One ordinary morning, as I sipped my warm coffee and drowsily listened to reports about all of the various international tragedies that were destroying our planet and people, I received an online message from a friend that directed me to the above website. My friend wanted to know what I thought about the program, as it had recently been touted in the media as a great success.
I opened the website, and was greeted by a video asking me to experience the sensation of buying a girl. No, my friend had not sent me a link to a child prostitution ring, but rather it was a non-profit organization that was in fact trying to ‘save’ these females from being sold into sex slavery. The video suggested that if I did not ‘buy’ these girls, someone else would. As my caffeine began to kick in, and I browsed the website, to be assaulted at every angle by gross generalizations, misinformation and the simplification of a vastly complex issue, I became extremely angry.
Usually these types of projects easily angered me. However, the months of January and February in Canada, are those of freezing temperatures, grey skies and a general feeling of sluggishness. The winter often stunts internal response to outside stimuli, and therefore my strong emotional response took me by surprise. Since no one was present to listen to my dismay, I decided to send a letter to The Girl Store. Both my letter and their (completely inadequate) response are posted below.
Dear the Girl Store,
I was recently directed to your website from a friend who had stumbled upon it through jezebel.com (http://jezebel.com/5745169/the-girl-store-wants-you-to-buy-a-girl-her-life-back). I understand your intentions are to improve the conditions of females in Indian, however I find the information on your website promotes ignorance and in the long term will be detrimental to these females. I have reviewed non-profit organizations’ representations of the developing world for my academic work, and have never encountered a website campaign with such a lack of information. Also, my mother’s side of the family came to Canada from Calcutta when she was 15 years old, and I therefore find this personally offensive.
‘”The Indian girl grows up in a society where sons are idolized and daughters are mourned. So if she even makes it out of the womb, 750,000 girls are aborted every year, she is destined to live a life as a lower class citizen. During childhood her brother will get new shoes, clothes and books to learn while she’ll get a broom. Her brother will go off to school, and she’ll stay at home and do chores. In her teenage years, her brother will be well fed and she’ll be left to fend for herself”’.
Referring to an ‘Indian girl’ like they are homogenous entity is dangerous. You are clearly aware of the vast diversity in Indian females, whether class, ethnicity or regional. North Americans do not have this same understanding. We understand India through ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or World Vision commercials, where children run around in landfills. You are adhering to these stereotypes and presenting us with a utterly simplistic representation of an ‘Indian girl’.
The vast generalization that sons are idolized and daughters are mourned is unreasonable. Of course this happens in some households, as it does in MANY other societies. My grandmother and her brother, became orphans at a young age in Calcutta. My grandmother was able to stay in school, find a job and eventually bring her children to Canada. Her brother was not able to do the same and endured many hardships in a country that ‘idolizes him’. This may be a unique case, but your gross generalization would lead people to think my family’s situation is non-existent. You are disregarding families that work hard to educate both their daughters and sons, and treat them as equal members of society. Equating the issue of male idolization to an Indian problem that happens in every household is wrong and feeds on stereotypes that many North Americans will happily consume (which is probably why you are relying on it).
‘So if she even makes it out of the womb’…
I understand you are trying to be provocative in order to solicit donations from an ignorant population but you really need to rethink the use of this statistic. 750 000 abortions every year out of a population of more than 1 billion is not all that high. In 2008 in the United States, there were 1.2 million abortions, out of country with 307 million people. I am not arguing we should disregard the abortion of females. It is your suggested that this is an Indian problem, that is angering. Twisting these statistics to make your donors feel pity on these females will perpetuate an image of Indian society that is misconstrued and extremely simplistic.
I have mapped trends in non-profit organizations, and have noticed that many are trying to escape the ‘make westerners feel pity’ concept. Many non-profits have realized that this sort of marketing strategy results in westerners’ negative perceptions of specific parts of the world and people. In the end, when westerners do not have a well rounded idea about the country and people they are wanting to help, they turn to methods of development that are inadequate and hazardous.
