Monday, December 26

The Boy in the Yellow Shirt

When I was fifteen, I participated in a three-week service and language program in Costa Rica with the teen travel organization WestCoast Connection. I needed something to do with my summer, and I was interested in learning some Spanish and doing some community service. This trip seemed like a great opportunity.

I taught some local girls simple origami
at a day camp we set up and ran.
During the first two weeks of the trip, we took Spanish classes on weekday mornings and often worked on service projects in the afternoons. Some of these projects included painting and weeding an impoverished elementary school, helping local coffee farmers with their harvest, and running a day camp for the children of the community. They were simple and satisfying.

In the third week, however, we met Gail. Known as “Giselle” by the ticos (the affectionately self-deprecating term native Costa Ricans use to describe themselves) who can't pronounce her American name, this fifty-something-year-old woman described to us her life and work in Costa Rica over the last three decades. She began her efforts alone, but she has now accumulated a team of nearly 1500 volunteers dedicated to improving living conditions in the poorest areas of the country. She told us that her mission wasn't to give charity to the ticos, but instead to “help them help themselves”—in other words, provide a base of support from which they can build themselves up and improve their own lives. We were to volunteer with her over the next few days in the small shanty town La Carpio. Although her words were impassioned and her story inspiring, I had little idea at the time of what an amazing impact this small village would have on me.

We arrived at La Carpio by van on a hot July morning, and our very first greeting was from a small boy of maybe eleven or twelve years. Standing barefoot on the side of the road, he flipped us off. Many of the kids in the van laughed. I was horrified. I felt at once indignant and humiliated. Here we were in a foreign country, unpaid and of our own free will, to help this boy and the families in his community to have better lives and more promising futures. Why did he treat us like this? How could we possibly deserve it? This insult still stinging, I saw our group through the boy’s eyes. To him, we were a van full of privileged, white gringos with shoes and sunglasses who were invading his home and imposing our values and wealth on his community to make ourselves feel better. Although he didn't speak our language, this boy raised in the slums clearly communicated his bitterness and resentment with one finger.

We exited the van and stood uncomfortably on the side of the road, waiting for Gail to arrive and escort us to our project. After brief greetings and minimal discussion, she began to lead us through La Carpio. Feces and emaciated dogs littered the streets, and the smell of animal or human waste pervaded the air. The houses (if they could really be called that) were one-room structures built out of sheet metal and concrete, with no visible plumbing or electricity. Families of six, seven, even eight or nine, lived crowded together in these dismal homes. I avoided looking at the residents of the village. Being in this town made me feel nervous, uncomfortable, and even frightened. And so ashamed that I did. But I couldn’t help it, could I?

After walking maybe ten minutes, we witnessed the local police taking three small children away from their mother. The sobbing woman ran into Gail’s arms and wept. As our party left her behind, Gail explained that the woman could not care for her children, and therefore could not keep them.

Some kids at the daycare center
As we walked, my discomfort mounted. Tired-looking women sat under small vendor stands. Shabbily clothed men watched us pass. I was amazed how Gail calmly smiled and talked to anyone we passed on the street. When I believed I might actually start crying from an odd array of unpleasant emotions, we reached the daycare that Gail’s organization founded and runs for the children of the town. When we stepped into the quaint blue building, it was as though the dirty, sad life of the slum town was miles away. Children—from infants to elementary-age—were sitting in a circle while a young American volunteer talked to them in Spanish about food proportions. Gail invited half of us to join the children’s circle, while the other half would leave to build beds for local families. I stayed with the children. Immediately when I sat down, a young girl, maybe six, sat in my lap, and another beside me took my hand. We spent several hours coloring food pyramids, putting together puzzles, and molding Play-Doh. While we were outside coloring on the street with chalk, the other half of our group returned. Some switched groups, going from daycare work to bed construction or vice versa. I chose to stay with the kids.
As we walked through La Carpio, these boys saw us and
ran together to pose for "¡Una foto, una foto por favor!"
Soon after, several young boys showed up at the daycare, asking us to join them in a game of futbol. Thinking of the young boy we met upon our arrival, I hesitated. However, these boys were so friendly and inviting that I soon joined in the game. Soccer is a very popular pastime in Costa Rica, and in a village where a kid doesn't have much more than a soccer ball for entertainment, it was no surprise that these boys’ deftness and skill with the ball was astounding. Our teams were split with an even mixture of ticos and gringos on each, but the most active players of the game were the two team captains, both La Carpio boys. The captain of my team was maybe twelve. He was one of the oldest boys and wore a bright yellow shirt. I am not embarrassed to admit that I can be quite a klutz sometimes, and coordination and agility are not two of the skills that I can boast. But every time I touched the ball, no matter how awkward a kick or in what direction, that yellow-shirted boy congratulated me with touching sincerity and encouragement, “¡Bueno, bueno chica!” That boy’s—my captain’s—genuine praise and congratulation moved me deeply. I have so much in my life that he lacks—three meals a day, a stable education, daily showers, even a room of my own and a closet of clothes. This one thing, this unique talent with the soccer ball—something he has that I don't—he shared with me.

