At the moment, it feels like the world is devolving into chaos. Sectarian conflict, domestic violence, infectious disease, terrorist killings, oppressed minorities, and feuding politicians dominate the headlines. The drama and sorrow seem unending and are undoubtedly eating away at the optimism inherent in most of humanity.
During challenging times, I hunger for any positive news story: any person who can restore my faith in the world, any hero who can restore the balance by counteracting the bad events of the day. My salvation was not far away - I found a story about a young student, Fatu Kekula, who managed to nurse her entire family through Ebola through a combination of ingenuity, creativity, dedication, and trash bags. She managed to look after her infected father, mother, sister and cousin and only lost one of her patients, a remarkable feat considering the Ebola mortality rate is above 70%. And of course there is Malala Yousafzai, the extraordinary young woman in Pakistan who not only survived a terrible ordeal but emerged as a champion for children's rights and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history.
Fatu and Malala are examples of young girls improving the world. Not because they have to, but because they can. Their stories got me thinking. In my daily work with adolescent girls, surely there are equally heroic stories begging to be told. I didn't have to look very far: girls everywhere are changing lives and affecting their communities. Their tenacity, courage, dedication, and citizenship would hearten anyone drowning in the sad headlines of the day.
Today's hero takes the form of a young Indian girl named Pallavi Gaikwad, a netball coach and youth leader from the Naz Foundation. As a young girl in the suburbs of Mumbai, she was fearless - she fought for the opportunity to play sports and was the first in her family to become a true athlete. She also battled for the right to be educated and pursue tertiary education; despite support from her mother who left school early and married at 16, it was a battle she did not win. She was told that women don't need education since they will just get married. She was told "no" repeatedly, just as her own mother was decades before. Pallavi was set up to continue the cycle.
At age 12, Pallavi's father passed away, and she quit school to support the family. She travelled far distances and worked various part time jobs to supplement the family income. Furthering her education was becoming an increasingly distant dream.
Although she had stopped her studies, Pallavi found time to play netball. It was her outlet and the one aspect of her life that she enjoyed, that resonated with her interests. One day, her coach pulled her aside and suggested Pallavi join the Goal programme as a netball coach. Surely, this would be a better way to earn income than going out to rural areas to administer polio vaccines. It was more aligned to her interests, and there was opportunity for career growth.
Pallavi gave it a shot, and in 2008, she joined the Goal Programme. Her whole world opened up - she was exposed to concepts such as rights, leadership, budgeting, savings, and self determination. She learned that violence could take all sorts of forms and that tolerating violence wasn't a necessary evil in her community. She had the right to say no.
And perhaps, most remarkably, she learned about her body, a subject too taboo to address in her family and community. She learned that menstruation was a normal process for all women; it wasn't something dirty that she should be embarrassed about and hide.
The more she learned, the more responsibility she felt. It was her duty to ensure girls in her community had access to this kind of information. Information could be power, and girls in her community needed as much power as they could get.
But to be a true role model, she had to do more than teach and share information; she had to lead by example. With the help of Naz's Kalyani Subramanyam, she convinced her family to let her return to school, and she used her stipend to pay for school fees and books. She has now finished a degree in economics and is currently enrolled in an MBA programme. Her future aspiration is to join an NGO that helps adolescent girls, because being "a good human being" is the best thing she can do for herself and others.
"I want all girls to stay in school."
When asked why she is devoting herself to girls, her response is simple: "of course girls are important; they are part of the world. To play their part, they need confidence, education, and a safe place to practice skills." So what's next for Pallavi? "I want all girls to stay in school. And if they are facing pressure, I will work with them to figure it out. Education is a human right, and at minimum, girls deserve to be treated as humans." If Pallavi's story shows us anything, it is that girls are anything but just humans. They are a force for good with the potential to change the world significantly for decades to come.