Survivors Lead the Fight Against Sexual Exploitation

Two weeks ago, I visited Tanya at her new home: her college dorm. Tanya once thought that college wasn’t in the cards for her —she didn’t believe she could find a community where she would fit in. When we first met Tanya, she was a fourteen-year-old survivor of sexual exploitation. She had been commercially exploited by men who believed that she was a commodity that they could use and throw away. Her community saw her as a “bad kid”. Tanya felt judged and worthless.

When Tanya met her Survivor Mentor, Ann, she wasn’t convinced that we could help. She felt alone and profoundly angry—she had every right to be. She had been victimized by a multibillion dollar industry that systematically targets the most vulnerable children in our communities.

Now four years later, Tanya is a strong, proud young woman. She graduated high school with the rest of her peers last year and was given a four year scholarship to a top university. She knows that what happened to her was not her fault—that she is neither damaged nor worthless. She believes in her heart that her Mentor cares for her, wants the best for her, and has full faith in her. She has found her voice and sees herself as a leader in the movement to end exploitation. She has been an active member of our Leadership Corps, and is someone other girls in our program look up to.


My Life, My Choice strives to help survivors of sexual exploitation like Tanya find their voice, their place, their strength and their resilience. Our Survivor Mentor program is the core of a continuum of services we offer. Youth survivors, as well as those that are deemed to be at high risk for exploitation, receive one on one support for as long as they need it. We have served girls since our founding in 2002 and last spring launched a pilot program for boys and transgender youth. My Life My Choice is a nationally recognized survivor-led organization working to stem the tide of commercial sexual exploitation of adolescents. As of July 2014, we have trained over 7,000 youth providers, led prevention groups for more than 1,750 girls and mentored over 300 girls in the Greater Boston area.

As we walked through her dorm, Tanya pointed to different doors where her new friends lived. She told me about the incredible food in the cafeteria, her really nice roommate, her own messy side of her dorm room, and how great her public speaking class is. I left homemade cookies, pizza money, and a card from all the staff telling her how much we all love her. Tanya deserves this and so much more. Every young person does.

Like Tanya, there are countless girls who are commercially sexually exploited every day. Like Tanya, they need compassion, support, faith, and opportunity to become the next generation of leaders in the fight to end exploitation.


About the blogger:
Lisa has been working with vulnerable young people in a variety of capacities for almost twenty-five years. Her professional experience includes running a long-term shelter for homeless teen parents, developing a diversion program for violent youth offenders, and working in outpatient mental health, health promotion, and residential treatment settings. She has served as a consultant to the Massachusetts Administrative Office of the Trial Court’s “Redesigning the Court’s Response to Prostitution” project, and as a primary researcher on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services national study of programs serving human trafficking victims. She has served as the Co-Chair of the Training and Education Committee of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, and is currently the Chair of the Training and Education Implementation Subcommittee.

Celebrate Women’s Empowerment Across the Globe with a Bracelet

I was teaching English in Thailand when I decided to travel to Cambodia to see the famous temples of Angkor Wat — a magical city of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples built 1,000 years ago. I was mesmerized by the craftsmanship and spirituality of the incredible Khmer culture, and fell in love with the warmth and wisdom of the people who live today in the “Kingdom of Wonder”.

Swollen with love, I was struck to the core when I learned that 90% of the artists in Cambodia were killed in the 1970s genocide, along with one-third of the population. A once flourishing culture was decimated, leaving behind a sea of sweatshops and impoverished farms, and very little opportunity to build a better life – especially for women. Worse still, I learned, is the prevalence of human trafficking, which claims an estimated 30 million victims across the globe, and thousands in Cambodia alone where poverty is rampant and opportunities for a dignified job are rare, and often fraught with the danger and manipulation of false promises.

Heartbroken by the reality of the challenges for women across the globe, I picked up a copy of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, eager to educate myself on the difficult realities. Sharing stories from my travels and from this book to people in my life was difficult – even the most sensitive, highly educated of my friends seemed to go a bit numb when I tried to talk about issues of global poverty and modern day slavery. It was too sad, too far away, too irrelevant even.

I yearned to connect with women back home on a deeper level – to paint a picture for them of what I had seen: The beauty and the struggle, and most of all the incredible opportunity for change.

I grew up in my family’s jewelry store, watching the connection that’s formed between an artisan who makes a piece by hand, and a woman who wears that piece on her skin.  I began to wonder if I could use jewelry as a medium to employ artisans in the East, while sparking vital conversations with women in the West.