North Americans’, and more generally westerners’, altruistic actions have often failed overseas. While a combination of factors contribute to these failures, a lack of understanding of the society if often one of them. When organizations trying to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups promote ignorance, it is no wonder we are so often unable to address systemic issues that may result in sustainable change.
Are you okay with your campaign saying:
• Females in Indian are worse off than males (do you not want to speak about class differences, regional differences, historical processes that contributed to this)
• Indians are not capable of addressing this issue (do you really need North Americans to do this? Are you relying on old ideas of development? What message is having your store in New York sending?)
• It is material items that will bring these girls back to life? (do prostitutes and abused females not need counselling and rehabilitation more than shoes?)
I am not contending that educating these females is not what should be done. My grandmother was able to be successful because as an orphan she was allowed to stay in school. However, it disgusts me that if she was in the same situation today she could have been placed on a website, in a demure tragic pose, and been brought back to life by the purchasing power of a North American. It is the way you are presenting and selling this issue that I find extremely problematic and offensive.
If you do genuinely want to help these females, you should allow their complexities to come through in your advertisements. Each female comes from a different family and background, and she has her own story. If you are attempting to help a specific class of females, please do not equate them to the entire Indian population. Many non-profit organizations do offer sections on their websites that provide donors with background information, links to educational websites and other resources that allow individuals to hopefully get a better understanding of the contextual issues.
While your campaign has been successful in garnering donations I urge you to rethink the simplistic story, ridden with dangerous stereotypes that you are selling to North Americans. You have turned these females into commodities for guilt ridden North Americans. Do not assume your ends justify your means, the males who picked up some of these females as prostitutes, probably too assumed at least the money would help them have a better life.
I sincerely urge you to rethink the ‘Buy a Girl her Life Back’ campaign.
-Why the Girl Store?
www.the-girl-store.org is an innovative website created by StrawberryFrog for Nanhi Kali. The core idea reiterated throughout the site is that the life of an underprivileged girl is not a condemned fait accompli. It is up to the viewers to change her destiny by ‘buying’ her life back – empowering her through education. The funds raised through online donations on the store will provide educational support to over 161 underprivileged girls in India. Our agency designed the site to be provocative to create an initial shock and awareness of the campaign and break through the wall of indifference. The website not only puts the issue of uneducated girls being most vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking up front, but also provides the viewer with a solution to join the fight against it by sponsoring the education of young girls.
Brief background of Project Nanhi Kali –
Nanhi Kali is a holistic sponsorship project which provides educational support to over 61,000 underprivileged girls from poor urban, remote rural, tribal and conflict afflicted communities across 8 states of India, while focusing on local, sustainable solutions involving community engagement and participation. Project Nanhi Kali is managed by 2 reputed not for profits, K C Mahindra Education Trust & Naandi Foundation both committed to positively impacting India’s development landscape through their work with women and children in marginalized communities. Since 2005, the two have been partnering along with various government agencies and corporate to provide 10 years of quality education to girls from economically disadvantaged families in India so that they can grow into self reliant women who in turn will educate their girls and thereby break the inter generational cycle of poverty and exploitation. Nanhi Kali provides the girls not only at academic support through 1-2 hour classes where concepts of language and maths are taught enabling them to achieve grade specific learning competency levels, but also material support in the form of uniforms, school bag, shoes socks etc. which allow the girl to attend school with dignity. The teaching methodology includes the extensive use of innovative teaching tools and activities such as story telling, group games etc which make learning not only meaningful but also fun. Baseline and end line assessment tests are conducted to track learning levels of the girls. Nanhi Kalis are selected based on multiple criteria including family income, parents’ educational background and social background with most of them being first generation learners. Nanhi Kali is all about positive discrimination and works extensively with parents and communities to sensitize them on gender issues. The project has witnessed phenomenal success with girls even in conflict afflicted areas such as Chhattisgarh becoming district level toppers, creating positive ripple effects of reluctant village elders now becoming torch bearers for girls education in their communities.
Details of the actual interventions can be seen on websites www.nanhikali.org and www–naandi.org
If you would like any further information, please email me at this email id.
Trustee & Executive Director
Project Nanhi Kali