Monday, October 15, 2012

Today's Heroes: Haseena Patel and the Leave No Girl Behind Movement

Heroes Of Today

The brilliance of the human race is found in each individual's desires to enhance the human condition and positively impact the lives of others.  If benevolent acts of kindness and human connectivity sprout from seeds of compassion, then clearly the soil that these seedlings take root are found in each person's moral foundation. Nutured through determination, courage, intelligence, and enlightenment of what it is to be part of the human race, on occassion, these seedlings, if I may, grow to be special individuals that make our world a much better place.

It is my absolute privilige to share with you the remarkable work of my very good friend, one that inspires me in great ways, South Africa's Haseena Patel, who, with her incredible sister Shameema, are co-founders of Leave No Girl Behind International, a tremendous outreach movement focussed on educating and enlightening young girls and young women that their voices matter . . . and matters a great deal.

In deciding to create the 'Heroes of Today' series, I gave great thought and consideration to what a hero is. Clearly, heroes come in every shape and form.  Some hero's acts are grand and sweeping, while others are less visible, but nevertheless, equally important.

Haseena Patel
Leave No Girl Behind
In selecting the individuals I have decided to write about, one of the many qualities I paid great attention to was the ability for that person to courageously give of themselves so that others may have long-lasting benefit.   In my expansive world, I have been blessed to know and befriend a remarkable number of individuals that have dedicated their lives to enhance the lives of the oppressed, the poor, the sick, and the defenseless.  These individuals are my heroes.  I have learned a great deal from them.

One of these individuals that has enriched my and many other lives is Haseena Patel.  And though the Leave No Girl Behind Movement is still a seedling, say in comparrision to the spectacular mighty trees that have grown across the world due to the tremendous Greenbelt Movement started by Africa's first women to win the Noble Peace Prize, Dr. Wangari Maathai, there is no question in my mind that under Hassena's outspoken and indefitigable leadership, the Leave No Girl Behind Movement will one day have as much of an impact on girls as Professor Maathai's Greenbelt Movement has for millions of women around the world.

Dr. Wangari Maathai
Africa's First Women
Noble Laureate  
During the time that I was blessed to have spent with Wangari, there was one lesson I learned more than any other: that each of our voices not only mattered, but could really make a difference. When we embrace the courage to utilize our voice, it is only then that we live in 'Uhuru' - freedom!

Freedom - what a concept.  Yet so many young girls do not truly understand what it is to live in 'Uhuru'.  But this is changing due to the tremendous advocates such as Hassena and Shameema Patel. And the world is a better place because of them.

The Leave No Girl Behind Movement has 5 functions:

1.  To empower girls through our programs (such as the Leadership Program and Worldwide Network, and the Help-Her-Help-Herself Project).

Leave No Girl Behind International
2.  To raise awareness worldwide about why it is essential for us as a global community to empower girls (we aim to do this through our soon-to-be-published book, Leave No Girl Behind, as well as through our website).

3.  To change the inferior way girls and women are perceived and treated in many cultures. 

4.  To create a community of like-minded individuals working together to uplift girls everywhere.

5.  To stand united with every individual and organization worldwide that shares this common purpose – together we can make a difference in the lives of our global family of 6 billion!

What is Leave No Girl Behind International?
Leave No Girl Behind International is an organization created to empower girls in various ways, and inspire them to live up to their own potential instead of living down to others’ (or even their own) expectations. Its purpose is to create a much needed shift in our world through girls’ empowerment.

Can you please provide a few examples of how LNGBI specifically empowers and inspires young women?

We have the LNGBI Leadership program which individuals or groups can participate in. The leadership program provides instruction on how young women can address real-life circumstances that they face in a way that empowers them while respecting their bodies, mind, and spirits. In essence, we bring to light the ability of each person to make a decision and how important their voice really is.

Presently, we have a Power Package Program which includes a consulting session, a personalized video and also an audio track that provides empowerment. Additionally, our Help-Her-Help-Herself Project to be launched on the 27th October 2012, which is a program that empowers girls in high-risk situations or developing countries who cannot afford and don’t have access to our other programs. We also have a much shorter mentoring program that works well for girls who don’t have ready access to the Internet – with this program, we work with other organizations in those countries who can provide Internet access to the girls once a week for about 4 weeks so that they can complete the program.

Can you provide insight on a few success stories?