When it was time for us to depart, the captain of the other team shook my hand, and my yellow-shirted captain and I bumped fists. It was such an honor to feel accepted by these boys. For that amazing soccer game, our ethnic, economic, and language differences didn't matter at all.

The town we walked out of was entirely different from the one we entered. Although unpleasant aromas and skinny stray dogs still filled the streets, the people were no longer frightening, or even very sad. They were just...people.

This is a sweet baby girl who colored on the sidewalk with me.
But it wasn't the town that was different. Not really. Watching the dirty and even bruised children at the daycare give thanks and say a prayer for a small snack of pineapples, having them hold my hands and kiss my cheeks, feeling the pride of being congratulated in a foreign language by a skinny boy in a yellow shirt for kicking a decrepit ball a few feet towards our own goal—it was really me who was changed. The people of La Carpio were no longer frightening because I was no longer scared. I wasn't afraid of the unfamiliar, or of the new, or of people simply because they were poor, or dirty, or ticos.

We volunteered at La Carpio twice more that week. I helped out at the daycare again and even got to build beds for local families. Each time after we had completed our day’s work, the women of La Carpio prepared for us a lovely meal of rice, chicken, and salad. I couldn't help but wonder if they'd ever treat themselves to such a feast. And each time we visited the daycare, I saw my team captain lingering with his friends in the nearby street. He was still in the same yellow shirt, still holding a soccer ball, and he was still smiling.

(If you are interested in helping Gail to help the ticos to help themselves...please visit and make a donation. Every little bit helps!)

Monday, December 19

What Can I Do?

Over the past few days, I have been getting a lot of emails saying, “Great video! Very inspiring. Now, what can I do?

I'm so glad you asked.

There is a ton of stuff you can do, but probably the easiest and fastest is to donate! Even if it's not much, every little bit makes a difference. For example, $25 can by a smokeless stove (important for improving indoor air quality), $20 can buy a family health checkup, and $10 can buy 2 fruit trees or 8 pounds of vegetable seeds (The International Humanitarian Foundation)!

Bead for Life
On my webpage, I have a link to donate to the Girl Effect, an organization that raises awareness, collects donations, and gives money to various projects that help girls in the developing world. You can even donate in honor of someone you love or in memory of someone you have lost.

Or, if you are looking for some good holiday gifts, you should visit This year, I bought some of their jewelry for myself, my sisters, and my friends, and the items are simply beautiful. As a teenage girl, I can promise you they are fashionable! Plus, they are for a good cause. The beads are made from recycled paper by Ugandan women, and all the proceeds go to benefit these women and help them support their families and their communities. You can even host a bead party and get all of your friends involved!

I "wear the Girl Effect" on my computer desktop!
Besides donating, you can spread awareness! Post Facebook statuses about surprising facts you discover about the health and education of women. Share links to various pages on Twitter. Start a conversation with your friends. Wear the Girl Effect. Watch and spread videos like mine, this one, this oneor any of the videos on this page.

You could also host a fundraiser, like a raffle, a bake sale, a fun run, or a car wash to raise money. Check out this one-heck-of-a bake sale from She's the First, which "sponsored 46 girls by raising $21,000 through eight days of cupcake sales across the country!" 

There are so many worthy causes to give to. I've already directed you to The Girl Effect, The International Humanitarian Foundation, Tostan, and Bead for Life, but now I would also like to give a quick shout out to the Women's Resource Center based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which is "dedicated to advancing the rights of girls and women and improving access to information and services so that women in Cambodia will be empowered to make their own decisions and improve their own quality of life, for themselves and their children." According to director Bouny Te, "When women realize that they do have value in society and that they can move beyond traditional roles in respectful ways, they can then emerge as equals." The Women's Resource Center also offers regular group "workshops" focused on parenting skills, maternal health, childcare, legal aid, and literacy. These groups are open to the community and provide a forum for discussion, education, and mutual aid that is not available anywhere else in Siem Reap. They do not receive any financial support from the government in Cambodia but are dependent soley on private donations.