I returned to Cambodia with the dream of launching The Brave Collection, but began with just one piece: A bracelet co-created by myself and a talented team of Cambodian artisans, that says “Brave” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia.


Today, The Brave Collection is a social business that works to celebrate bravery and empower women across the globe. We provide job opportunities to fair-trade artisans who receive benefits like health insurance and stipends for children’s schooling, and we donate 10% of profits to groups that are fighting human trafficking by supporting survivors or providing creative education and leadership development to girls and women in hopes that they will never be put at risk.


Join us to create a beautiful Back to School for girls from East to West, as we campaign to give more girls across the globe the opportunity for the creative education that will make them Brave, strong, and confident.


About the blogger:

Jessica Hendricks is the founder of The Brave Collection. Hendricks graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and has been dubbed a Millennial Innovator by MTV and invited to participate in the Tory Burch Foundation’s mentoring series for female entrepreneurs. Connect with The Brave Collection via, FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

From India to DC: A Changemaker in the Making

I have always fantasized about the thought of representing my country for a cause that I’m truly passionate about. My calling has been in the realm of human rights, child rights advocacy and gender justice, but my initiatives have developed only to the extent of the local level – in my community, neighborhood, and various universities and colleges. Never did I imagine that the opportunity to experience my dream would arrive so early in my life’s journey!


Yet the responsibility of discussing women’s leadership from a South Asian perspective on an international level made me feel overwhelmed. Did I fully understand the complex interaction of identities in a diverse nation like India – where women do not constitute a homogenous category but are in constant negotiation with their caste, class, region, and religion? Did I know enough about India to comprehend the different dynamics behind why women still conform to institutions and intimate relationships that suppress their freedom of expression? How different was my experience from those of women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zambia, Morocco, Mongolia, or the United States?

Participating in the institute, in association with the University of Kansas, helped me evolve as a person by becoming far more confident and sensitive to differences that result in marginalization. During this six-week session, I was able to interact with some of the finest women from across the globe, which helped me realize that there are young change-makers everywhere who empathize with my mission no matter what environment they come from.

The struggle to access equal rights for women is sadly a common issue that resonates with all of us in the 21st century. The factors that distinguish the so-called ‘developed’ nations from ‘developing’ ones are inconsequential in the arena of women’s rights. Nonetheless, this experience made me optimistic about the change that youth can bring in their own way. The future is in safe hands of strong, young women who I believe shall determine the path of tomorrow.

I strongly believe that every individual can pursue change through acts of leadership. Engaging in leadership is a life-long process, rather than a position of authority. I was fortunate to develop a ‘Leadership for Change’ presentation at the institute that advocates for the rights of young girls abandoned by their families in India due to their gender. It was a thrilling moment to captivate the audience with my message, as I began by quoting Mr. Kristof’s on what is currently referred to as ‘gendercide’:

“More girls were killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men killed in all the wars in the 20th century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

Ultimately, I have come to realize that the messages that government leaders sustain between nation states may not resonate with the sentiments that citizens hold for each other. We need to advocate for a universal vision of peace, rather than becoming passive recipients to the politics of exclusion and hatred.

I was fortunate to receive encouragement from Half the Sky Movement as a Campus Ambassador and a Social Media Intern (India). It wouldn’t have been possible to build my initiative that advocates for girl-child rights without the support offered through the Half the Sky Movement Action Grant. I hope to continue my engagement to uphold the vision the movement inspires–“Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide…”

About the Blogger
Arpita is a Half the Sky Movement Campus Ambassador in New Delhi, India at Lady Shri Ram College For Women, and a Social Media Intern. To find out more about the Campus Ambassador Program click here.