There are plenty, but one that stands out revolves around a South African girl who is 15 years old and who completed the leadership program. This young lady had everything that any South African girl could have material access to, yet she felt that by participating in the leadership program, it would help her to mature and understand more about the world and how her voice mattered in it. So in her scenario, empowerment came in a different way in the sense that this was not a girl who was impoverished and was facing issues that may be more prevalent in low-income environments. In her scenario, empowerment was used to elevate personal and social responsibility with the aspiration that this young lady will demonstrate leadership qualities throughout her life.

Shameema Patel
Leave No Girl Behind
We also had a girl in her senior year in California participate in a leadership program via Skype. In her words: “I have figured out new ways of approaching certain situations in school and in other aspects of my life. I have learned to step outside of my comfort zone to help other people…this program has helped me learn how being positive will make a difference in everything I set out to do.”

Additionally, we have also mentored a group of girls in rural Zimbabwe (Girl Child Network Zimbabwe helped with getting the girls together and providing Internet access) and discussed a variety of issues relevant to their issues and needs so to help facilitate better decision making on their part so to protect and respect their bodies, their minds, and their spirit.

Clearly, each girl’s needs and issues are different due to a host of factors. However, the message we share is the same: live up to your full potential instead of living down to others’ (or even their own) expectations. Respect your body, your mind, and your spirit because your voice matters.

What is your role with Leave No Girl Behind International?

I am co-founder of Leave No Girl Behind International. My sister, Shameema is my founding partner. I am actively involved in public speaking and coaching of girls for our organization while Shameema concentrates on creating outreach and handles many of the organization’s operational and planning needs.

Why is Leave No Girl Behind International important to young women?

Young women will make choices based on how they see themselves. Often, the way they see themselves is just a reflection of how others, particularly the most important people in their lives, see them. Through the programs offered by Leave No Girl Behind International, girls/young women are able to get to know themselves as they can be and are inspired to rise up to their full potential.

In this sense, we teach girls and young women to learn to trust and respect themselves. And we educate them about the concepts of courage. Combining these qualities, we then focus on decision-making as it comes to their present and anticipated journey, and of course, where they want to go and who they want to become.

How much of your message to young women revolves around the concepts of ‘courage’ and ‘finding your voice’?

I think “courage” and “finding your voice” is dealt with directly and indirectly all the time when we work with young women, and at a certain point they do find their voices without even realizing this – it is something that happens gradually just from participation in the programs.

Why is Leave No Girl Behind International important to the world?

Leave No Girl Behind International
Our organization is a means of raising awareness about the necessity of girls’ empowerment. We are able to show people worldwide why girls’ empowerment relates to their own lives – many people don’t realize that. And more importantly, we’re able to express to others how empowering or not empowering our girls will affect us in every conceivable way, on a global level.

How would you assess the global landscape for women as political leaders in an ever changing, closer, world, and what benefits do you think the world would have if more women had a greater role in politics?

I remember the opening line of the Charles Dickens Novel, A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” - I think that describes what things are like for women in the political arena.

In this age of recognizing equality and doing away with gender-based roles, the time is ripe for women to have significant roles in the political arena. And those women who do have such roles are able to extend their influence beyond their countries and set a precedent for women around the world.

At the same time, in some of the middle eastern countries, for example, women who take a stand or rise up to assume political power have to deal with those radical conservatives who feel increasingly threatened by the power that women are beginning to have. And because of this, these women’s lives are in more danger than before – hence, the “worst of times”!

If women had greater roles in politics, firstly, they’d inspire other women around the world to become empowered, and this in itself would benefit the world – more educated mothers equal more educated citizens of the world. The other point is that men and women do have different perspectives and having more women in the political arena would lead to more “balance” when making decisions – something different would be brought to the table.

Are there any geopolitical leaders that inspire you and who you think have made the world a better place for both women and men?
There are so many leaders – living and dead who have inspired me in some way including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama, and definitely Hillary Clinton. Here in South Africa, our former president, Nelson Mandela is a great inspiration. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu definitely has made the world a better place by speaking out against injustices in the world. Each of them, and other great heroes talk about something that is so innate to the right of life: freedom.  And that is what the Leave No Girl Behing Movement embraces and teaches: the right of each girl to live free. 

All these amazing leaders have had an impact, not just on their own countries, but on the world – they have helped people to see what is possible out there and how anyone can make a huge difference.

What influenced you to start Leave No Girl Behind International?

Leave No Girl Behind
Available Octover 27th, 2012
It actually started off with an idea for a book – I was going to write a book to inspire girls with messages from a thousand different women around the world.

