I was born into a middle-class family in Southern California. My dad was a salesman, my mom a homemaker with 5 kids. So normal, right?
My dad was also an alcoholic, a womaniser and a wife (and kid) beater. My mom did what she could to protect us, but eventually she was frightened enough to get help. She was stronger than I ever thought she could be, and finally kicked my dad out, got a divorce, found jobs (sometime 3 at once), and got government assistance. We were evicted from our home, so my brothers went to work, and eventually, things settled down and we were a relatively normal ‘single-parent’ family.
Fast forward to my junior year of high school, I got pregnant. I had been warned not to have sex, or if I did, to “use protection”, but what did that mean? I didn’t know where to get condoms, nor did I have the courage to do so. But one day, I got into a huge fight with my mom, and she asked me, “What is the matter with you? Are you pregnant?” I thought I might be, but said, “I don’t know”. She suggested that I’d better find out before it’s too late.
So that is when I found my own strength and realised that I could take care of myself. I knew I did not want to drop out of school and have a baby. I found a safe medical provider and as she prepped me for the procedure, she guided my hand onto my belly and said, “Someday you may want to have a baby, when the time is right for you. It is just not the right time now.”
Violence Against Women – A Global Phenomenon
Fast forward again. I had a good job and felt pretty self-secure. Until, one night, when I came home late and the next thing I knew, I had a knife at my throat and I was raped. I survived the ordeal, and it made me stronger as a person. This may also be one of the reasons I support women-related social issues.
Fast forward again, I was studying abroad and met a wonderful guy; we traveled to Turkey and India, fell in love and got married. We eventually joined the Peace Corps. We lived in a remote village on an island and learned to live as the local villagers did. I worked with the women, who worked incredibly hard to provide for their families; they wanted their children to have a better life, to be educated, get jobs, to build their communities. One woman, Frieda, looked like she was 60 years old, but she was only 36! She had been married at 14 and had 15 pregnancies, but only eight surviving children.
The India Story
My work in this sector brought me to Mumbai, and I am often witness to gender inequalities and the ill manner in which girls and women are treated. Girls in urban areas like Mumbai may be better off, but girls from the rural regions of the country face a lot more issues. These girls may love going to school; their teachers inspire them to dream of one day being a teacher themselves, or maybe an engineer or mathematician. But will these little girls realise their dreams? Will they continue to grow and learn, bringing value to their families, communities and country as a whole?
For many girls, such dreams never turn into reality. Rather, as a girl reaches puberty, her world closes down around her, she is taken out of school to be married or to work at home. It is no longer proper for her to meet with her friends in the village to play and explore; it is now too dangerous for her to be out without adult male supervision. Her daily routine doesn’t include time to daydream, but only for household chores. All too soon, she finds herself pregnant, and if she survives childbirth, she takes on the burdens of motherhood. She has no power to decide who she wants to be, how she wants to live her life, and what goals she will accomplish. She has no voice in the decisions that shape her future.
The Global Story
My story, Frieda’s, and that of girls in India are not so different. Globally, stories like these are being played out in countries both rich and poor. If women have no control over their lives, if they can’t even decide if or when to have children, if they can be beaten and raped, if they can be married off when they are only children themselves, then they will never be able to improve the lives of their children, communities or nations. There is increasing recognition that these social norms and behaviors have to change, not just for girls and women, but also for men and boys, and for whole nations. And empowered adolescent girls are the key!
Why Focus on Adolescent Girls?
Adolescent girls are the most overlooked population. In India, only one in 100 girls reaches class 12. India also has the world’s largest share of child brides and childbirth is one of the leading causes for death amongst 15-19 year old girls But, it doesn’t have to remain this way. If India enrolled just 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. Once empowered, more girls could realise their dreams…. to be teachers, scientists, doctors, even technology wizards!
There is growing momentum to mobilise the government, private sector and even civil society to invest in adolescent girls, as apparent through campaigns such as International Day of the Girl Child, celebrated globally on Oct. 11, which raises awareness of both the plight and potential of girls.
Dasra, the philanthropy foundation for which I now work, is building a movement to foster girls’ empowerment in India through the Dasra Girl Alliance, a 5-year partnership with USAID, the Kiawah Trust, a UK family foundation, and the Piramal Foundation. Dasra also mobilises philanthropic investment in girls through events such as the Dasra Philanthropy Forums, recently held in London and San Francisco, aimed at driving Indian diaspora philanthropy to support Indian NGOs working on the ground with adolescent girls, their families and communities to change harmful norms and behaviour.
My life’s journey has allowed me to study, explore the world, and to have a beautiful baby boy. I have been inspired by the strong women and girls I have known, and know that all girls and women have aspirations. My passion and my work is to help them unleash their power within, their power with others, and to realise those aspirations.
 Patton, G.C., et al. “Global Patterns of Mortality in Young People.” The Lancet 374.9693 (2009): 881-892. Retrieved from http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2809%2960741-8/fulltext
About the author: Laurette Cucuzza is the Senior Technical Advisor to the Dasra Girl Alliance through a USAID Global Health Fellowship
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory)