Every few months, Melany Grout spends more than a day flying from Seattle to Dubai to Delhi to Kolkata, India. Once there, she rides a train for 14 hours, then sits in a car for a few more, until she reaches the rice paddies, dirt roads and tiny thatched homes of rural West Bengal. "When I'm there, I might literally be as far away from home as possible," says Grout, 33, an attorney with the Seattle-based nonprofit Landesa.
In West Bengal, poverty runs rampant and daughters typically get less respect—and food—than sons. "Girls are seen as burdens, not as contributors to the family," Grout says, "so fathers often pull them out of school and marry them off young to avoid having to give a dowry."
Grout hopes to boost these daughters' social status with her program Girls Project, which teaches a simple but powerful skill: how to grow food, often on an unused backyard patch of land. "If girls can contribute vegetables to the dinner table or actually sell them for income," Grout says, "their families recognize their value."
Since 2011 the program has helped more than 7,000 girls ages 11 to 18 find new hope for their futures simply by harvesting a kilo of chili peppers or a few bushels of spinach. "We have a girl who earned her own cash for the first time," Grout says. "It's a small amount, only the price of a coffee drink here, but it was enough to make her want to stay in school." To raise awareness of a woman's right to land ownership and education, local staff hold "community conversations." "Changing how people think can be slippery," Grout says. "But I've seen parents go from claiming 'My daughter is worthless' to pledging to keep her in school!"
With Landesa's help, the Indian government will expand Girls Project to reach roughly 35,000 girls this summer. By next year, Grout hopes, that number will grow to millions.
"It's crazy how small the world can feel," she says. "I meet girls who want exactly the same things I do: an education; the chance to decide who they become; to gain control over their lives—and they're doing it."
Empower girls locally: Girls Inc. teaches self-defense, community leadership and more. See how you can help at girlsinc.org.
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