That evolved to the point where the focus of the book became about creating a transformation on our planet through girls’ empowerment…then Shameema became my co-author, and gradually our vision grew and Leave No Girl Behind International was borne.

Would you say that the power of a ‘book’ is still alive and well today?

Yes – the power of a book will always be alive and well. Wherever there are words to be read, there will be people who are inspired to understand them and use them to benefit their lives. People will always be looking for answers to their lives.

In our own case, the idea for a book became the Leave No Girl Behind movement. Clearly, written words can be seeds to social and political change. They make us think and they inspire. Young girls, particularly those living in less affluent countries are easily exploited.

What leadership programs does your organization provide to help young women become aware of the challenges they face as women in these environments?

Presuming that we’re talking about girls in the rural areas of developing countries who are surrounded by poverty and really difficult circumstances; girls who don’t have support around them, our shorter mentoring program works well for them – with this program, we work with other organizations in those countries who can provide Internet access to the girls once a week for about 4 weeks so that they can complete the program. This helps them to develop as leaders while learning how to deal with their unique set of circumstances.

Where is Leave No Girl Behind International based out of?

We are based out of Newcastle, South Africa. However, we optimize technology and are able to connect with girls globally through Skype, email and a variety of social media outlooks including Facebook, and so, Leave No Girl Behind International’s reach is global.

Is there an average number of young women you work with on a monthly basis?

We work with whoever desires to participate in our programs – there is no average number because at times we may work with many individual participants while other times we work with large groups. However, in the spirit of giving our best to each girl, we do place limits as to the number of girls who participate in our interactive programs together in the same group.

The plight of women in Africa continues to be challenging. Remarkable women, including Noble Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathai, Ory Okolloh, and Chimamanda Adichie are amongst some of the most brilliant women advocate-leaders who were based out of Africa. Yet their influence has been world-wide. Nevertheless, their efforts began with a seed - an idea - if you will.

What is your 'seed' and where do you see Leave No Girl Behind International evolving to?

Haseena Patel
That’s an interesting question…particularly because we’re in the evolving stage right now! When people think of Africa and relate it to girls’ empowerment, they think of poverty and HIV, teenage promiscuity and teen pregnancy. All this is a realistic picture, but there is also the other side: Girls who may not be in this situation also need empowering, and we often forget about their needs because they’re not in high-risk situations. So the “seed” would be something Shameema and I feel so strongly about: ALL girls need empowering, no matter who they are, where they live or what their background is.
As for evolving, we’ve given this a lot of thought. At first we didn’t define Leave No Girl Behind International – we just had the name and empowered girls in a way that we thought was best. We also had to earn a living, though, while at the same time creating ways to empower those who could not pay for our programs.

So I think Leave No Girl Behind International has evolved to a point where we have two parts of our organization: our business (the profit-making part!), and the movement (the non-profit part). The latter involves projects that anyone anywhere can participate in, and so we can all create a global movement.

How have the lives of the African women changed?

While there is the realization among women of what they are able to achieve and what is possible for them among different communities, things are different. In some African communities, women’s roles are entrenched in tradition and culture, and women haven’t advanced at all. Then, there is the situation in South Africa where women have the freedom, but the education standard had dropped so drastically, that there is no education to go with the freedom and therefore no sense of purpose and responsibility. It’s really sad, because the potential is there, but women have not advanced. Courage plays a great deal in our lives.

For the girls and young women you serve, what is it that makes a young lady take that first step to participate in the Leave No Girl Behind Movement?

A young woman could participate in the movement by either accepting and using one of our non-profit programs and empowering herself, or participating as the empowerer and empowering other young women through one of these programs (e.g. our soon-to-be-launched Help-Her-Help-Herself Project).

If she is in the first category, I think she reaches the point where she can take a step back and know that she needs to empower herself first to accomplish any worthy goal. It’s that point when you know that something has to change and you’re the one who needs to change it. And that’s where courage comes in.

As an advocate, helping others, particularly young women facing serious abuse means that you have to deal in a world of 'darkness' often. Why do you do this, and what allows you to manage the 'darkness'?

To be honest, I have seldom had to deal with that kind of situation. In most cases I’m empowering girls who don’t know that they’re not empowered; who aren’t being abused, but who are in danger of being abused because their perceptions of themselves and their capabilities may lead to them choosing the wrong partner and feeling that a man treating a woman in an inferior or abusive way is acceptable.

But growing up in a medical family, I’ve been accustomed to our family helping young women facing abuse, in various ways. When you can help provide some light through making these women’s lives easier in some way, the darkness is more bearable.

