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Sunday , April 29 , 2012
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Where dreams die a thousand deaths

Peter Buffett and (above) Jennifer Buffett with Apne Aap women at their hostel in Forbesganj, Bihar, during their India tour

Imagine if someone gave you one billion dollars with one condition: use the money to create positive change in the world. What would you do?

That’s exactly what happened to us in 2006, when we received a fax that changed our lives. Warren Buffett (Peter’s father) had decided to award our small foundation with a pledge valued at approximately one billion dollars with that one, simple, enormous requirement.

As we determined where to focus our giving, we were reminded of Warren’s own investment philosophy: invest in companies that are undervalued in the marketplace but which have great potential for growth.

Adolescent girls — who are profoundly undervalued but have enormous potential — clearly met this standard. Girls worldwide are less educated, less healthy and offered less opportunity than their male peers. But if given a chance, they will improve their own lives — and the lives of those around them.

We have just travelled to India to meet such undervalued girls. Through the work of our grantee partner, Apne Aap and the indefatigable founder Ruchira Gupta, we saw the realities of poor adolescent girls in Calcutta and rural Bihar.

These girls are born into economic and social circumstances where their bodies become their only asset. Entering prostitution at the median age of 11, girls are thrust into lives of unspeakable violence. Their human rights are denied from an impossibly young age.

As we walked the streets of Sonagachhi, one of the world’s largest red-light districts, we saw what happens when girls and women have so little power. They become commodities, to be bought and sold.

While the girls we met shared these harsh truths, they also shared their dreams and hopes. They described their powerful desire to remain in school to become teachers, doctors, actresses, and lawyers. Behind these dreams was always a larger ambition of giving back to their communities so that the next generation can live better and safer lives. And, of course, not one of them named prostitution as an aspiration.

As Fatima, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, told us, “How can this strangling of dreams be called ‘business’? Since I was nine, I have been living with girls whose dreams die a thousand deaths every day. We don’t want to sell our dreams. We want to live like you all. If you call this a ‘business’, our dreams, our aspirations will be shattered. Can someone give me a contract for selling my dreams? I am not ready to sell my dreams for this ‘business’. How many of you in this room want to sell your dreams? We have to fight against those who call this a ‘business’.

Around the world, we’ve seen what happens when we invest in girls’ dreams. When a girl gains the assets of education, good health and a supportive community before she reaches the crossroads of puberty, her life path changes. Her health and wellbeing improve. So do the prospects of her future family, if she chooses to have one. If invested in properly, girls can be leaders in building a world where every person has the opportunity to fulfil their highest potential.

It’s certainly not a world that prostitutes girls before they’ve had a chance to thrive, trapping them in that deeply exploitative form of violence, the world’s oldest oppression.

We have learned from both Gandhiji and his famous student, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, that no violence is inevitable, and that change starts with the most marginalised. Gandhiji said, “Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it?”

At the NoVo Foundation, we seek to follow that instruction — although in our work, we are led by the last girl. Others see her as a burden at best, a commodity in the sex industry at worst. We see her as a source of power to lead us all towards safer and more just communities and nations.

We return home with a renewed commitment to the girl effect, and we call upon our philanthropic peers in India to see that effect for themselves. Investing in girls — one of the most powerful, untapped forces on the planet — is an investment worth making.

The authors are Co-Chairs, NoVo Foundation. They were in Calcutta on April 4 and 5 to visit Sonagachhi and interact with members of Apne Aap as part of a “learning tour”