A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.





Empowering Women to Hold Up Half the Sky

28 08 2009

Her family in need of money, at age 14, Abbas Be left her home in Hyderabad, India and went to New Delhi to become a maid…or so she thought. Instead, she was locked up in a brothel, beaten, gang raped, made to service customers sexually, made to watch girls who didn’t comply be murdered, and was never paid for her work. Eventually she was rescued by police and taken back to Hyderabad, where she found a home in a shelter that helps trafficked girls heal and learn skills for a new life. Abbas is getting an education, has learned bookbinding, is counseling girls on how to avoid being trafficked, and is earning enough money to help her sisters get an education and help them avoid being trafficked.

How can we improve the plight of women and girls globally? One very important way is through education, as is demonstrated in this story and many others in the upcoming book Half the Sky BookHalf the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which will be released on 9/8/09. The book is written by the husband and wife team of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and journalist and author Sheryl WuDunn, who have both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting. They wrote an essay called “The Women’s Crusade,” which is adapted from the book and appeared on 8/17/09 in the New York Times. Here are some of the things they report:

  • In 1990, while living and reporting in China, they read an obscure report that stated that 39,000 baby girls die in the first year of life annually in China because parents don’t get girls the same medical care they do boys.
  • A bride is burned once every two hours in India because the dowry isn’t high enough or the husband wants to get rid of her to marry someone else.
  • Anywhere from 60 to 107 million females are missing from the planet due primarily to not getting adequate nutrition and health care. This number is more than all the men who were killed in all the wars in the 20th century.
  • The poorest families in the world spend approximately 20% of their incomes on alcohol, prostitution, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts and only about 2% of their income on educating their children. Studies show that when women are able to have an income, it is more often spent on good food, medicine, and housing and children are healthier.
  • In some cases, fathers drink away $5 a week at bars…$5 that could purchase a mosquito net and save a child from dying of malaria.

Sometimes even the simplest things can make a huge difference in the lives of girls. Examples mentioned in the article are:

  • A study done in Kenya by Harvard economist Michael Kremer showed that the best way to motivate sixth grade girls to better academic performance is to offer them a $19 scholarship for seventh and eighth grade and recognition at an assembly.
  • In another Kenyan study, it was shown that dropout and pregnancy rates can be significantly reduced by providing a $6 school uniform to girls every 18 months.
  • Another way to keep girls from missing classes is to aid girls in menstruation by providing pads and a place to change them.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

President Obama has appointed a new White House Council on Women and Girls. Nicholas and Sheryl have three concrete recommendations for the Council, which would cost no more than the U.S. has given to Pakistan since 9/11:

  • Set aside $10 billion over the next five years to educate girls all over the world.  When Larry Summers was chief economist of the World Bank, he said that “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world.”
  • Sponsor a drive to help countries all over the world iodize salt and eliminate iodine deficiency. Approximately a third of households in developing countries don’t get enough iodine and it can affect particularly female fetuses and reduce girls’ IQs 10 to 15 points.
  • Provide $1.6 billion over the next 12 years to eradicate obstetric fistulas. A fistula is a hole formed inside a woman during a difficult childbirth and it can leave her smelly, incontinent, and shunned by her village. It only costs a few hundred dollars to repair.

There is a Chinese saying that inspired the title of the Kristof/WuDunn book:

Women hold up half the sky.

Sometimes women just need a little help. If you’d like to make a difference in the lives of women and children all over the world, here are just a few of the many organizations that would appreciate even a small donation:





Tis the Season…for Cutting Girls

5 12 2008

This is not a joyful time of year for girls in Kenya. It’s the cutting season.  Girls 10 years old or younger have their clitoris and sometimes their labia removed so they will be “clean” and to prepare them for marriage. This process is called Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This barbaric practice, considered a human rights violation by the United Nations, is done to girls as young as two years old with no anesthesia and a razor blade, knife, or even broken glass. Besides the initial severe pain, girls often experience lifelong problems and effects such as shock, excessive bleeding, infection, infertility, higher death rate for newborn babies, and even death.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100 – 140 million women and girls have experienced FGC. 2-3 million more are at risk every year, mostly in 28 countries in Africa, some Middle Eastern countries, some ethnic groups in South America, and Indonesia. FGC is a long-practiced custom and it is difficult to convince women to stop having it done to their daughters or granddaughters. In places where it is common, girls who are not cut are often ostracized.

The country where FGM is most prevalent is Egypt, with 78-97% having experienced it, followed by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Mali. Egypt passed a law banning FGM in 2007, as have many other countries. The U.S. passed a federal law banning FGM in 1996.

February 6, 2008 marked the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) fifth International Day against Female Genital Mutilation.  The UN has launched a multi-million dollar program to reduce the practice by 40% over the next seven years.

This video features some village women in Lunsar, Sierra Leone talking about the practice of cutting. Amongst their many startling (to our way of thinking) assertions is that if a girl bleeds excessively from being cut, it means that she is a witch.

Many girls in Kenya have recently fled to churches or rescue centers to wait out the November to December cutting season and escape forced genital mutilation. At this time of joy and celebration, if you’d like to do something to help protect the rights of these girls and women all over the world, consider making a donation to Americans for UNFPA.