Don’t Forget Your Vitamins: Vitalizing Worldwide

Think about this: What if you couldn’t learn, walk, or see? These are three fundamental abilities that Americans take for granted. Yet all of these things are affected when you don’t get enough vitamins. The child pictured below, for example, suffers from corneal scarring, caused by a Vitamin A deficiency. She may not be able to see for the rest of her life. And she’s not alone: Vitamin A deficiencies affect 250 million children worldwide. image 250 million is an enormous number — so big that it’s difficult to grasp. So let’s put that number into perspective: 250 million children is every single child in the United States… multiplied by 3. If you did nothing but count those children — counting one child every second — you’d need eight years to count all 250 million. For so many people in the world, the die is cast before they even turn five. Vitamin deficiencies have a lifetime effect. In the United States, vitamins are a multi-million dollar industry. ($23 billion, to be exact.) On the African continent, vitamin deficiency is a multi-million crippler. And so two years ago, I began to create my own social venture, VitaLives — a public benefit company aimed at reducing worldwide childhood malnutrition. Looking to the success of TOMS Shoes as an inspiration, I thought that their one-to-one model might also work in the vitamin industry: with every vitamin purchased by an American consumer, VitaLives donates similar micronutrients to malnourished children around the world. VitaLives vitamins are gluten free, low in sugar, low in carbs, and still provide the same complete vitamin coverage as the leading children’s brand, Flintstones; but they are “healthier,” because each purchase supports two lives, not one. Working with NGOs on the ground, and within native norms and culture, VitaLives not only provides micronutrients, it also educates children about the importance of the vitamins they’re receiving. This venture ultimately seeks to manufacture and distribute our products through local channels to strengthen, not uproot, local economic activity. This summer, VitaLives undertook its first “Vitamin Drop” in the Amazon River basin of Peru. Working with Latitud Sur, which operates a medical boat on the Amazon that distributes medical supplies to local families, we gave 11,000 vitamins to children in five rural communities near Iquitos, Peru. image-2 In September, VitaLives will participate in its first U.S. Vitamin Drop at a community food pantry in Chicago. We’re also planning two more “drops” before the year ends, one in Haiti (with Mission of Hope, a clinic set up to provide meals and nutritional supplements to Haitian orphanages), and one in the Soweto township in Johannesburg, South Africa (in partnership with the Kliptown Youth Program). Please visit Together, let’s vitalize our world. Nutrition for one; strength for another. One for one.


About the blogger:

VitaLives founder Henry Belcaster is a high school student who lives in Oak Park, Illinois. Last year, the Harvard Business School, in partnership with Ashoka (one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurship organizations), selected the VitaLives initiative as one of only nine ventures to participate in an international five-month business incubator program. Contact Henry and VitaLives via Facebook and Twitter.

What’s the Surprising Reason for Penina’s Absences from School?

What can cause a girl to miss up to 50 days of school per year?

Believe it or not, it’s because of something so small that most of us never think about it: a menstrual pad. When we met Penina, a secondary student in Rwanda, she explained that, “I can’t go to school when I don’t have pads. This causes me to miss school, which is something important to my future.”

Penina is not alone: the impact of menstruation on girls and their participation in school is significant. Half of the 500 girls and women we surveyed are missing school due to menstruation. The main reason given is that sanitary pads are too expensive. For women, 24% miss work–up to 45 days per year–for the same reason. In Rwanda, like many places in Africa, a package of pads costs more than an average day’s wages of $1.50 per day.

This is also a global issue. UNICEF estimates that 1 in 10 African girls do not attend school during menstruation. Schoolgirls in Ghana and India reported that they miss school each month because of menstruation. Girls can miss up to 50 days per year because they lack access to affordable menstrual pads when they menstruate.

Those days missed can adversely affect girls’ learning potential later on in life too. Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) estimates that a lack of affordable menstrual pads costs the GDP $115 million per year in Rwanda alone.

Health and Hygiene Advocacy | Schools | Students 3_low-res

Lack of access to affordable pads is only part of the problem, we also learned that girls learn little to nothing about puberty and menstruation. Girls also lack access to clean and private toilets, soap, and clean water while menstruating at school. As a result, girls feel ashamed and embarrassed while menstruating and the cycle of shame continues.

At SHE, we believe in investment over charity: That’s why our first initiative, SHE 28, gets right to the heart of our mission.

Here’s how it works:

Banana farmers in Rwanda throw away tons of fiber every year. We provide them with equipment and training, so that they can process it and sell it to us.

We take it to our pad factory in Rwanda, where our 12 entrepreneurial staff cut it, card it, wash it, fluff it and solar dry it.

Ngoma Production Site | Factory | Collage 2

Then the banana fiber is ready to be made into menstrual pads. Our pads, which we also refer to as the LaunchPad, contain none of the chemicals found in standard commercial pads.

For this reason, our LaunchPads are at an affordable price-point to schools and given to girls who need them.

Education, health, jobs, sustainability – we think it’s straight up common sense.

Because when we get right down to it, the idea that a girl would miss school because she has her period is complete nonsense.

If that’s not ok with you either, think about joining our #smallthings campaign. Become a SHE Champion and lend your voice. Let the world know that investing in a small thing like a menstrual pad can make big changes for girls. Don’t be late, PERIOD.


