Father and Daughter Alliance.

From left to right: Pedro Moreno, T.K. Mathew, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Jessica Moreno, and the Indian Minister for Women and Children.

John W. Whitehead: There is obviously much need for your work. But is it because girls account for more than one-half of the approximately 75 million children out of school in the world? What is the problem, and why is it so bad?

Pedro Moreno: The problem is that girls are not valued around the world.

JW: Why is that?

PM: It’s because of the male-dominated societies around the world. There is a preference for boys over girls.

JW: Is that religious, or is it cultural?

PM: I think it is both. Most religions, of course, have a male god. There are some female goddesses, but they are mostly male. And culturally, the leadership and the ruling drive of most societies are dominated by men. That, in turn, translates to the devaluation of the role of women. This is true even though religions generally do not teach that women are less than men. But there has been a misperception or misunderstanding of these teachings. Therefore, women are seen as less and less.

JW: In some Muslim countries, for example, women are seen as lesser than men and are treated very badly. They are given the death penalty for minor infractions. They have to cover themselves and are placed in a subservient and/or inferior position to men. Isn’t this true?

PM: Yes. In such countries, women are not able to drive. They are not able to go out by themselves, but have to be accompanied by a male. They don’t have access to economic assets. They cannot be leaders in the community or in politics or religion. They cannot be the leader at home, either. Thus, there is a problem. But many women don’t want to subvert the system. They just want to have full participation and study and fulfill their dreams. We think they should be allowed to do so.

Nisha Mohammed: Is there historically an economic aspect to the fact that women have been held back? Is it the belief that investing in boys is going to bring in more money? Does that factor in?

PM: Yes. There is that belief. For example, there is the practice that boys will take care of the parents when they are old, whereas girls will become part of another family where they will be dependant on their husbands. Thus, they may not be able to take care of their parents. So the parents prioritize the boys to go to school and get good jobs so they can in turn take care of the parents at a later point. There is still a financial need to have children in many countries around the world. In the United States and Europe, however, there is more of an emotional need to have children because parents want company or get satisfaction from having children. Of course, children shouldn’t be born just to satisfy their parents, either financially or emotionally. But in practice, this is what is happening.

JW: Some people are probably going to criticize FADA on the basis that cultural lines must be respected. That is the way they live in those countries. Why would you go there and impose your Western values on them?

PM: First of all, it is not appropriate, culturally or otherwise, to give girls in marriage when they are only 8 or 10 years old to a grown man. It is not culturally appropriate to mutilate genitally girls when they are 10 or 12, as they do in many countries. It is not appropriate for girls to be taken out of school and put to work all day fetching water, carrying wood, cooking, taking care of the children while the boys – their brothers – are in school. It is not culturally appropriate to burn them because they did not cook or they didn’t want to have sex with their husband. In rural areas of India, they are still burning the young women because they disobeyed or they had an argument or something like this with their husbands. It is simply not culturally appropriate to devalue women. Women are prostituted, trafficked, beaten, raped, and molested. No culture really condones that. No religion condones that. When I was in India recently, they resonated immediately with the ideas we stand for in FADA, even though they may have other cultural ideas or practices. The issue of bringing dignity back to women is something people want to do, but sometimes they feel constrained because of circumstances. But I think there is a lot of interest in helping girls around the world improve their lives through education.

NM: You will find voices in places like Saudi Arabia or India that would say Western culture doesn’t actually dignify women. In fact, if you look at our role models for young women today, they wear lots of make up and very minimal clothing and appear to practice virtually no values.

PM: The issue is choice. If women want to wear certain kinds of clothes or look a certain way and they are doing it because they choose to do so, it is up to them as adults. We cannot force adult women to be protected from the evils of the world by covering them from head to toe, not allowing them to get out of the house, or mutilating them genitally so they will not be tempted to have sex. This is repression. It is one thing to protect your daughters and your children when they are young. It is another to control adults, even if you think you’re doing it for their own protection. Nobody has the right to control another adult.

JW: How does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights impact all this? Is the United Nations doing anything to help?

PM: There is a major effort internationally to help women with about $11 billion being invested on girls’ education and empowerment. The World Bank is involved. So are the United Nations and the Nike Foundation. The William Buffett family just gave $100 million to the Nike Foundation to help with young girls. The World Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland) just held a special session on girls for the first time. There is a big effort. In spite of the $11 billion, there is a need for another $13 billion to be invested just in girls’ education if we want to reverse the trend. 

