Teaching Girls to Be Chefs and Changing Their Lives in Rural China

Although China leads the world in innovative strategies to address poverty, the reality is that China holds a fifth of the world's population. Because of this massive population, gaps still exist. For example, many girls from traditional minority groups are still missing out on education. Sadly, some families see little value in investing in their girls. And so girls, especially the eldest, can find themselves pulled from school and relegated to the job of working around home to keep their siblings in school or care for aging grandparents while their parents work jobs in the city.

Things have improved dramatically over the years, but the reality is that many young women in rural China find themselves with little or no education to speak of. Illiterate, low in social status, and with no option other than hoping for marriage to a good husband, these young women face the daunting question of "what now?"

Captivating International, a charity based in Hong Kong, hopes to help bridge this gap.

Since 2008, Captivating International has been helping girls and young women in China, and in more recent years expanded their work into Nepal, and Kenya. Their work covers a variety of programs, including border monitoring stations that exist to stop girls from becoming victims of human trafficking, providing health education and medical inspections to nomadic and semi-nomadic remote communities, and providing scholarships to keep girls in school. Captivating International's newest project is aimed at girls who are past school age and are still largely illiterate. Called "MY FIRST JOB" the program is an intensive skills-based program that teaches girls to cook, with the goal of transitioning them into their first paid job as assistant chefs.

Captivating's Director Andrew Colquhoun explains more about the program that aims to provide these girls with a better future by teaching them to cook.

How did you get the idea for the MY FIRST JOB program?

Andrew Colquhoun: For 10 years we've implemented programs aimed at keeping children in school for longer. Most solutions are long-term scholarships. Since 2012, Captivating has progressively become more involved in projects aimed at improving the economic situation of entire remote villages - practical solutions aimed at sustainably increasing the annual incomes of families so they can address their own problems. This has seen us involved in exciting initiatives such as Greenhouses, Pig Farms, Solar Panels, connecting villages to a clean water supply etc.

Last year, our project partners were involved in over 50 villages with Captivating funded programs. When you see that many villages, you start seeing needs. "Gaps" we simply call them. We could see a clear trend that most villages would have several older girls, 15+ years of age, working the family farm or sitting relatively idle in the village. Our first instinct was to think that these girls had, like many, failed to progress past Grade 9 (where compulsory and free education is offered by the government). In these situations, the government has some wonderful and progressive initiatives being rolled out. However, what we found was that there were pockets of girls scattered around that had hardly set foot in a school, or, at most, had completed just one or two years of school. Consequently, they were illiterate. Although it's possible things can work out ok for these girls, the reality is these girls are trapped - stuck in a gap, and fully dependent on someone else giving them a lucky break. Schooling was not an option - these girls needed a practical solution. MY FIRST JOB was born.

What kinds of things will they learn?

A. C. The girls will receive intensive cooking instruction by qualified chefs. This will include hygiene practices, basic cooking and prep, weights and measures, basic reading, and math. They will also learn basic skills on how to manage money, budget costs and expenses to see how to make a living. We hope to sow some seeds into them maybe thinking about their own restaurant in the future.

Most critical to the training are basic life skills--confidence, presentation, punctuality, dependability, and perseverance.


Who are the participants, and how are they chosen?

A. C. The participants are 16+yr old illiterate girls with little or no education who need to get work. They are deemed the poorest and at the lowest level within their respective villages. They are selected on the basis of their impoverished position and desire for a change. Importantly, this is not a free gift to these girls. They are expected to repay the training expenses to Shamtse--one of our registered Chinese Charity partners implementing this program--over a two-year working period. In this way the program will become self-sustaining. Most girls are very willing to do this, knowing that by repaying their tuition costs these funds will be used to help another girl in the future.

Is there a market for assistant chefs in China? Why?

A. C. Restaurant work is one of the most opportunistic areas. It is the starting point for many girls, many of whom have finished high school, some even university. However, it also has incredibly high turnover. Restaurants are looking for assistant chefs who will hopefully stay around for a while. They pay reasonably well and can also open many other doors. We believe these girls, if they can master the basic skills, especially life skills, will do very well in this industry. We already have a network of restaurateurs willing to offer paid internships in the hopes these girls remain with them for several years.

How do you expect participating in this program will change these young women's lives?

A. C. After this training these girls will be mentored into their first job. Track forward a few years and they will be more confident, and independent. Upon returning to their village, they will be significantly different from the girl that left - not viewed as the lowest level in the village society - uneducated, ready to be married off.

Make no mistake, this will be tough for them, but in a few years' time these girls will be experienced at restaurant work, and will be making a good living - much higher than would otherwise have been possible. They will be well above the poverty line, and able to send money back to their families. All of this builds their status, personal resolve, and independence. We could give these girls aid, but that would be a short-term solution. Instead, MY FIRST JOB will give them skills, opportunity, autonomy, and the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families.