All the items in my store I donate 10% of the profits to the http://apneaap.org/ which helps girls and women get an education, keep them safe from sex trafficking, as well as other fundamental necessities; medical, food, shelter, school supplies, provide protection.

I just got an email from them letting me know how much they appreciate my efforts, although it’s not a lot it’s something I can do to help girls and women get closer to the life I’m privileged to have. So if you’re reading this please check out their page the more people understand the hardships of girls and women in poverty struck areas and how easy it is to help them the better the lives of these girls and women will be. Give them the opportunity you were given.

What I’ve learned about unleashing the power of the Adolescent Girl

Oct 11 was the UN declared, “International Day of the Girl Child”. Everyone from FLOTUS to Aziz Ansari has given their two cents, tweeting about this including the #62milliongirls, citing the number of girls who aren’t even in school. This year’s theme is“The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030″, something I find especially close to my heart since it’s the adolescent age group of girls I most closely work with at Apne Aap. Here are my thoughts on what I think the girl child, especially adolescents, needs today (in no particular order):

1. They need a community that values and encourages their intelligence and skills, much more than their beauty. 

Yes, girls and women are absolutely beautiful. I often find myself admiring the beauty of other women more than men, because let’s be honest a lot of time we’re just better to look at. But during adolescence, a time when girls are already facing shockingly low levels of self-esteem, shining the limelight on their looks only causes them to further become self-conscious and lose focus on their education. 

Over 70% of girls age 15 to 17 avoid normal daily activities, such as attending school, when they feel bad about their looks. 

With the girls I work at Apne Aap, one of the first things they comment on every day is how all the women in the office look and what we’re all wearing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is very apparent that a majority of them have a fascination and obsession with the clothes and makeup, and very few have that same curiosity regarding what I studied or what I’m up to on my computer. 

Of course, adolescence isn’t a easy for boys either, but it is especially brutal for girls. It is also a make-or-break time with regards to education for many of the girls I work with. It is in this age group that I have seen the most number of dropouts, succumbing to family pressure and lack of motivation.

According to Searchlight, South Asia, although girls’ participation in secondary education drops off (grades 9-10), this reduction increases sharply in higher secondary education (grades 11-12).

Adolescent girls need lesser attention on their looks and more attention on appreciating what kind of person they are blooming into.

Balma is a fourteen-year old girl in the third grade who I get to hang out with everyday through Apne Aap. She dropped out of school many years ago but has recently been enrolled again after her father’s untimely death.  

Read more about Balma’s story here. 

2. Marriage needs to be stop being marketed and over-glorified as a status-gaining symbol.

When I was around 8 years old, I was already scribbling my name against various boys’ last names. I had learned very early on from bollywood movies, peers and hearsay that marriage was this epic event, a pinnacle of life, where everything changed for you as a woman, including your name. I remember staying awake at night imagining what my wedding would be like, much before my hormones had even started to kick in. This was my experience - someone who was born into privilege with a progressive family and access to a great education. This societal pressure combined with a stigmatized community, that are the de-notified tribes, lack of education and poverty has made me realize why marriage is something, the girls I work with, strive for. 

Recently, in a visit to the community we met a young girl who said she was about 20 years old and is going to get married in a few weeks. She hasn’t attended a day of school but is beaming at the thought of her wedding. Her relatively poor family has spent thousands and thousands on the wedding - it is a matter of pride. But the same pride has not been attached to her education.

In India, 47% of girls are married before the legal age of 18.

Instead of encouraging an obsession around getting married, girls need to be pressured to gain purpose and self-realization before they can think about a life partner. Not everyone is fit for marriage, not everyone is ready for marriage at the same time. 

Tanu, 14 and Sarla, 15 are pictured above. The girls had a photography workshop and they had been asked to pose as what they see would like to be in the future. They both posed as brides. Tanu was until recently a school dropout but has been re-enrolled. Sarla does not attend school, she takes care of her mother who is recovering from a surgery, and does housework. 

