Nov 1, 2019


The last time I was in Nepal was in the early 1970s. I spent five years working there when I was just starting out my career in international development. Now, as a member of the board of directors for Plan International USA, I went back to Nepal just a few weeks ago to see a variety of Plan’s program activities. I was often asked on the trip about the changes I could see, then vs. 45 years ago. There were many, and they were extraordinary.

I have to start with the obvious: the staggering urbanization in Kathmandu Valley  – the congestion and the traffic  – as well as the vibrant, bustling economy we saw in Banke District, where we spent most of our time. When I arrived in Nepal in 1970, there were about 225,000 people in Kathmandu; today, the city extends much further with more than 2.5 million residents. Where I once saw rice paddies, I now saw new buildings, cars, and motorcycles. I certainly wouldn’t drive my old Honda-90 motorbike in today’s Kathmandu!

As mind-blowing as these changes were, I was most impressed by the expanding advocacy and voice of adolescent girls. The girls I met in Nepal have an intense commitment to promote social change and improve the lives of people, whether working independently or in partnership with civil society and local governments. And Plan International is playing a huge role in supporting the growth of these young women.

In Banke District, we saw young women who had been rescued from bonded servitude (the Kamalari System) and given the opportunity to complete grade 12 and gain good paying jobs. I will not soon forget that Sona, who now works for a cooperative, has bought property with her savings and is well on her way to becoming an entrepreneur. 

We also met with several adolescent girl groups and heard girl after girl talk of how they are using their voices to promote change. They are working with their own families to end isolation and discrimination when they have their menstrual periods; they are joining together to rally against child marriage and other harmful social practices. They have learned that the declaration of new policies by government is not enough, that there must be action – and, if not, that they must speak up.

The girls spoke so clearly to us about the rights they now know they have, whether for education, health, justice, or non-discrimination. They have organized “days of activism” against domestic violence, and when hearing about a rape in a town several hours away, they organized to argue for justice. They have reached out to journalists to discuss why the child marriage age should not be lowered from age 20. They are learning how to be entrepreneurs and have created savings groups. Perhaps most importantly, they have laid out clear visions for the future. They want girls (and other children) to have more education, better lives, good jobs in Nepal (rather than feeling the need to go abroad for work), and equal opportunity regardless of ethnic background or gender. They have asked their mothers about the dreams they had when they were teenagers, and then spoke of their own dreams and desire not to marry until they are between 20 and 25 years old. These young women know what they want – and they clearly articulate it.

I was especially impressed by the efforts of these youth leaders and their local civil society partners, such as Plan International Nepal and SAATHI, to advocate to and work with local government officials. We heard the deputy mayor of Kohalpur Municipality and leaders from Wards 12 and 13 lay out their strategies to end child marriage and human trafficking.

Particularly memorable was seeing the community radio journalist named Anu interview the chairman of Ward 12 and quiz him about his office’s efforts to end child marriage. She drilled in on the key question: has he allocated budget? By the end of the interview, he committed to making his Ward free of child marriage within a year. The chairman of Ward 13 was present, and he also asked for an opportunity to speak about the strategies of his Ward to overcome cultural obstacles and end child marriage – and he quickly added that he has allocated budget to support their efforts.

These young women are making a difference in their communities and playing roles vastly different than what I saw 45 years ago in Nepal. No longer are girls sitting quietly, hesitant to speak. Now, they feel the confidence to come together in networks and advocate for change, whether it is ending child marriage and human trafficking, expanding educational and job opportunities, or confronting climate change.

Seeing these remarkable young women – and how vastly different they are from the reticent teenage girls I saw 45 years ago – I can’t help but marvel about some of the extraordinary women I did have an opportunity to work with all those years ago. Knowing how much these women achieved in spite of the obstacles they faced, I feel very confident that today’s growing pool of young Nepali women will lead to a stronger and better Nepal. And I am proud that Plan International is supporting these champions of change.

Aug 15, 2019

Making Cairo Safer: Small Gestures Add Up

Around 20 million people currently live in Greater Cairo. And of these, about 60 percent live in what are best described as informal and very densely populated urban areas. Life in neighborhoods like Ezbet Khairallah, which we visited on a recent trip to Egypt, can be harsh, especially for children. Policing is light, public areas are not well lit, and safe spaces for children to play outside are rarely available. These factors, coupled with a large transient population, facilitate criminal behavior in these neighborhoods and create an unsafe environment, particularly for girls. Among the main concerns of both parents and girls in these neighborhoods is sexual harassment and assault.

In 2014, the Government of Egypt took the important step of issuing a decree making sexual harassment a crime. Until that time, Egyptian law did not have a definition for sexual harassment. Under the new laws, harassers face six months to five years in prison. 

The decree was welcomed by advocates in a country where a 2013 United Nations study showed nine out of 10 women experienced some form of sexual assault, ranging from minor harassment to rape. Sexual harassment is not unique to Egypt. According to a survey of global experts in 22 cities sponsored by Plan international, sexual harassment and assault is the number one safety risk facing girls and young women across the world.

