The Chance to be Free

India is enjoying widespread recognition for its impressive economic growth rates, its thousands of computer engineers, and hundreds of new billionaires. Yet, this country with a rich history and extraordinary potential is also home to the worst forms of poverty and devastating manifestations of human intolerance and cruelty. To be born a girl into an Indian family is to have the decks heavily stacked against you.

India is one of the few countries where males significantly outnumber females, an imbalance that has increased over time. The birth of a girl is viewed as a misfortune, and son-preference leads to a frightening pattern of neglect and active discrimination. Ironically, the increased prosperity of the Indian middle class has only deepened the trend as ultrasound technology is used to perform sex-selective abortions. The deaths of young girls in India exceed those of young boys by over 300,000 each year, and every sixth infant death results specifically from gender discrimination. Of the 15 million girls born in India each year, nearly 25 percent will not live to see their 15th birthday.

If a girl does survive her childhood, the low status she holds in her family and in society makes her among those most vulnerable to abuse. Journalist Lisa Ling's investigation into the lives of young girls sold into domestic servitude and sexual slavery is a searing exposé of India's harsh reality.

As someone who grew up in India with educated middle class parents, I know how glaring contradictions exist side-by-side in modern India. While the daughters of the newly prosperous wear designer jeans, and prepare to compete for admissions into Harvard and Yale, many of them have grown up in homes where girls spend their entire lives in service to the affluent. These girls are either sold by their parents or choose to flee the desperate poverty of their villages for the economic opportunities of large cities. For many girls the chance to eat twice a day, wear better clothes, and work to support themselves and their families, comes at a brutally high price.

Yet in the midst of this despair, local community-based organizations, often led by women who were once victims themselves, are shining a powerful ray of hope and possibility. At the Global Fund for Women, we have witnessed young women and girls stand up for their own rights, demanding a voice in critical decisions that affect their lives. Since 1987 the Global Fund has granted more than $3 million to hundreds of organizations working to end trafficking in 71 countries around the world.

Our grants to associations of domestic workers in Southern India help young girls like those interviewed in "Slave Girls of India" get their first chance at an education and provide free legal assistance.

In Nepal, where more than 100,000 young girls have been sold into India, I recently attended a historic gathering of over 500 young women and girls - all of them former victims of trafficking. The organizing group, Shakti Samukta, used a grant from the Global Fund to build a network among former victims to raise awareness about the conditions that force their families to sell their daughters. At the meeting in Kathmandu, the former sex slaves succeeded in getting senior ministers, law enforcement officials, and the media to attend their forum.

They have found their voice and seized their chance to be free. Can they count on you and me to stand with them?

Kavita N. Ramdas is the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.


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