Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lisa Ling Asks, "Who Cares About Girls?"

A note to girls and adults: This post deals with serious issues, like human trafficking, sexual slavery, and child labor, that may be inappropriate for younger girls. Please read with discretion. Girls--if anything you read makes you upset, talk to an adult!

Earlier this week, I wrote on global girls’ access to education. Today, I’ll explore what life is like for the millions of girls around the world out of school each year—specifically, those in India, where over 30 million girls go to work each day instead of to school.

I commented yesterday on the mainstream media’s embarrassingly pathetic fixations on celeb gossip—and it’s frequent failures to address major issues facing girls and women around the world. Fortunately, Oxygen, Oprah’s television network, is one of a handful of dedicated media outlets out to change that.

On Sunday, Oxygen’s Lisa Ling premiered a collaboration with The Global Fund for Women on India’s working girls. If you watched it, you’ll understand my enthusiasm for their mind-blowing coverage. If not, read on for some incredible stories.

Nineteen-year-old Rinku is a warrior for teen girls’ lives. Rinku works as a counselor and advocate for STOP, an incredible organization working on the front lines to rescue girls from trafficking.

Over 500,000 Indian girls have been enslaved in forced prostitution by the country’s lucrative trafficking industry. Some 10,000 girls join the industry each year (usually unwillingly), and their average age is a mere 14. Some are stolen from their homes or kidnapped while traveling, others are country girls duped into believing they’re entering domestic jobs in the cities, and still others are sold by family members who must chose between the girl’s freedom and their children starving. [India is such a poor country that many live off of $1 or $2 a day.]

Rinku, who became a victim of trafficking at an early age herself, is working to save Indian girls from trafficking one by one. She patrols travelers’ rest-stops, a common location for trafficking, to rescuer girls before they fall in the hands of the most notorious traffickers. She visits slums where trafficking rings are disappearing more girls each day. She goes to brothels undercover to try to convince girls to leave with her. [Enslaved girls are often brainwashed by their captors.] And she stages brothel raids, which easily turn dangerous when corrupt police officers and armed brothel owners arrive.

Rinku wages her battles in a dangerous underworld ruled by greed and power. At age 19, she’s risked her life too many times to count. But she says she doesn’t fear death. Instead, she says, if she dies after rescuing 30 or 60 girls, she believes her fight was worth it.

While working in brothels may be the scariest kind of labor girls face, millions of other Indian girls work in other areas: on farms and in the fields, in the crowded streets of big cities, in markets, and in private homes. Girls as young as six or seven work in indentured servitude. Like sisters Shweta and Shilpi profiled by Lisa Ling, these girls work 12- to 14-hour-days filled with backbreaking work—cooking, cleaning, and caring for children not much younger than themselves—and sometimes physical abuse as well.

Many employees of young girls actually believe they’re helping the girls by providing them with food and shelter—something they might not otherwise have. But many employees simply prefer providing girls, as they’re the cheapest source of labor available. No other group is so easily mentally and physically abused than young girls.

It’s a bleak picture, I know. Fortunately, groups like STOP and the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude, which runs a shelter an school for girls rescued from domestic work, are leading a courageous battle against the institutions that enslave girls.

And there are so many solutions to this problem. Obviously, education is the best way to protect girls from exploitation, ensure them a brighter future, and help them bring them families out of poverty. Getting girls in school, though, is an uphill battle against poverty in itself. As the mother of one young girl, who earns her family $2 a day by working as a merchant on a busy and polluted street, said, “If she is in school, what will she eat?”

It’s true that freeing girls form child labor is a tough battle to fight. But freedom and education are girls’ rights. In India, over ten laws ban or limit child labor; they need to be enforced. Moreover, the international community has a responsibility to meet the promises they’ve made to provide every child with an education.

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to the value we place on girls’ lives. What does it say about our world when thousands, even millions, of girls are sold into slavery for just $1? Aren’t girls’ lives worth more than that?
A note to readers: This is a difficult issue, but there are many great ways to help. Check out to learn how you can support The Global Fund for Women and other organizations fighting for Indian girls. Most of all, make your voice heard (by, for example, writing a letter to Congress to tell them you support ALL girls' rights to freedom and education!).

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