NM: A study has shown that investing in girls’ education is the single most effective way to reduce poverty. Are you seeing that? Is that part of what is driving this whole movement? 

PM: If we want our communities to be successful, we cannot leave half the population behind with women being illiterate and disempowered. If we want the world community to be successful, women need to be incorporated into the process. When women are educated, they are better able to take care of children, even those with health issues. So there is a very important effect when women participate in society. But we are not trying to push them into the labor market or tell them what to do. We are just trying to give them opportunities so they can choose whether they want to stay at home or whether they want to pursue a career and do that with freedom and dignity. 

JW: Does your Christianity affect how you are approaching this problem?

PM: Yes. But the Father and Daughter Alliance is not a religious organization per se because we are working with Muslims, Hindus and others on the issue of girls’ education with the help of the fathers. We are not trying to preach religion or convert anybody. We are just trying to get the girls back into school with the help of the fathers. 

JW: You are initially targeting five countries – Afghanistan, Benin, Guatemala, India and Yemen. Why those five countries?

PM: Those five countries are part of a group of 25 countries that UNESCO has identified as needing help in terms of getting girls back in school. Afghanistan, for example, has had major problems being able to get girls to school. Recently, Afghan men threw acid in the faces of girls because they were going to school, trying to intimidate them into not going. But they are now going anyway. And in Yemen, part of the Middle East, there is a big problem with the girls still being outside school. Guatemala is one of the worst cases in terms of education in Latin America.

JW: In Guatemala, the literacy ratio is 75.4% for males and 63.3% for females.

PM: Many countries in Latin America have had a major success in terms of bringing the girls to school. But Guatemala is still lagging behind. And in India, there is a big problem still with 55% of the females literate, as opposed to 78% of the males. 

JW: Progress has not been quick. Even with the United States occupying places like Iraq, the problem has not gotten much better. The general approach is for organizations to go out and do certain things. But your approach is different. It’s the father to father approach. Is this how FADA is different? Why do you think the father to father approach might work better? 

PM: It’s different because I want to work with the men. Many people around the world are working with the women and children, helping with the shelter and developing skills. But FADA wants to ensure an education for women so they can stand on their own. When I was growing up in Bolivia, there were two young men bothering each other who wanted to fight. So they went to the back of the school and started fighting. After a few minutes, the friends of one of them came and said, “Okay, stop, stop, enough, enough,” and they grabbed his arms and held him back. But the other guy’s arms were still loose, and he continued the beating. The guy that was being held told his friends, “Don’t hold me. Hold him. He is still beating me up. You are my friends. You need to hold him.” That stayed in my mind for many years because what we are doing is holding the women and the children back. The men are still walking around. We need to get the men and work with them and ask some key questions. Why are you doing these things? Why are you discriminating against your girls? Why are you beating up your wife? Why are you doing these things that you may think are right, but are not? We need to talk man to man and father to father. Hopefully, we can get them before they get in trouble with the law in a kind of coaching or mentorship or even co-learning environment where we learn together. We need to affirm them and remind them that they are doing a lot of work already. They’re providing for their families. That’s good. We commend them for that. We also need to show them that we understand where they’re coming from. They may have a traditional religious or conservative viewpoint, but we need to challenge them to do something better and help them grow a little bit together. Why can’t we help our wives have access to education, economic empowerment and participation? We simply want to open up everyone’s eyes to their needs, their dreams, and their desires.

JW: How can people help you? What kind of help do you need?

PM: We need all kinds of help. We need to bring those daughters back to school. That means we need money. We need media attention. We need fathers who are willing to travel to India, Guatemala, and Benin and coach other fathers. We need a presence online that would allow us to spread the word to networking sites like Face Book and YouTube. We need systems and media people that will help us get the word out and spread this movement. And it is a movement. We need to go heart by heart and utilize every means that we have to get the word out and get other men connected, even fathers in the United States that want to help themselves and help others connect with other men in other countries. Maybe the girls here can connect by e-mail or by mail. It is all about getting involved in any way you can. I need financial support for myself and my family because this is my ministry. We need to invest so those girls can go back to school. For as little as $35.00 a month, a girl can be given shelter, education, and food. She can go back to school and start fulfilling her dreams.