If my experiences have revealed to me one reality, it is that the most formidable problem plaguing our world today is not poverty or violence or environmental destruction or disease, but ignorance: the lack of a cosmopolitan cultivation that emboldens all people to realize their own voice, their common humanity, and their power to pioneer a new global order. So many of us are unable to peer beyond preconceptions and prejudices, even small ones, thus we shackle ourselves to an insular worldview and thwart not only our own self-realization, but the fulfillment of the dreams and hopes and full potential of the millions of people who are even less equipped to articulate their voice and seize their destiny. Because girls are so often the most affected by this problem, yet those most equipped to empower their communities, I strive to expunge this ignorance by transforming the way not only society views girls, but also how girls themselves view their potential for building global peace.  And I am already taking action to share this vision.

Galvanized by the poverty and oppression I witnessed against girls worldwide, I founded the international nonprofit organization Girls Helping Girls at age 15 to empower all girls to discover their rights and create collaborative and innovative social change. In less than two years, Girls Helping Girls has mobilized over 5,000 girls in nearly 20 countries to change their communities, training even the most destitute to create their own businesses and nonprofits, establish holistic education and income-generation programs for trafficking victims, launch microfinance programs for struggling entrepreneurs, become public speakers, build schools, and learn about global issues. As the CEO of Girls Helping Girls, I have additionally raised $30,000 to fund girls’ education, healthcare, scholarships, food and water, and other basic needs, and will continue to invest in girls’ initiatives by amplifying the scope and impact of our programs and our philanthropy while I am in college. I believe that in order to change the world, we must first understand it, and this is a core principle behind my efforts to connect girls from different backgrounds to learn about each other and then transmute their knowledge to tangible, collaborative action.

As a first-generation Asian American, my dream to empower girls was most fervently fueled by my desire to eradicate the inequalities that were plaguing girls in my home country of India: my counterparts and my sisters, who were just as intelligent and just as capable as I, were suffering—and still are—under the yoke of child marriage, prostitution, trafficking, entrenched discrimination, and lack of access to educational opportunities in an oblivious country and culture. It is for this reason that I established a Girls Helping Girls’ site in India, in a rural community in Jaipur. And this is why, just this past summer, I took three other girls with me for Girls Helping Girls’ first travel-abroad immersion program to Kolkata, India, to build a library and to organize two Peace-building Summits—providing business and vocational training, English-language, leadership, and self-esteem skills—for women and girls victimized by prostitution and sex trafficking in the red-light districts and slums of the city. It is precisely my rich heritage and my roots in a country halfway across the globe that has spurred me to seed and nurture an international community of girls empowering each other to make their world a better place.

I believe that all youth are a movement: a united and unstoppable force that can eradicate poverty, increase access to healthcare, reverse environmental degradation, and solve the world’s most pressing problems—if only they are given the tools and the opportunity. I strive to empower this movement, by effacing the ignorance that smothers our hope and energizing and equipping potential. We are all a mosaic of gifts, and all of us have the rich power to shape our globe and assert ourselves as ambassadors for change; if I could do one thing to change the world, it would be to awaken this active consciousness in every individual.

Sejal Hathi graduated this year from Notre Dame High School in San Jose, Calif. Her essay won 2nd place in the 2009 Growing Up Asian in America Essay competition (grades 9-12). The contest theme was “Change.”

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