Over the summer I had the pleasure of meeting Abhilasha Damor, a UNFPA peer educator who works on a Girl Up-supported program, at the Girl Up Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. Her parents saw the value of giving her an education and now she spends her time teaching other girls in her community the importance of education. I’ve always advocated for the rights of girls around the world because they were “just like me,” but it wasn’t until I met Abhilasha that I truly believed it.
Going into the meeting I was scared. I had been told that she spoke absolutely no English and was worried that my broken Hindi would be incomprehensible to her. In fact, I spent a week practicing how to say “I’m sorry I can’t speak Hindi very well.” However, she understood me perfectly, and even understood a good amount of English, which is a constant reminder of how girls are always underestimated.
I spent three days talking to and getting to know Abhilasha, and I can safely say that she is the most courageous person I have ever met. She flew halfway around the world, with a UNFPA worker she had never met before, to share her experience with us. She lives in a remote Indian village, alongside two cows, two cats, and a dog. Her house had electricity, but most houses in her village did not. At home, she doesn’t have a cell phone or internet access either.
Onstage at the Leadership Summit, Abhilasha talked about her role as peer educator with UNFPA, where she meets with girls from her community and talks openly about why girls shouldn’t get married young and should continue their education. When the program first started, a lot of the girls in Abhilasha’s community were too scared to talk about their dreams or aspirations. But as the program gained ground with her help, the girls started sharing their dreams and realizing all they could do. Someday, Abhilasha hopes to reopen and run her dad’s bakery in her community and have girls from the UNFPA program work at the bakery to help make it successful.
At first, I thought we wouldn’t have that much in common. I couldn’t imagine living without internet, or having to stand up to members of my community to fight child marriage or for my right to continue my education. However, the more I got to know Abhilasha, the more I was surprised by how similar we were.
This is why I was baffled that during the Leadership Summit girls at my table weren’t asking her any questions about her life, even though I explicitly told them it was ok, even encouraged. That’s when it struck me. People were scared. They were scared because she was so different. She didn’t speak the same language as them or look the same and it made people feel nervous. It wasn’t conscious or intentional. They just thought that they could never relate to someone from such a different background. But why? She wears jeans and a t-shirt around the house and watches Bollywood movies, just like me! The other girls didn’t realize the power of a simple “hello” was all it would take to see how similar we all were. After three days, it was clear Abhilasha and I had way more in common than we had differences. In fact, she could fit in with my best friends at school, and you would never know the difference.
As we sat in the U.S. Capitol bathroom during lobby, in front of a mirror putting on makeup and laughing, I realized how alike we all are in this world. Two girls from opposite sides of the world, speaking in two different languages, yet still understanding each other perfectly. At the end of the day, our core values as humans are all the same. While I had the privilege of discovering this first hand, many people do not have the luxury of spending time with someone from another country and cultural background, and discovering how alike we all really are. That is why it’s crucial that we work together as a nation to show everyone that we must celebrate our differences in order to have true unity.