I met Roxana at her home.
She lived in a village near the southern border of Nepal. Her house had three rooms and was made of mud and cow dung with a thatched roof. Electricity came in the form of exposed wires, which were plugged together with a bulb here or there to provide light.
Roxana was happy and cheerful. She seemed to have a smile on her face the whole time I was there. While other children in the village cowered away from me — and some even cried at the sight of me — Roxana was not deterred. Even though it was probably the first time she’d ever seen a white person, she was more intrigued than concerned.
She would hide behind her mother’s leg and play peekaboo, smile when I would wink at her and wave back at me when I’d wave at her. At 3 years old, she’s only about a year older than my daughter, Lucy — and she reminded me of her: curious, precocious and full of energy.
I had fun playing with Roxana and enjoyed meeting her mother and community members. Since returning home a few months ago, I can’t help but keep her in my thoughts.
During International Day of the Girl this year, we’re asking our supporters and donors to stand with us and tell the world “Girls Belong Here.” We strongly believe that girls and women belong wherever boys or men belong, whether that be in school or on the sports field, in the boardroom or as a government representative.
When I’m with Lucy, I can’t help but think of all of the things that she can be and have. She’ll go to school for as long as she wants and be blessed with some incredible opportunities. Certainly, she’ll face barriers — and we need to keep fighting for her to make it clear that she belongs wherever she wants to be and is not shut out of opportunities simply because she is female.
But, right now, Lucy is just a little girl. Much like Roxana, she likes to run around and play. Her smile is infectious. And, because she doesn’t have a care in the world, she has plenty to be happy about. I take Lucy to the playground often. She plays in the sandbox next to boys and goes down the same slide. She swings next to them and has fun just being a little kid. Right now, the playground is where Lucy belongs.
Roxana’s life will likely be different. We were in her village that day to speak with her mother, who was married in her early teen years, about job opportunities. Now in her early 20s, she has two children and lives with her in-laws. Life before her husband and her new family is hazy at best. Her childhood was taken from her early.
I would like to think that Roxana won’t face the same fate. Through Plan International, Roxana’s mother is now in a vocational program focused on empowering young women. Perhaps it will help break a cycle that is often seen in countries like Nepal, where child marriage and trafficking are common, and poverty and inequalities fuel a vicious cycle.
Roxana will face some uphill battles, and her childhood may end early. In fact, she may face similar realities to the ones her mother faces today.
This is a reality we can’t ignore — one that we’ll work every day to change. Girls have the right to be young, have fun, play, go to school and have a childhood.
Playgrounds can mean different things. For Lucy, it’s a spot a few blocks from her day care. For Roxana, it may be out in the field with some friends — but it represents a childhood we all have the right to enjoy, regardless of our gender or where we’re born.
For girls in many countries, childhoods often end early and the playground — or “play” in general — are distant memories.
This International Day of the Girl, let’s stand for childhood. Let’s stand up to say, “Girls belong HERE — on the playground.”