3. Society, especially their own families, needs to stop assuming that they are born with a penchant for housework and cooking

This is an area, I’m happy to say, is changing quite quickly but still deserves to be noted. Although even within my family, the older generation has stuck to gender roles of women taking care of the household even if they go to work, my generation has switched gears a little, and I’m seeing more and more men in the kitchen. But of course, in the community I work with, it is very much ingrained as a part of their culture. Women themselves detest the idea of leaving the house during the day and see it as a part of who they are regardless of whether it means losing out on income-making opportunities. When someone gets sick at home, it’s the girls who are taken out of school to take care of the house. 

Also, let’s stop over-glorifying the men who are entering kitchens and picking up broomsticks. Women have been doing it for ages, there’s nothing great about it. Recently I heard a male relative being called a “chef” because he can cook. I can cook too, but no one in the family has ever marvelled at my culinary skills… it’s also entirely possible I’m just a bad cook :(

4. They need access to pursuing whatever they may want to, even after the sun sets. 

The night time has been the cause of many arugments during my time in Delhi. It is largely seen as unsafe, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s almost as if we have all surrendered to the fact that this is a time that will not be available for women to roam around freely.

Many opportunities, dance classes  and events have had to be forgone by the girls I work with simply because they are barred from entering the night. Of course, this is a complicated issue since Delhi newspapers are filled with stories of serious threats to women’s safety, but it is almost as if that society as a whole has become a bit too comfortable restricting a woman’s free movement rather than focusing on fostering more inclusive men. Women must reclaim their right to a safe evening and night. 

Dimple, 12 posed as a dancer when she was asked what she sees herself as in the future at a photography workshop. She, along with a group of other girls, were enrolled in dance lessons at the renowned Shiamak dawar institute. Due to lack of support from home and worries that she’s coming home too late, she and the other girls had to stop going to the class. 

5. They need an upbringing that rewards them for being ambitious yet cautious risk-takers.

Making mistakes is a crucial indicator of future success. Something I’ve realized is that in some situations, being a woman restricts my opportunity to make mistakes.  For example, in my first week in Delhi, I took a cab from work but lost finding my way home. All hell ensued as my whole family went into panic mode imagining all sorts of crazy things that could happen to me but even within my own mind, I became extremely nervous just because I was slightly lost. I had only heard the worst about Delhi and subconsciously, I had become deathly scared of making mistakes. In this situation, making a mistake and getting lost could have resulted in me getting raped or kidnapped. For a boy, that is not as likely. Making mistakes can have much more adverse affects for a girl, she is constantly reminded of how it could even cost her her life. This so called “protective” measures by inducing fear ends up often limiting women and sometimes can bar them from the crucial experience of making mistakes. 

Girls need to be brought up to embrace mistakes and failure. If we truly want them to succeed and reach new heights, we need to be willing to trust them to bring themselves back up on their two feet.

6. They need every space to be accepting of  their bo$$ attitude, or be weird, or just be exactly who they are 

“Who run the world?” Khushi being an OG at Apne Aap office. 

There is a certain decorum expected of polite young ladies. Don’t talk too loud,don’t argue and always sit with your legs crossed. In the community I work with I have noticed a difference in the way girls act in their homes and at our centre. The centre is their free space, and here they are realest, weirdest, truest selves. At home, there are expectations of prescribed roles they will have to take in the household once they reach a certain age. 

It’s time to throw all those expectations in the trash and take each girl for exactly who they are. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Sunaina with a chocolate ice cream moustache

7. They need to be able to openly and freely talk about the fact that they bleed from their vaginas once in a month. It’s called having your period or menstruation. It’s not that big of a deal. 

I find it ridiculous that periods cannot be openly talked about with other men or women. There’s pee, poop and then there’s periods. It’s a part of woman’s anatomy and it is so bizarre that it has to be talked in hushed voices, never in the presence of men. I am part of this stigma myself, taking part in the secrecy, shoving my pad in my pants or in my shirt just to make the journey to the bathroom. 

