"What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do as well."
-- Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton
I have a 12-year-old daughter, Lily. I remember standing in the hallway of Lenox Hill Hospital just after she was born, rocking her in my arms. I liked to hum the Gilligan's Island theme to her. I hoped it would calm her down. Or maybe it was meant to calm me down.
Lily was tiny, off-the-charts tiny, the kind of tiny where you can't imagine her being anything but tiny. Now she's almost as tall as her mom and she texts me her requests: "what time r u picking me up?" If all goes well, she'll be getting her black belt in karate this year. She's fierce, my Lily.
When I first visited Kolkata in 2011, I thought of Lily constantly. I came with America Ferrera and Nick Kristof as they were filming a segment of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and we spent most of our time in the Kalighat section of Kolkata -- more specifically, in an alleyway leading to the Hooghly River. Girls Lily's age in hand-me-downs rushed past me, gabbing in Bengali the way Lily and her friends gab in English, talking about God-knows-what with the kind of intent focus that told me whatever it was, was important.
Down by the river, boys played cricket while mounds of garbage flowed by like an endless conveyor belt and pigs slept on the far banks. The water was thick-looking, muddy grey, and on hundred degree days like these, boys dove and splashed and kicked the way any boys would. The way my son Eli would. I asked my friend Urmi Basu if the boys in Kolkata had some sort of acquired immunity to whatever germs grew in the Hooghly. No, she said, they just get sick a lot.
Eli's nine and sports a Mohawk. He'll get his black belt next year, most likely, when he's ten. When he gets sick, we take him to the doctor, and so far, it's all worked out.
But my mind was mostly on Lily that trip, and the trip after. We were there to film in and around New Light, a facility founded by my friend Urmi in a red-light district in Kolkata. Urmi and her team at New Light care for hundreds of children, the children of the area's sex workers. They provide them with shelter, educational opportunities, healthcare, recreational facilities, and really good food. Way better than the Indian takeout we're used to in Brooklyn. Urmi works within the community to provide income opportunities and legal aid for former sex workers, and she's their tireless advocate in matters big and small.
Urmi told us that most of girls in the neighborhood would eventually themselves become sex workers if no one interfered -- that was the predictable future, and what got her out of bed in the morning. I personally watched Urmi plead with a 10 year old's mother to let her stay in school in Kolkata, rather than be sent back to the small village where she was likely to be sold to a trafficker.
Lily was 10 at the time, too. I called her late at night and she quizzed me on the time difference. It's midnight here, sweetie, and before I could even finish my sentence she shouted "2:30!" She talked to me about Social Studies and an upcoming karate tournament. Her biggest worry was about downloading the new One Direction album.
I hung up the phone with a pit in my stomach. Nick Kristof says we've won the "lottery of life." It's the lottery of life that has Lily wondering about a boy band and her French test and not whether she's going to be trafficked. Kristof says that along with having won this lottery comes an obligation. It's easy to forget this obligation -- hell, it's even easy to forget that we've won the lottery, to fool ourselves into thinking we caused our good fortune. I worked hard for this iPod. But hard work or not, my kids are safe, they're getting a good education, they see a doctor when they need to. They're not in any danger of being sold.
It's women like Urmi who are seeing to it that no one need suffer that fate. Urmi's work in Kolkata has inspired women throughout India and around the world to be powerful forces for change. Through her work, girls who would have otherwise been trafficked are instead being educated and becoming future community leaders. Kids are getting vaccinated and are staying in school. Former prostitutes with no means to earn an income are making a living selling handicrafts. New programs include a shelter for battered women and a home for at-risk boys modeled after New Light's groundbreaking Soma Home for girls. Urmi is causing a whole new future for Kalighat and for all of Kolkata.
But the world needs more extraordinary women like Urmi, women who are leading the charge -- creating new futures of empowerment and wellbeing, for millions worldwide.
That's why I was excited to hear that Half the Sky is partnering with the Skoll Foundation, Huffington Post, and CrowdRise to create the RaiseForWomen Challenge.
The RaiseForWomen Challenge is creating a world with more women leaders, by helping women-focused nonprofits worldwide gain resources and recognition. By empowering women, we can create a whole new future for the planet. Half the Sky has identified "oppression of women and girls as the defining struggle for the 21st century" and is dedicated to "turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide."
Visiting Kalighat, I'd never been so present to the luck of my own birth -- and that of my daughter and son -- and the privilege we enjoy that so many others do not.
By supporting the RaiseForWomen Challenge, we have an opportunity to make a difference for those who are not so fortunate -- by supporting the thousands of women like Urmi Basu who are out there in their communities transforming the planet. Please sign up for the Challenge and invest in women who are changing the world.