About the blogger:

Connie Lewin is Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships at Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). Connect with SHE on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and at

Successful Ugandan Tailor Helps Mend the Fabric of Her Torn Country

Angela Adeke

Guerrilla group leader Joseph Kony’s unspeakable atrocities threw Uganda into darkness for decades. Thousands of women and about 65,000 children and youth were kidnapped. Some were used for sex slaves and soldiers. Schools were systematically destroyed, beginning with schools for girls. Thousands were killed, and about two million people were displaced. But now, Ugandan women, such as tailor-turned-entrepreneur Angela Adeke, are rising up with so much light and determination, the whole world is watching. Six years ago, Adeke struggled to survive and provide for her children, working as a farmer, labor, and sometimes seamstress. At the same time, she was anxious to enroll her children in school. But administrators scorned her and chased her away when they learned she couldn’t even afford uniforms. Dismayed but not defeated, 37-year-old Adeke turned that shameful moment into a shining business opportunity.

With the support of San Carlos, CA-based nonprofit Village Enterprise, Adeke received training and a small $150 grant to buy cloth and training to invest in her tailoring business. Adeke began her business by proudly sewing her children’s school uniforms. Since then, in a success story that reads like a Hollywood movie, Adeke went on to sew uniforms for 4,000 other children at four schools in Ngora, one of Uganda’s poorest districts. Two of Adeke’s children are in a top boarding school, one in a regular school. Adeke also supports and educates two of her brother’s orphaned children. The schools that once shunned women like her? “Now, I go to the schools and lobby for business. I am strong and confident. I can walk into any office and ask for work and negotiate a good payment.” After Adeke was trained in business skills by Village Enterprise, she purchased five sewing machines and created a school to mentor and train about 40 other women as tailors. She moved from a grass-thatched house to a three-bedroom home and built her parents a home.

Now, Adeke’s annual revenues include:
· School uniforms tailoring: $12,500
· Teaching tailoring students: $375
· Farming Groundnuts ($416); Cassava  ($250) and Maize ($333)
· Mending and sewing clothes for others: $2,900

She found remarkable entrepreneurial success in a region that was devastated in 2003 when Kony’s soldiers swept into Ngora and neighboring Soroti districts, and where many still live on less than $2 a day. “I feel great, and it makes me want to continue doing a good job,” Adeke said. “We eat a balanced diet, have decent clothing, and bedding. I purchased a plot of land in town where I hope to have another tailoring school.”


Angela Adeke and her daughter

Adeke’s business is promising as Uganda works hard to get children into school after decades of neglect and high illiteracy. Some classrooms in her district have up to 120 students, so uniforms are in high demand. “One school has been my client for five years. Because of my training, I’m able to use good business language to keep my clients, apply my skills in keeping records, and make informed decisions,” she said. Adeke’s rise as one of the rare, female business leaders in patriarchal Uganda is admirable, considering that 75 percent of trade businesses are dominated by male employees, according to the Women and Girls Empowerment Project. “It gives me great joy to stand as a woman, not begging, but helping others and playing a role in changing the world in which I live,” said Adeke. “It gives me greater joy to see others come up, especially women from my community, because it seems that today in our society, women are playing a critical role in helping their families. Helping make that happen is my greatest pleasure.” Indeed, after Kony’s rampage of terror, many women are still traumatized and afraid. But Adeke found her voice–along with her savvy business skills.

She says she is grateful she didn’t let her circumstances crush her chances to be a change agent for all women. “I plan to make sure my children and the orphans under me become influential people in society,” Adeke asserted. With Village Enterprise’s savings program, Adeke is saving each month. Operating in Kenya and Uganda, Village Enterprise’s poverty alleviation program includes a yearlong business, financial literacy, and conservation training program, $150 grants, ongoing business mentoring and evaluation, and Business Savings Groups. A pioneer in the microenterprise development field, Village Enterprise has started more than 29,000 businesses, trained more than 130,000 business owners and helped lift more than 600,000 people out of extreme poverty in rural Uganda and Kenya. According to Village Enterprise CEO, Dianne Calvi, based on the size of families in the areas in which the nonprofit works, each new business increases the standard of living for, on average, 20 people.

About the blogger

Susan Skog is the author of “The Give-Back Solution: Create a Better World with Your Time, Talents, and Travel” and a nonprofit consultant that champions humanitarian organizations addressing extreme poverty, injustices, and conflicts across the developing world. Trained as a journalist, Skog has captured stories of Ugandan women reclaiming their lives in the wake of Joseph Kony’s atrocities.