But this stigma has serious consequences. 70% of Indian women still using old rags during their monthly period. 50% of men find it more embarrassing to buy a sanitary napkin than a condom. 55% of young boys find periods as intriguing as sex! I wrote at more length about this issue in an article for Youth Ki Awaaz. 

With the girls I work with, their period is something they shy away from discussing. Many of them have never used a pad but have been gaining access to them through their free availability at government schools. 

Girls from Apne Aap at a Sulabh International’s sanitary-napkin making facility. Here they got a short briefing about the importance of using sanitary napkins and changing them regularly. They also saw how Sulabh makes low-cost sanitary napkins. Sulabh gives these sanitary napkins for free to women and girls in school. 

8. They urgently need, not just access, but a community and environment that considers their education important and essential.  

Something that’s been harshly reinforced for me during the past few months is that education, even just a mediocre one, is still a HUGE privilege. Basic education should ideally be a birthright for every person to pursue their passion. But that is far from the reality. 

Another rarely talked about topic with education is that enrollment in a school is only the beginning of the battle. When there is no motivation or pressure from family or surrounding community on the importance of school, enrollment has little meaning because the student will probably not be very successful. This lack of determination and ambition that is widespread among the girls I work with, even among the brightest ones. That’s where I think organizations such as Apne Aap are essential because they take the place of a support system that is necessary to make enrollment something meaningful and impactful. Of course there is also the whole issue of the growing disparity in education levels across socioeconomic classes. But at the basic level there needs to be a heightened awareness among elders of the community regarding the benefits of a commitment towards continuous education. 

This is Juhi, who has an unbelievably inspiring story of growing up in a poor red-light area in Bihar. This photo was taken at the Delhi airport before her departure to USA on an Apne Aap supported english learning summer program. She was even covered by local news in the states.

Three pictures above were taken at Harijan Sevak Sangh, a school started by Gandhiji for the “untouchables” whom he called harijans or “children of god”. Today the free school and hostel is open to all those of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. 

Personally I think the good part in all of these “realizations” are that these are things people generally agree with and want to see happen in the world. But I think it helps to lay it all out there so we can all use all of our brilliant minds for innovative solutions to a more feminine friendly world. The stats are all out there on why it’s so important if we truly want a more vibrant world. And it helps men too! More celebration of feminine = less expectation on men to be traditionally “masculine” all the time = more space for everyone to be themselves.


This is Kaya, she has been forced to work as a prostitute in #Sonagachi which is Asias largest #redlight district. In the heart of #Kolkata. There are believed to be close to 11 thousand sex workers there. Many of which have been sold into it. Kaya’s life started out pretty normal she went to school and got married between her husband and her they made enough money to do alright. Then her husband lost his job. He started drinking and abusing Kaya. Eventually she took the two small kids and left. A woman she knew promised her work in kolkota but before she really knew what happened that woman sold her to a pimp. She was beaten and forced into prostitution. Her debt to the pimp is close to 1K US dollars. She has been working to pay it off. In the meantime she has been getting support and help from #apneaap she teaches children and talks to university students about her life. She is smart, beautiful and funny. Her husband has her little girl and she knows she may never see her again. She has her boy and is doing everything she can to make sure he has a better life. #endslavery #inourlifetime #davidgoldmanphoto #portrait #photojournalist @canonusa @xpphotogear @manfrottoimaginemore @jobyinc @fredatfotocare @fotocarenyc

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This is Jannati she is the daughter of a prostituted woman and was born into a #denotified tribe in #Bihar she was at risk of getting caught in a cycle of abuse, prostitution and poverty but thanks the #apneaap she is attending a private school called #kgbv. #saved #empowered #endslavery #inourlifetime #davidgoldmanphoto @xpphotogear @canonusa #portrait @fredatfotocare @fotocarenyc (at simaraha, bihar)

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This is Kalum he lives in #forbesganj in the state of #bihar just about 16 km from the Nepal border with #india. He was born into a #denotified tribe to a prostituted mother. He has been abused, stabbed and arrested. Now he is an advocate for the community and works for #apneaap oh and he is a lawyer now. (at Forbesganj Junction)

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