Let me start off by apologising for not being able to connect with you for the last two weeks. I was amidst educating and preparing myself for my new role as the goodwill ambassador for my charity — Plan International’s initiative, Because I am a Girl (BIAAG). It was a life changing experience and I felt compelled to share it with you. The initiative has been set up in eight countries at the moment, and will continue to expand. India and Nepal are on the agenda too. My first visit was to Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Sierra Leone, like India, was once colonised by the British but the history of pain and hardships didn’t end there. It was magnified by the 10 year civil war or the “diamond curse” that it faced from 1991 to 2002. Post the war, the country witnessed escalated levels of unemployment, breakdown of education and economic systems, mass rape, ruthless killings, amputations of men, women and children but above all, it was the destruction of people’s morale!
So what does one do when things look grim? You can let yourself be victimised or stand up and take matters into your own hands. What does BIAAG have to do with it and why girls, you may ask? Let’s face it — Girls are the most marginalised and affected in developing countries. They give into early marriage and are denied education because for some reason their worth in society has always been undermined.
In Sierra Leone, the treacherous web of problems women face is endless — teenage pregnancies, forced or self imposed prostitution to make ends meet, death during pregnancy, denial of education and the shocking female genital mutilation that is unfortunately embedded in
their tradition like Sati was once in ours.
There is no overnight solution to these problems, but here’s what I think — educate and empower a girl and she will help build a stronger community. Ask them what their dreams are and they will, in their extremely polished, polite and upper crust English, tell you that they want to be — accountants, doctors, journalists, politicians — but only after they say that they dream of a place that is rid of gender inequality. Hence they treat education like a luxury and I was amazed by their command over the English language and oratory skills.
Then what about boys? The boys are very important, for their support and encouragement makes the girls feel safer and less intimidated. Most of the girl empowerment groups formed by Plan have at least 15 to 25% boys, who make a stand against gender discrimination, encourage parents to send their daughters to school and try their level best to be the voice for the voiceless.
There’s so much more I want to share but word count has gone into the red. If you want to learn more, you can check the Plan International website. I was asked by a journalist in Sierra Leone, what hope can I give these girls to which I said: “To be very honest these girls have given me hope.”
We have always thought of places like Africa to be a black hole with no salvation in sight. But the optimism of these girls has given me a renewed sense of hope despite the troubled times we live in.
So let’s BREAK THE SILENCE! It’s all about starting small but thinking BIG
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