If you are interested in the plight of girls in developing nations and want to learn more about it, you should definitely read NY Times journalist Nick Kristof's Half the Sky. It is incredibly beautiful and heart-breaking.

Taken in Nicaragua by Kayeli B.
Finally, the best way you can help is to get out there and see it for yourself! Or so I've heard. I'm only seventeen and haven't gotten the chance to do so yet, but I absolutely plan on it. I know everyone has a busy life though, so it is still important to do what you can from home. However, my understanding is that reading about or even watching a video about bride-burning, human trafficking, female genital cutting, obstructed labor, rape, honor killings, obstetric fistulas… you can never quite appreciate until you see it for yourself.

Thank you so much for your interest, your compassion, and your giving spirit.

Sunday, December 18

Child Marriages Are Wrong

I wrote the following essay for a college application. I first read about this topic (child marriages) in a National Geographic article that brought me to tears. This is the essay I based the script for my video on, although my video addresses more than just child marriages.

From Flickr by Pondspid
Imagine a girl. Your daughter, your granddaughter, your niece. Now imagine her, still a child, married off by her father to a 50-year-old man to settle a debt or a family feud. This man abuses her. He rapes her. He gives her HIV/AIDS. Within the year, she is pregnant. Without any medical assistance, she spends two days in agonizing labor. Because her body is too small to give birth, her child dies. The wall of her birth canal tears, and she becomes permanently incontinent. Her husband and her family are disgusted by her condition, and she is cast out to the fringes of society.

This is not just in your imagination. This is happening today. In fact, this is happening 25,000 times today, and tomorrow, and every day after that.

Child marriages are a human rights violation. While illegal in most countries, national laws do little to stop this horrifying practice, which is deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of the mostly poor, rural areas of the developing world. In many African and South Asian cultures, if a girl is not a virgin when she is married, she brings shame upon her entire family. In order to prevent such a dishonor, she is married as young as eight years old, often to a fully-grown man whom her parents believe will act as a guardian-figure and protect her from immorality. Many times, daughters are married off as children or young teenagers for economic reasons—having less quantifiable value than sons, they are seen as a financial burden. They may also be given away to repay a debt or settle a feud with another family.

From Flickr by hiro00
Girls who are married early are forced into pregnancy and motherhood before they are able to be just children themselves. They are expected to be subservient to their husbands and in-laws, who often physically abuse them. These child brides are vulnerable to enormous health risks. They can contract HIV/AIDS more easily than fully-grown women, and the mortality rate for mothers between the ages of ten and fourteen is about five times higher than that of their sexually mature counterparts. If a girl’s pelvis is too small, childbirth can cause tears in tissues and life-threatening internal bleeding. When these injuries are not fatal, they frequently lead to the formation of obstetric fistulas—holes in the vaginal walls and the urethra or rectum that allow a continuous leakage of urine or feces. The smell becomes unbearable for those around her, and her husband will often send her away to live alone in pain and isolation. Obstetric fistulas—the cause of eight percent of maternal deaths around the world—are easy to fix. For only about $450, a simple surgery can repair the damaged tissue, allowing these young girls and women to reenter the society that ostracized them.

The most profound consequence of child marriages, however, is not a physical or even emotional one. It is the perpetuation of the seemingly endless cycle of women not receiving an education. Lack of education is both the cause and the consequence of child marriage. An uneducated girl cannot provide an economic benefit to her family, so instead she is a burden. Once she is married, she has no time or freedom to pursue an education, and cannot seek a job to improve her economic status. Because she is poor and uneducated, she cannot afford to send her daughter to school, and because her daughter never receives an education, she is a financial burden on her family.

From Flickr by World Bank Photo Collection
If one girl can break free of this perpetual cycle—if she can stay in school, fight custom and tradition, and refuse to be married to a strange and older man—if she can pursue an education, get a job, and give back to her society, then she would not be changing only her own fate. She would be slowly changing the fate of her community—perhaps her entire nation—because all of her daughters and all of her daughters’ daughters would have the opportunity to be educated as well.

A wise woman I know always says that the three most important things in the world are birth control, vaccines, and education of women. I disagree—I think these are all one thing. Educating women is the fastest and surest way to eradicate the global issues of poverty, hunger, overpopulation, and disease. But with such detrimental yet socially acceptable practices as child marriage, widespread education for women in the developing world seems like a dim goal in the distant future. In the mean time, 25,000 girls are getting married to men several times their age, having premature pregnancies, and being spurned by their families and their communities for an easily curable—and preventable—condition. Every. Single. Day.

