What’s it like to be a girl in the developing world in 2017? We spoke to seven young women spanning a range of cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds – from a blind musician in Thailand to a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda – about their lives today and their dreams for tomorrow.
Tlotlo Moilwa, 18
When you first meet Tlotlo Moilwa, she seems like an average teenager. She’s obsessed with selfies, and giggles when talking about boys. But, when the topic of HIV and AIDS comes up, she reveals wisdom beyond her years.
“We should start talking more about HIV and AIDS, so that more people realize it is nothing to be afraid of,” says Moilwa, who lives in Thamaga village, in southern Botswana.
When she was six years old, she lost her mother to AIDS; two years later, she lost her father to the same disease. When she was 10 and living with her grandmother, she found out she, too, was HIV-positive and had been since birth. At 16, Moilwa decided to openly share her experience and is now an outspoken activist, reaching out to other young people via social media, radio and television, and working with NGOs.
In Botswana, 22.2 percent of adults have HIV, according to a 2016 report by UNAIDS; down from 25.4 percent in 2005. The government provides free antiretroviral therapy, which Moilwa has benefited from.
“I want young people to understand that HIV is not a death sentence, and that people who are HIV-positive can still have a normal, happy life,” she says.
Moilwa says her openness about her HIV status has led to some stigma. “I have lost a lot of friends,” she says. But she’s determined to stay strong for the young people who now see her as a role model.
Krittiyaporn “Pang” Ketkumpol, 21
Born blind, Krittiyaporn Ketkumpol, who goes by the nickname Pang, fondly remembers a childhood of languid afternoons spent listening to Thai music stations on her grandfather’s small portable radio. “I loved to sing along,” she says.
Ketkumpol was raised by her grandparents, whose friends often paid her to sing at parties and functions. “I used the money to buy myself toys. That’s when I decided that I really liked to sing!” she laughs.
Now 21 and in her last year of high school, Pang has been accepted to a bachelors’ program in Thai music at Bangkok’s Bundit Patanasilpa Institute. As well as continuing to sing, she plans to study two traditional instruments: the khlui, which is a type of flute, and the saw, similar to a violin. One day Pang, hopes to become either a professional singer or a music teacher.
“These days, I see so much Western culture coming into our country,” she says. “People my age are more and more interested in Western music. But I worry that if things continue like this, then Thai music will disappear altogether.”
Pang credits some of her success to Thailand’s efforts to accommodate the blind. “We have excellent education and public transport systems for blind people,” she says.
But she worries that despite a progressive system, there is still prejudice. “Many people think those with disabilities can’t do the same job as others,” she says. “But blind people use computers and have Facebook accounts – there are so many things we can do.”
Evelyn Melling, 15
Evelyn Melling was sleeping when the gunshots began, one early morning in January. She only had time to grab a few items of clothing and a bit of food. Minutes later, she was leaving behind her life as an eighth-grade student in Kajo Keji, a South Sudanese town that had until then been spared from the conflict ravaging her country.
Melling, her mother and her two siblings then embarked on a dangerous trek to neighboring Uganda. Her older brother was separated from the family as they walked through the South Sudanese bush.
Today, she lives in the crowded Palorinya refugee settlement. Her brother is at another settlement, located hours away. Melling no longer goes to school, instead spending her days the same way as every other young woman in the settlement: waiting for her turn to collect water at the tank closest to her family’s tent.
“You go and fetch water. You cook. You go to the market,” she says, explaining that boys and men often pass the brunt of the burden to their female relatives and neighbors, asking them to perform errands for them. “The men just sit and wait. They make my life more difficult.”
Each morning, Melling places her yellow jerry can in a line behind dozens of other cans, and goes to sit in the shade of a nearby tree, waiting for all the women in front of her to fill up their containers. Usually, it takes Melling five hours to fill up her jerry can just once. That’s barely enough water for each member of her family to take a few sips and cook some porridge. Then, she gets back in line to wait again. “I have to wake up so early,” she said. “Before anything else, I bring my jerry can to put it in line.”
Before becoming a refugee, Melling had wanted to become a doctor. Now, she can only focus on her daily survival. “I just want a better life than what I have here,” she says. “I fear not being able to finish school. I don’t want to have to get married.”
Saira Banoo, 14
Saira Banoo spends five hours a day taking care of an eight-month-old baby in an upscale neighborhood in Gurgaon, a city about 20 miles (32km) south of New Delhi. She lives in a very different part of the city – a slum ringed with high-rises and sprawling bungalows. There, she shares a cramped single room with her parents and three siblings.
