Today is International Day of the Girl! A day to remember the 1.1 billion girls in the world, the adversities they face, and the unique potentials they hold for solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. Pause for a moment and think about the girls in your life. See their bright eyes, their curious minds, their wonderment. Consider their potentials and the futures they hold. What paths are open to them? And who is there to nurture and support them along the way?
Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18. Every 10 minutes a teenage girl dies as a result of violence. And 130 million girls ages 6-17 are not in school. The roots of poverty lie there, in the cultural stereotypes upheld, in the culture of violence and inequity that goes unchecked, in the lack of education that silences girls and deprives the world of their God-given talents and dreams. As I think about the girls I have known, I go back to my time in Kolkata in 1987, when I stayed with three identical triplet girls named Sunita, Anita, and Gita (pictured below). They were just 8 years old and had been relinquished by their mother to an orphanage when she remarried and the step father did not want them – he rejected them for being another man’s children, for being girls, for being a financial burden on his life. So they went to the orphanage where they were connected to my family and prepared for adoption. I spent two months with them in the girls’ home, playing, dancing, practicing English, and anticipating our new life together. But in the final moments, their stepfather saw them as potential pawns for his own financial gain and demanded money for their release. To avoid liability, the orphanage returned the girls to his care. And I went home alone. What became of these three beautiful lives? Young girls returned to a broken home, to parents who did not want them. Or maybe could not want them for the burden they presented and the lack of resources at hand. Did these girls go to school? Did they live safe from abuse and assault, were they nurtured in a space of hope and love? Or did they marry too young, live lives too short, endure exploitation and hardship, and just disappear?
This loss connected powerfully to my own memories as an 8 year-old girl, when I too became a pawn for another man’s personal gain. He took me, held me for ransom, assaulted me, and then left me standing on the side of the road. I lost my innocence, my voice, my worth; I turned inward and wondered what value I was to anyone. But unlike the triplets, I returned to a home of love and acceptance. I stayed in school, stayed connected to caring adults, was encouraged to dream new dreams, and built the resilience to go on.
Today, the world is full of girls with bright futures. Do we see the light in their eyes? Do we hear the songs of their heart? Do we nurture their unlimited potential by standing up to discrimination, abuse, and exploitation? And do we see the adults in their lives and nurture their capacity to further love and protect? Looking back, my heart breaks for those desperate parents in Kolkata who I never met and never considered. The painful choices they made, the losses they endured through the choices they made. What community did they have? What obstacles did they face? What would it have taken to heal them, to change mindsets, to envision a different future together?
This month, we are preparing to return to India. We will consider how communities are working together to support girls in ways that Sunita, Anita and Gita did not have. Headfirst Development is one such organization, providing jobs for women and education for girls. World Vision’s work with the MenCare program nurtures more loving and resilient husbands and fathers. Oasis India addresses human trafficking and other forms of violence against women and children. Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) creates rare forums in which people share – and hear – the untold, often taboo stories around gender conditioning and sexuality.
My prayer is that we all find ways to stand up for girls – in our own homes and communities, and more globally. Please connect with each other, promote gender healing, and support families to be the strong foundations needed for girls to build resilient and flourishing lives. Our world needs them.