In light of both the opportunity that the 2014 law created and the reality under which many girls in these informal neighborhoods were living, Plan International USA collaborated with Plan International Egypt to fund a program called Safer Cities for Girls. The program has been underway since 2014 and includes several components that are centered around supporting girls in the community to become agents of change, as they seek to transform their neighborhoods into safer places for all children.  

The Safer Cities for Girls project is a collaboration between Plan, UN-HABITAT, and Women in Cities International, created with the overarching goal of building safe, accountable, and inclusive cities with and for adolescent girls. In addition to programming in Cairo, Plan supports Safer Cities programming in Hanoi, Kampala, Delhi, Nairobi, Lima, Solomon Islands, Australia, and the United Kingdom. 

We met with Soad at Ezbet Khairallah. An eighth grader with a 300-watt smile who spoke animatedly through an interpreter, she had enough energy to power a small city. She told us how she became interested in a program that sought to provide girls in the community with information about their rights under the law and with advocacy and facilitation skills so they would feel capable of not just identifying community needs but addressing these needs with local authorities. That program? Safer Cities.

Safer Cities has launched a number of initiatives to make the neighborhood safer, all developed and led by the community in collaboration with the Community Development Association (CDA). Girls like Soad have helped mobilize the community to pick up garbage (heavily littered neighborhoods provide places to hide for those who wish to do harm) and advocate for infrastructure needs like a safe space for girls and boys to meet and play.  

Several of the Safer Cities initiatives include having boys and girls work and play together—not a commonplace occurrence in many conservative communities where work and play is often segregated by gender. Integrating boys and girls into common programs, while challenging social and cultural norms, is known to have important and positive influence in shaping how boys view and value girls and how girls learn to interact with boys. A few months ago, with the support of Plan, girls and boys in the community worked on soccer skills together and played a co-ed game, a major accomplishment because soccer, or football as it is known here, is seen as a “man’s sport.” 

One of the more interesting efforts to transform Ezbet Khairallah has been focused on the tuk-tuk drivers. Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled vehicles popular in communities like Ezbet Khairallah. Their shape makes it possible for the driver to take his (all tuk-tuk drivers are male) passengers through the narrow alleyways that characterize this community. But these men can also be the source of violence and aggression, and girls are often the most vulnerable to this behavior. With Plan’s support, the CDA and youth engaged this group of men through games and theater. The men even collaborated on a play about their dreams and hopes that the community attended. Treating the tuk-tuk drivers as a part of the community helped to create trust and began to change what had typically been a threatening and dysfunctional relationship. One theater event does not transform an entire cultural dynamic that all too often denigrates the values of women, but it is a start.

Soad sees the change with the tuk-tuk drivers and believes more change is possible. She does not feel powerless, for her possibilities are vast. When we asked Soad what she wants to be, she said she is still weighing options: actress, advocate, or politician. She is no longer a victim, but a girl who wants to see a better world and is working to make it a reality. Plan is engaging more than 700 youth in Ezbet Khairallah and nearby communities. They, in turn, are expected to engage with parents, teachers, peers, community leaders, and local authorities. The Safer Cities program aims to directly and indirectly touch more than 20,000 lives and help transform the prospects of the inhabitants of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods. 

Given the millions that live in communities like Ezbet Khairallah, you might say it’s a drop in the bucket. 

But it’s a start. 

May 14, 2019


Like many girls in Ethiopia, 11-year-old Anisa is responsible for the household chores in her family, including fetching water. But the burden of carrying such a heavy weight for long distances prevents her from going to school.

“I was not happy when my mother asked me to collect water from the river because it is too far and when I went to fetch it, which was pretty much every day, I had to miss my classes.”

As the eldest daughter in her family, the responsibility of collecting water falls to Anisa. Like many other girls in her village, she spent an average of four hours each day journeying on foot to fetch water from the river.

Anisa lives in a remote part of Oromia Region, which is frequently blighted by lack of water due to the changing climate and low levels of rainfall throughout the year. Families are also forced to share their water source with animals, leaving them at risk of diarrhea and other water-borne diseases.

Ethiopia relies on the main rainy season for 80 percent of its agricultural produce. But in 2015, the rains failed with devastating effect. Harvests were ruined, water sources ran dry, and millions of children were left dependent on food aid for survival.

“We didn’t even think about our sanitation,” Anisa said. “The situation was so serious that it just didn’t allow us to think about anything but surviving.”

Sadly, there was a water reservoir nearby that should have prevented the community from suffering such extreme water shortages. However technical failures meant it had stopped functioning.

But since the 2015 drought, things have been getting better. Plan International, in collaboration with the regional government, has repaired the water supply and upgraded the system by providing pumps, a generator, equipment, and technical support.

Now, Anisa no longer has to travel for hours each day in search of water and doesn’t miss her school classes.

“My wish is for water to be available forever as it is now,” she said. "Nothing stops me from going to school but the search for water. Now I also have time to play after school as a child should do.”

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