If you want to help give a girl another chance,
please donate to the Fistula Foundation.

Works Cited

"Child Brides - Child Marriage: What We Know. NOW : PBS." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. JumpStart Production, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

"Child Marriage and Forced Marriage : FORWARD." FORWARD - safeguarding the health and rights of African women. FORWARD, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Clifford, Cassandra. "Will a Ban on Child Marriage Bring an End to Obstetric Fistula? : Foreign Policy Blogs." Foreign Policy Blogs : The FPA Global Affairs Blog Network : Foreign Policy Blogs. Foreign Policy Association, 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Gorney, Cynthia. “Too Young to Wed: The Secret World of Child Brides.” National Geographic June 2011: 79-99. Print.

Lemoyne. "Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse." UNICEF. UNICEF, 23 Sept. 2010. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

"Obstetric fistula: a dire consequence of child marriage : International Humanist and Ethical Union." International Humanist and Ethical Union : The world union of Humanist organizations. International Humanist and Ethical Union, 8 Mar. 2008. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

The Fistula Foundation. n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Thursday, December 15

The Truth is Hard to Accept

“Women make 10% of the world's income and own only 1% of property, even though they perform 66% of the world's labor.”

From Willemvdk on Flickr
This one statistic, out of the many I have in my video, has so far caused the greatest confusion and disbelief among viewers. A commenter on the YouTube page claimed that “there is NO way this is accurate,” and even my friend and my younger brother were skeptical about how this fact could possibly be measured.

I cannot speak for other people, but I believe the reason why they have trouble accepting this fact is because many of them are thinking about the workforce and labor in America, or Western civilization in general. In developed countries, gender-based issues often center around inequality in pay and job opportunities, and unfortunately there are still lingering stereotypes that husbands go to work while wives stay home and care for the children. So when they hear that women are actually performing two-thirds of the world's work, they find it hard to believe. But I am not talking about America, or Britain, or Japan, or any other developed nation. I am talking about the whole world, which is 80-85% people living in developing countries (according to the World Bank). In these cultures, men are often considered too good and important for manual labor, so much of the work, mostly agricultural and domestic, is left to women.

I cannot claim to know exactly how this measurement was taken. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say “labor” is probably measured in either hours of work or the monetary value of the labor performed.

And finally, here are my sources (I would say they are pretty trustworthy):

From Chronowizard on Flickr
"Women constitute around 60–80 percent of the export manufacturing workforce in the developing world, a sector the World Bank expects to shrink significantly during the economic crisis.” (The UN Women website)

“Women are half the world’s population, yet they do two-thirds of the world’s work, earn one-tenth of the world’s income, and own less than one per cent of the world’s property. They are among the poorest of the world’s poor.” Barbara Conable, former President of the World Bank

“Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours, produce half of the world's food, and yet earn only 10% of the world's income and own less than 1% of the world's property.” World Development Indicators, Womankind Worldwide

“Women do about 66% of the world's work in return for less than 5% of its income.” Women’s International Network

Wednesday, December 14

My First Blog Post

Wow! I cannot believe how far and fast my video has spread! The internet really is an amazing thing. I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has taken the time to watch it, especially those who have also shared it through Twitter, email, Facebook, or simply showed it to their friends and family. I am so delighted that this message about the importance of health and education for girls everywhere is being heard. I posted the video on my personal Facebook two days ago, and today I have already gotten 7,427 views on YouTube!

The movie took just over a month to create, from writing the script to filming the last frame. What moved me the most during this time was how eager the girls and women in my video (almost fifty of them!) were not only to step up and help out, but also to learn about these issues, some of which they had never before heard of or really understood. The movie-making process was absolutely a collaborative effort. Besides the fifty-ish girls actually in the video, my two sisters and my mom were also amazingly helpful. Sierra, 15, helped me color all of those signs (I'm not sure how many there actually were, but it felt like a billion). I am what my family likes to call “technologically handicapped,” so Celeste, 14, helped a lot with the videography, and my mom helped and is continuing to help with setting up and running the webpage. I could never have created this movie without everyone's help.

I have recently opened a Twitter account for It Only Takes a Girl (@OnlyTakesAGirl), and I am considering creating a Facebook page as well. I have been invited to be a guest blogger for and Updates coming soon!