It wasn’t always like this. Until last year, she and her siblings lived with their grandfather in the countryside, while their parents – a domestic helper and a deliveryman – worked in the city. “The village was fun,” she recalls. “The day would go by playing with friends and attending school.”
When their grandfather died, Banoo and her siblings moved in with their parents. She and her older sister decided to drop out of school and go to work to supplement the 35,000 rupees ($500) her parents bring in each month. Banoo got a job as a nanny and her sister works as a domestic helper.
“We thought we should help our parents educate our little brother and sister,” Banoo says.
After spending her mornings taking care of her employers’ baby, Banoo returns home and prepares lunch for her younger siblings, whom she watches until her older sister or her parents come home.
She says she discovered her knack for taking care of children in the second grade, when her teacher asked her to help monitor the younger children. “I liked that responsibility,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do when I grow up – I want to be a teacher!’ But that now seems difficult.”
Banoo loves to read, but today the only books she can get are the textbooks that belong to her younger siblings, who are in the first and second grade.
Lia Fernandes Peixinho, 18
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
For now, Lia Fernandes Peixinho is following in her mother’s footsteps. Her mother works as a community health agent in Rio de Janeiro’s slums, or favelas. Thanks to a training program for teenagers called RAP da Saúde, Peixinho is now a community health agent as well. She works in Jacarezinho, a favela wracked by violence, located not far from the quieter favela where she lives, called 110.
“Since we agents are from the slums, living the same reality as the people we talk to, it makes it easier for them to open up about their problems,” she says.
As a community health agent, Peixinho carries out disease prevention and health promotion activities, including workshops and theatrical performances. She frequently encounters women dealing with domestic violence, but says they don’t necessarily realize it’s a problem. “When a woman says, ‘Oh, my husband pushed me because I didn’t cook dinner,’ even if she doesn’t realize that it’s wrong, talking about it is a start,” she says.
Peixinho is also a freshman in college, majoring in museology (museum curation). As a girl from the slums studying at a top-rated public university, she finds that she can’t always relate to classmates who came from private high schools. “I have friends who have been to the Louvre and other famous museums, and I have only been to the ones in Rio,” she says.
But the disconnect she feels from some of her classmates only intensifies Peixinho’s desire to work in her chosen field. “I want to revolutionize museology, and bring others from the favelas into it,” she says.
Pauline Muthuita, 17
When Pauline Muthuita lost her father, she felt like her world had ended. She was in primary school, but when her mother was forced to move the family to a rough Nairobi slum called Embakasi, Muthuita had to drop out.
“There was a lot of crime, and my mother didn’t think it was safe for me to go to school,” she says.
But Muthuita’s fortunes changed when she was granted a scholarship to go to a better school from the leadership incubator Akili Dada, which gets its name from the Swahili for “brainy sister.” She also went through the NGO’s Young Changemakers program, which seeks to develop teenage girls into leaders for their schools and communities.
Pauline now advises her peers, many of whom she says would rather be on the streets. She tells them that education will improve their lot in life, more so than becoming gangsters, drug dealers or prostitutes. She also speaks to adults in her community about the need to value girls’ education, and they often send her their children to counsel when they act up.
“Before I joined Akili Dada, I was not a courageous person,” she says. “They’ve made me able to speak out to older people, even in church, and that’s something I never thought I would do.”
Muthuita now has her sights set on university, specifically Yale, which is one of Akili Dada’s partnership universities. There, she hopes to study mechanical engineering, a field she chose not only because she hopes it will lead her to a well-paid career, but also because she simply loves physics. “I’ve talked to a woman who’s a civil engineer and she told me, yes, it’s hard,” Muthuita says. “But what is hard is right for me!”
Riefqah Cassiem, 16
Cape Town, South Africa
When Riefqah Cassiem is asked a question, she takes a moment to think quietly before responding. This trait no doubt serves her well in her role as peer educator for the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Peer educators undergo training that they then bring back into their schools, where they teach fellow students to challenge harmful myths and stereotypes that perpetuate sexual violence.
Cassiem says she was inspired to become a peer educator because of the high rate of rape in South Africa; last year, more than 50,000 sexual offenses were reported to the police, and many more go unreported. Her favorite part of the job is just being able to offer her support to classmates who may have nobody else to turn to. “I’ll always be there for someone who needs to talk,” she says, sitting on a bench at her school in Cape Flats, on the outskirts of Cape Town.
Cassiem says her role as a peer educator has helped her, too, increasing her self-confidence. “Now, I can say no when I know something is not right for me,” she says.
When she’s not busy challenging patriarchal norms, Cassiem dreams about a time when she can reach beyond her community to help others. “I would like to become a social worker or start my own foundation to help those living in poverty, particularly to make sure that everyone has access to clean food and water,” she says.