There’s always a reason someone starts a passion project. Something personal that connects you to a cause or maybe a light bulb moment that inspires you to make a difference.
In my case I guess it was both.I lived in Fiji for 3 years from 2004-2007 and with a background in health, found myself working for the Fiji Red Cross Society, travelling around the islands doing health promotion and meeting some really amazing people.
One of them was Red Cross volunteer Urmilla. An Indo-Fijian woman who lives in a stunning but not really touristy part of Fiji called RakiRaki. She lived in a modest tin house that she and her husband built yet it had no floor and she was constantly replacing the layers of carpet that got washed away with the torrential rains not uncommon in the tropics. She taught me to cook roti and dahl over her open fire stove, food that I still crave along with her killer tomato chilli relish!
I worked with Urmilla in her part of the world and watched her and the other Red Cross volunteers do their incredible job of supporting people on the poverty line and helping them help themselves. The need overwhelmed me. They inspired and humbled me. We had the joy of attending the wedding of one of Urmilla’s daughters and kept in touch when we moved back to Australia.
In 2011, I was speaking to Urmilla about her youngest daughter Kajal, who was 14, the same age as my daughter, Giorgia. Urmilla asked me to help her find some support for Kajal as high school fees were expensive for a local Fiji wage. Combined with the uniforms and ribbons, shoes, stationery, internet access, home economics and sewing kits, keeping a child in school is a challenge. Plus, she added as though she was telling me a secret, this one is smart!
So, like you would do with any friend, I said of course, how can I help, what do you need? Her request that day amounted to about AU$40.In the 12 months that followed, I think I gave her a total amount not dissimilar to the cost of a week’s groceries, which, combined with help she has received from others and her own resourcefulness, has meant that Kajal was able to start and stay in high school.
When Urmilla told me in 2012 that there was another girl who needed help staying in school, I had my moment. A light went on and I started asking questions. How much does it ALL cost? A term? A year? What are the barriers to Girls going to school and staying at school? What are some of the stories, what could we do to help more efficiently?
I’ve been to the resorts and they’re lovely, but it’s not all frangipanis and umbrella drinks in the Fiji Islands. I have seen first hand the health issues and the poverty, the bravery of people living with very little, doing their best to support their families and get through against all odds.
And it’s not right that a Girl isn’t able to go to school because of where she lives. Because her parents can’t find work, or because mum has died and dad has left, leaving her alone. It’s not right that school attendance is sporadic because she only has one uniform and, not having electricity or white goods, can’t get it dry before the next day when it’s raining.
Having her period can keep her home too, sanitary pads are not cheap or easy to come by in rural areas and the cost of trying to get access to the internet or print out your homework can amount to three day’s wage!
Research tells us that educating Girls and women is an important step towards overcoming poverty. It has been said it is the best way to fight poverty and extremism.
Educating Girls leads directly to better health, improved life outcomes for families, as well as lower rates of child mortality and malnutrition for the next generation, amongst a whole lot of other great things. But even without the research, it’s the right thing to do.
So I got together some of my multi-talented friends, introduced them to Urmila and we thought up some solutions. We’re being guided by the need and the ideas that local people are already coming up with for overcoming their own challenges, they just needed some support to make them happen. In 2021 we’ve been able to support up to 70 Girls a year to stay in school and Uni or vocational training.
Especially now during the challenges brought by COVID-19, we are doing what we can to support their families to set up small businesses and fight food shortages.
Communities working together can turn the tide and set young women up for success! I’d love you to join the journey.