Can the women of richer nations unite with the women of third world nations? Meg Ryan thinks so. "If you empower women, you can change the world. I think it's important for the women of the first world to hold hands with the women of the third."
This Hollywood icon, the star of When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle, is making a four-day trip across northern India with representatives from the international aid organization CARE. In notably casual attire—baggy green army pants, worn clogs, a brown pullover, no makeup, no fussy hairdo—Ryan has been humble, observant, polite, and reserved. She has brought no fanfare, no glitter, no Hollywood ego or trumpery. In the hope of calling to the world's attention their stories and their needs, she's spent four days literally and figuratively holding hands with some of the world's most disadvantaged women.
In Jehangirpuri, north of New Delhi, a vast slum of rickety brick buildings and makeshift shanties, where raw sewage runs in the gutters and half-naked children play in muddy dirt lanes, Ryan was welcomed on the first day of her trip by a group of Indian women engaged in CARE's HIV prevention program, which focuses on young women ages 15 to 24. That sex is a forbidden topic here has proved one of the biggest hurdles in preventing the spread of AIDS. With more than five million HIV-positive citizens, about 40 percent of whom are women, India has more HIV infections than any other country but South Africa. CARE staff are working to prevent new infections by training teenage girls to talk with each other about issues of sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Six women welcome Ryan, Anne Goddard (CARE's chief of staff), and me into a small room with garlands of flowers, rose petals, dots of red grease paint applied to our foreheads. The small room in a cement building is home to a family of four, lit only by a candle at the center of a low table. "We never have electricity for a full 24 hours!" one woman apologetically tells our interpreter, CARE's Sunita Prasad. We huddle around the table and meet 18-year-old Rani, 16-year-old Ruby, and their mothers, Manorama and Savitri. Ruby and Rani are two of some 80 girls who have volunteered to spread information about HIV/AIDS to their friends in the neighborhood. Mature and self-possessed, decorative studs in their nostrils, they are not shy about discussing sex, substance abuse, and contraception.
Rani is engaged to be married to a boy her parents have chosen—she's seen only his photograph. What if her husband wants her to stop the work she's doing? Rani straightens up. "I will use my persuasion and my love! I will inform him of the good work I am doing, and he will understand." Rani would like to have two children, one boy, one girl. But what if she ends up with two girls? Rani's mother, Manorama, peers at her. "Rani," she says, "daughters are much better than sons! Two girls is good!" Delighted by the mother's boldness, Ryan laughs and claps her hands, and suddenly the lights flicker on and the starkness of the room is fully revealed. On a cracked lettuce green wall hangs a clouded mirror, two photos of elderly ancestors, and a cheap electric clock. The blankets on the neatly made beds are threadbare. There's a small refrigerator in a corner and a battered TV and a vase of plastic roses on a dresser. The room is spare but spotless.
We walk down the alley to the community youth center, one of the few places in Jehangirpuri that girls may visit without a chaperone. Here we meet a group of barefoot teenage girls. Among them is Lakshmi, a fiery, high-voiced 18-year-old in a jean jacket. A born performer with dancing hands, Lakshmi shows us her book recording the reactions of the girls and boys she has spoken to about sex and disease. Before this program, she tells us, girls were easily influenced by pressure from boys. "But now they learn to say no, to trust themselves and make their own decisions."
Ryan asks Lakshmi what she hopes for her future. Lakshmi cracks her knuckles, then slowly waves her palms at us, as if wiping mist from a windowpane. "I want to be completely free," she pipes. "Freedom is a big responsibility, but I want it. I don't want even my husband to stop me later in life. I want to use my skills to make a career." Later, as we're leaving the community center, Ryan snaps a few photographs of the girls and says, "Oh, what that little girl who wants total freedom can do!"
Consider these facts: One out of every six people in the world lives on less than a dollar a day. Seventy-five percent of those people are women. Women produce 50 percent of the world's food, yet own only 1 percent of its land. Of the 876 million illiterate adults in the developing world, two-thirds are women. Every year more than half a million women die from pregnancy-related causes.
CARE aims to empower the disenfranchised, particularly women and girls. Anne Goddard tells me that women have proved to be a more efficient avenue than men for effecting change. "Microfinance programs used to focus a lot on men, but we've found that men use what they earn from these small loans to benefit themselves—buying cigarettes, for instance—while women use it to benefit their families. In the end, if you invest in women, you benefit the whole family." Women are a better financial risk as well: "We have 99 percent repayment rates with women." Education, too, has proved more effective in the long term when directed at women. "Educate a man and you educate an individual," says Goddard, "but educate a woman and you educate a nation." Why? Because women raise the children. "And research shows that the longer a girl stays in school, the fewer children she will have, the healthier those children will be, and the higher her family income. First we need to help women feel powerful, then we need to get them to organize, to use their voices."