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December 24, 2008 > Girl Power

Girl Power

By Justine Yan

Sejal Hathi, a 17-year-old senior at Notre Dame High School and resident of Fremont, has been immersed in social change since her elementary school years. Whether through helping cafeteria workers clean tables, assisting her after school band, or volunteering at the local homeless shelter, she always found a way to give back to the community.

By her freshman year, Hathi had joined the Youth Service America (YSA) and Girls for Change (GFC) organizations. Since then, she has helped to promote the "global culture of youth volunteerism" by being actively involved in planning programs for both YSA and GFC, serving as a member of the YSA National Youth Council and GFC National Board of Directors.

"[Those organizations] really showed me the power of youth voice and the potential of any youth, however disadvantaged, to make a difference," said Hathi.

While organizing a Darfur awareness benefit with GFC for women and children victims of the genocide, Hathi was exposed to the victims' great need and vulnerability. She began to see that disadvantaged young women in developing countries needed support to blossom into strong and independent members of their societies but usually not provided with the resources to do so.

Soon after, at the age of 15, she created Girls Helping Girls (GHG), an international nonprofit organization that empowers youth women to realize their inner power and understand their ability to make a difference.

Hathi chose to work with girls specifically because she felt that girls were the most vulnerable and are "victimized by the strongest and most entrenched cultural and institutional oppression." Also, as she learned more about global issues, she realized that girls have the greatest potential to change their communities.

"I want to change the way that not only society views girls but how girls view themselves, as resources, treasures, as not means but the end itself to create social change," she said.

This past August, Hathi and a few other members of her team visited Calcutta, India to build a library and hold two Peacebuilding Summits to build self-esteem and vocational skills as well as business and leadership skills for women and girls who have been victimized by sex trafficking.

"I think it's one thing reading about something and learning about it than actually experiencing it; tasting it, touching it, feeling it every day," she said. Upon arriving at Calcutta, she and her friends were "horrified" by the poverty and the squalor that people lived in. After the initial shock and outrage, they were encouraged by the idea that they could at least change some of that harsh reality, said Sejal.

Recently, GHG has founded another initiative, Sisters 4 Peace, a one-on-one mentorship program that will train girls working independent from a team to launch their own social change projects and initiatives. Participating girls will be partnered with a "peace ambassador," a successful woman entrepreneur from anywhere around the world who can provide expertise, mentorship and resources toward the project. The Sisters 4 Peace project is meant to inspire girls to initiate unique projects to benefit their communities.

Hathi and her team hopes to build Sisters 4 Peace into a social networking tool to connect even more girls around world, which will revolutionize the way social change is achieved.

In addition, she also looks to increase the population of girls served, partly by raising additional needed funds. Currently, Girls Helping Girls is sponsoring a micro-loaning program to assist struggling women entrepreneurs in developing countries on their way to becoming self-sufficient. However, the organization can only accommodate a few requests, due to limited funds.

While Hathi has devoted herself to helping girls on the other side of the world, she believes that she has also developed stronger bonds with the friends who have supported her and joined the Girls Helping Girls mission.

"I think it's made me a more patient person, a more loveable person, a stronger person...and more tenacious," she said. Most importantly, Hathi believes her experiences have imbued her with a value for humanity that is even more profound than when she first started.

"It showed me that every human being is a unique gift whether he or she is a sequestered leper or the most powerful person in the world or country," she said.

Hathi was recently recognized as a Comcast Hometown Hero and featured on "CNN Young People Who Rock." At first, the media coverage came to her and her friends as a "pleasant surprise." With each new award and feature news article, more people would donate, and more girls would contact Girls Helping Girls, seeking to participate in the organization's activities.

"We didn't know what we were doing would actually result in such recognition. We just focused on helping the people [we had] set out to support," said Hathi.

Considering the difficulty and hard work that went into establishing Girls Helping Girls, Hathi deserves to be proud.

"There were a lot of times I did not feel like I was doing enough, that more problems needed to be assaulted and eradicated," she said. "But ultimately, I realized that one individual cannot solve all the problems in the world. And I think that there's liberation in knowing that; it empowers a person to at least tackle one problem, and to tackle it very well and very strongly."

Girls Helping Girls is currently a finalist in the Best Buy @ 15 competition. You can help them win a $10,000 grant by texting 'BBYV11' to the number 32075 on your cell phone or visiting www.genv.net/bestbuy to cast your vote for Girls Helping Girls. Each person can vote once per day, every day until January 9.

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