There must be times when you feel disheartened by the amount of hardships you see young women facing who you are trying to help. What do you do to overcome the emotional hardships?

I have to remember my role in the situation – to empower and educate the young woman in some way. Change doesn’t always happen in great strides. Often there are small, almost unnoticeable changes in the young woman which lead to equally unnoticeable changes in her life. I have to remember that these small changes will eventually lead to her changing her life in a big way and overcoming all these hardships.

Women bloggers, particularly ‘parenting bloggers’ / ‘mommy bloggers’ (depending on the terminology you are comfortable with) have played and are expected to play a critical role in transforming society by weighing in on and influencing public opinion on a host of issues similar to the way Mary Welsh Hemmingway and Jacqueline Saix did for TIME magazine when they were amongst the first of a small group of women war correspondents reporting from the front-line during World War II (with Mary becoming a major factor in Ernest Hemingway’s life, and Jacqueline remarkably becoming one of the first female television producers for the BBC after the war). How do you see the role and importance of women parenting bloggers on young women, and how can these women make a difference in the lives of young women through their writing?

Women parenting bloggers are examples of empowered women; empowered mothers. Just by reading their blogs, young women can learn a great deal. These mom-bloggers spark the awareness of possibility in young women, and the young women also exposed to a different world – one that could become theirs someday. Young women are able to consider new opinions and ideas and get to know themselves better by asking themselves if they agree with the viewpoints expressed.

How do you have fun?

For a long time, I had forgotten how to have fun and right now I’m relearning what fun means. But I do love to listen to music, spend time with friends, experience new things, read, write, sometimes play the piano or recorder, and occasionally watch a really good movie with substance!

What makes you happy?

People achieving their dreams. Also, writing and being able to make a difference through my writing. 

What is a hero to you?

Someone who stands up for what they believe in despite opposition, serves others, has compassion for others, and pushes the boundaries for a good reason.

Do you have a book coming out, and if so, what is it about?

Yes – our book, Leave No Girl Behind: How To Help Girls Become The Change In Our World, will be launched in South Africa on the 27th of October. It is my second book and Shameema’s first. This book has a two-fold purpose: to inspire and empower girls, as well as to raise awareness about why girls’ empowerment is important and what it will mean to the world. We also share share the Help-Her-Help-Herself Project with our readers – a simple way to make a difference in a girl’s life with very little time, money and skills, and something that even children are able to participate in.

What’s really special about this book is that it is not just our words in it – we have many contributors worldwide with such unique messages and stories. Some, like Dr Wayne Dyer, are very well known, while others are people who have an incredible message for girls and are really passionate about girls’ empowerment. They all stand with us and together we have all created this powerful book.

When a young girl is in a volatile situation, what should she do?

She should find someone supportive to talk to – just verbalizing her challenge and her feelings makes such a difference. And from there she’ll feel strong enough to develop an action plan or to speak to someone who can help her professionally. If there is no one to talk to, she can journal her feelings and her situation so that she can take a step back and look at her situation objectively. Having said this, I’m very aware that a great many girls in volatile situations don’t have ready access to help and many don’t have the education to be able to journal…there are no simple answers, but I do know that the long-term answer lies in educating and empowering girls.

How important is it to believe in yourself and to find your voice even when you think nobody else does and you think nobody else hears you?

You are the only one who can change your life. You are the one with the power. Whether you use that power is up to you. So even if no one else believes in you or no one else hears you, you still have the choice to believe in yourself and find your voice – and this gives you what you need to empower yourself and literally transform your life. A great example is Oprah Winfrey, one of my greatest teachers and my hero. You have to realise that it takes work, though. It is a process, but you are worth the time and effort.

What’s next?

We’re taking Leave No Girl Behind International to the next level in various ways – new programs, creating more awareness of our organization and just the need for girls’ empowerment in general, and also making a difference with our radio show which we’ve taken a short sabbatical from. We want to interact with more girls in more places. We want to move with our changing world so that we can always stay in the know about what girls have to face, and by doing so, be equipped to make a difference.

                                * * *

It is my privilege to share the incredible mission that Haseena Patel and Shameema Patel are on.  Their effort, determination, and desire to make a difference in the lives of young women and growing girls is so important to the face of our planet and the direction of mankind.

To learn more about the Leave No Girl Behind International movement, please visit their offical website.  To visit Leave No Girl Behind on Facebook, please click here.

In parting, I would like to thank Haseena and Shameema for allowing me to come into your life, and equally, for teaching me, through example, about how important it is to Leave No Girl Behind.