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.
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.
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!"
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."