News and Events

"Women Hold Up Half the Sky"

Image from World in Balance documentary film on family and gender issues in India.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Eric Teasdale of the Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC) began his assembly presentation with the story of a 15-year-old girl who arrived recently in his office in Pune, India, distraught and upset at her imminent marriage to her older uncle. She was one of the original 12 children in the Initiative’s Education Outreach program, and the forced marriage would prevent the girl from graduating from her high school studies.

“It would be equivalent to seniors in this room being taken out of school today and being told they would have to be married instead of receiving their high school diploma,” said Teasdale. He added, “Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon example and just one of many challenges our organization and India at large face on a regular basis.”

Children from the AIC home in Pune, India.Teasdale is onsite director for AIC’s programs in India. He, along with AIC Fundraising Director Ruth Vaughan, spoke on April 11 at the Robbins Memorial Symposium student assembly. This year’s theme was titled, Women Hold Up Half the Sky (a Chinese proverb), and captures the symposium’s focus on the lives of women and girls who are frequently the subject of discrimination and abuse in many parts of the world, including the United States.

A new feature of this year’s assembly, student-presented testimonials particularly struck a chord with PEA’s young audience.

Students (India Hamilton (l.) and Oge Ude) reading first-hand
accounts by abused women.
“I loved how Oge [Ude ’12] and India [Hamilton ’12] performed testimonial readings of girls who were abused. It really showed the raw situation that the symposium was trying to address,” said Alexa Liautaud ’12, co-head of Strive for Education (an Exeter Social Service Organization (ESSO) club). Halie Craig ’12, co-head of STAND (another ESSO club), added, “The two monologues were the most moving part of the assembly. Their voices brought the shocking stories to life, emphasizing that these issues are real and that people face them every day – even in America.”

In her opening remarks at the assembly, Robbins Memorial Committee member Christine Robinson made clear an important goal of the symposium, “We hope that by unveiling some hard truths about the lives of too many girls and women, and providing some information about how to help, you will feel empowered to be agents of change.”

The assembly used several ways to give insights into how organizations and civil society address women’s issues:

  • The presentation by AIC’s 2 directors, who were also available after the assembly to talk with students and meet with them over lunch.
  • A documentary film, World in Balance, on the issues of gender discrimination in India.
  • Student readings of firsthand accounts of abused women, for example, of a young Cambodian woman sold to a brothel at the age of 7.
  • Short presentations from the heads of ESSO clubs that are active in supporting human rights issues:
    • STAND: Participates in a student anti-genocide coalition.
    • Documentary Film Club: Screens films on important issues followed by student discussion.
    • Exeter Feminists: Focuses on gender issues on campus and worldwide via discussion.
    • Strive for Education and Girls Learn International: Raise awareness of the need and benefits of education, with a current focus on the Middle East and other developing countries.
    • Trading Crayons: Uses different art disciplines to raise awareness of global injustices against youth, e.g., child soldiers in Uganda.

During the AIC presentation, Vaughan described some of the ways their organization benefits the community in Pune through its Residential Life program and the Education Outreach program. “AIC has seen incredible change in many of the children with whom we work. We are seeing the cycles of poverty and gender inequality breaking.” She added, “We know we are making a huge difference in the lives of the 12 children that live in our home and the 250 children in the Education Outreach program. These impacts are not limited to the children, but affect their families, their relatives and the community at large.”

Craig was impressed with how the influence of AIC’s programs rippled out to the larger community. “It was really interesting to hear that even if families aren’t directly affected, the Initiative is changing the lives of those around them, and the families follow suit by beginning to support education for their children.”

Teasdale and Vaughan speak with students after the assembly.At the end of his presentation, Teasdale returned to the story of the girl in danger of not graduating due to her imminent forced marriage. “We hired a lawyer to represent her, and our organization supported her at the court. The court ordered her to be removed from custody of her aunt and uncle. Two weeks ago, the girl took her board exams. She plans to attend college and AIC will do everything in our power to support her.”

Teasdale closed his remarks by adding that AIC succeeded because its young founders were willing to get involved and encouraged Exeter students to realize they too could make a difference. “At the end of the day, the purpose of our presentation is to encourage you to get involved with something you feel passionate about. We hope that you’ll be inspired to go out and contribute to making social change.”

This message resonated with Craig. “Their story was really inspiring – it was incredible to hear how their work impacted so many lives. I think that the charity is a great example of how one group’s work can truly influence change in education.”

The Robbins Memorial Symposium was established in honor of the late David C. Robbins ’78. Robbins went on to Brown University, where he did extensive research on the problems of developing countries. He was also a research assistant in the Institute for East West Securities. Robbins researched – academically and through travel – the roots of poverty, famine and revolution. Each year, speakers have been invited to campus to speak on such diverse topics as globalization, poverty, the United Nations and the breakup of the Soviet Union.


Interested in learning more?

For more details on the Ashraya Initiative for Children

For more information on Exeter’s clubs, including Exeter Social Service Organization (ESSO)…

— Mike Catano