I’ve had countless conversations with people over the years about women’s rights issues. Everyone seems to get it. Everyone seems to care. We all know there’s stuff going on in the world that makes us cringe and want to cry. But we are so far removed from it, that it doesn’t seem like much can be done from here in our corner of the world, which is so very far away from the developing world (literally and figuratively).
Recently, I had the opportunity to dive head first into one area of the world where women and girls suffer, and through this experience I saw despair and devastation, as well as strength and triumph. I saw how the efforts of a caring community can rise against corruption, and how much work there is to be done to help make the world a safe place for girls.
This journey started in San Diego. I was looking for a way to “Pay it Forward” and get involved with a charitable organization that my company could support. Through a friend I found Lotus Outreach (www.lotusoutreach.org). They are a group of pioneer renegades on the ground floor of several hands-on initiatives that are actively making girl’s lives healthier, safer, and better. I was already planning a trip to India to work with my factory, and it turned out that Lotus Outreach has a headquarters in Delhi. Perfect!
I spoke with one of the foundation directors, Elise, prior to my trip to see what initiatives they had in India and see how I could help. She told me about a program called Blossom Bus, which provides transportation to girls who need to get to school. Sounds simple. But the value of this is immeasurable. What she explained, and what I wound up seeing first-hand, is that rural India is not a safe place for girls. They are often kept out of school because the walk to school leaves them vulnerable to being attacked, raped, kidnapped, or worse. The solution for parents is simply to keep them at home where they are safe, and as a result the literacy rate for girls in rural India is often as low as 2%, creating a culture where scholastic expectations are always minimal. Blossom Bus solves these problems by keeping girls in school, where they belong in their developing years.
I asked Elise if she thought the girls who ride the Blossom Bus would like to receive free Sash bags. I thought it would be great to provide a way for them to keep their personal belongings safe and secure while they’re traveling to and from school to tie in with the safe transportation they were now receiving. She was delighted by the idea, and a plan was hatched!
There’s a lot that happened in between arriving in India and the rest of my story, but I’ll save that for another blog because it has to do with manufacturing, and I’ll skip to the part where I meet Suraj, the man who took me to the school to meet the girls of Blossom Bus.
Suraj is my hero. He’s the adorable man standing to my right in the classroom photo above. He’s responsible for changing the lives of thousands of young girls in rural India. He is proof that being an authentic agent for change can yield measurable and scalable results. (More on that later.)
When I entered the classroom, I was kind of nervous. With Suraj as a translator, I started asking some of the dozens of questions I had for these girls. I started with questions like, “What is your favorite subject in school?” and “What do you do when you’re not in school?” trying to get a sense of their personalities. The banter was very sweet and fun for me and for them. Then I asked the question, “What are you plans after high school?” The answer to this question changed my life.
The girls looked at me like I had an extra head (or two). Suraj explained to me that there really aren’t any plans after high school. These girls are not going to college or trade school. Most of them will probably not even get jobs. This was not computing. We had just spent so much time talking about how important it was for these girls to be in school. I mean, that was the whole point of their big crusade... To get these girls out of their homes and into school. But that’s it? What’s next? What about their hopes, aspirations, and dreams? I asked again, trying to get something out of the girls. Surely they must have some kind of dream to be a designer or a teacher or doctor. Nope. None of them. Their plan is to get married.
Suraj then explained to me the reason it’s so important for these girls to be in school is not to create a foundation for a career or independence. Rather, it’s mostly something for them to do besides getting married or being raped. That sounds harsh, but it’s the absolute truth. Of the 30 girls who were sitting there staring at me with their sweet, innocent eyes, half of them would have been married if they weren’t sitting in those desks, and the other half would have experienced a worse fate. This is the reality they are facing and it’s something that no child should ever have to worry about.
Even as someone who already has a pretty keen global awareness, it still took me several minutes to truly wrap my head around that and I was fighting back tears as I looked around at these adorable girls and imagined how many just like them are out there right now having babies of their own against their will. Going back to the beginning of my post… It’s something going on in the world that we all know about. We know it. We hate it. And even knowing it and hating it, I was still disconnected from the reality of it until I was in the presence of these girls. Even when there are people like Suraj who are rescuing them from being child brides, it’s not an escape for life. It’s a stall tactic to ensure that they at least reach a reasonable age before getting married and turning their teeny tiny bodies into baby factories.
When it was time to give them the bags, I almost started to feel like a fraud. The girls filed outside and lined up to receive their bags. I demonstrated how the bags worked and tried to explain the benefit of having something that is hands-free and secure that they can wear under a sari or a hijab. They giggled and smiled, as I was probably the first visitor they’d had at their school. Suddenly this gift to them seemed incredibly insignificant.
I wanted to say to each of the girls as I handed them their Sash bag, “I’m sorry that I’m just giving you a bag and not a job or an opportunity for lifelong health and freedom. I’m sorry that I thought this was going to make any sort of difference in your life. But I hope you like it, at least.” I’m probably being a little hard on myself, because the girls were very excited and I know that it will provide some benefit to them as they brave the rural jungle on their way to school. As well as it provided them some inspiration to see a woman (gasp!) who was traveling and enterprising. But it felt so flat. I wanted to do more. Much, much more.
After leaving the girls, we met with Glen, the founder of the organization. We talked for HOURS about his programs and their global impact. He shared some statistics with me regarding population control and how these 300 girls in the Blossom Bus program, who stalled marriage by four years, will each have an average of four fewer children in their childbearing years. This has a tremendous impact on global resources when multiplied by the number of schools and programs that are popping up, not just in India, but around the world. They are responsible for enrolling girls in more than 200 schools in Northern India alone.
More of the work they do (and the next program I would like to help with) is in Cambodia where they teach safe migration to prevent sex trafficking. I asked him what programs there are to prevent sex trafficking versus protecting one-self against it, and he said there weren’t any. The work has always been focused on trying NOT to be trafficked instead of teaching the value of human life and women’s rights and preventing the demand for prostitution at the core. We talked about that one for a long time. We brainstormed what a program like that might look like, and how it could be scalable. How it would span school classrooms and government offices. I was pretty fired up. I left feeling more motivated than ever to grow my business in a way that supports the efforts of Lotus Outreach, and other organizations that are doing similar work.
Of course once I returned home to San Diego, it was weeks of recovering from the jet lag, hugging my kids fifty thousand times a day, catching up on work and emails, and diving right into the next steps of my business after having spent two weeks with our manufacturer (the main reason for the trip). It’s easy to get sucked back into the daily grind. But I haven’t stopped thinking about the girls or Suraj or Glen for one single day. I am writing this to communicate my commitment to all of them, and to those I have not met yet who are advocating for a better world for children, that I will fight along side them. I will be activating a donation tab on our website for anyone who wants to contribute to this cause. In the coming months we will be revealing how our business model is going to support the growth of this work throughout the world, and some programs that we are focusing on here in the USA as well We have a product that is creating a community of women who are passionate about change, and it’s simply poetic how it translates through to the issues that are close to our hearts. Building a better bag to build a better world.