This year, for International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11, the international development organization, Plan International, took 500 young women from around the world and put them into their dream jobs for a day to prove that #GirlsBelongHere, whether it be in a law firm, politics, company executive teams, or any other profession.
I was lucky to sit down with Nirosha Balakumar, one of the young female leaders, who got to live out her dreams and prove that women can do any job we want.
About Nirosha Balakumar:
Balakumar is a third-year undergraduate student at Queen’s University, pursuing a major in Global Development and a minor in Gender Studies.
In January, Balakumar will be attending the Bader International Study Centre in England to specialize in International Law and Politics. She also globalized her degree by attending the University of Havana this past summer to study Cuban culture and society.
Balakumar is an active advocate for two of her strongest passions, human rights and social justice. She strives to educate, empower, and engage others in conversation by raising awareness and fostering environments for constructive dialogue. As a minority student leader on campus, Balakumar has diligently strived to create a safer and more welcoming campus for students of color, while questioning the institutional racism that is present.
She takes pride in her heritage as a South Asian and Caribbean female, with her roots deriving from both Sri Lanka and Trinidad, and hopes to be a positive role model for other women of color.
Balakumar is also a spoken word artist and has performed at over 30 events, including the International College Union Poetry Slam Invitational hosted in Chicago last spring. She uses her art as a platform to provide a voice and educate others on the pressing social issues of our society. Her hope is to help reach and communicate her message of education and empowerment to the youth of this generation in a way that is accessible and engaging.
I was able to chat with Balakumar about her involvement with Plan International, her journey thus far, ideologies for the road ahead and her advice for fellow striving young woman.
How did you get involved with the “Because I Am a Girl” initiative?
I became involved with Plan International’s “Because I Am a Girl” initiative about 5 years ago when I joined as a member of their Speaker Bureau. Through this program, I attended monthly meetings and gained an extensive amount of advocacy, communication, and presentation skills through a variety of workshops and trainings. The goal was to help foster and build youth activists by providing them with the necessary tools and platform. Through my years with the Speakers Bureau, I have had the opportunity to engage in media interviews with the press and, by far, one of my greatest achievements was being invited to a panel discussion with Princess Mabel of the Netherlands to discuss the detrimental impacts of child marriage and the steps being taken through grass-root movements. This year I was one of the 17 youth across Canada selected to participate in the international #GirlsBelongHere campaign. I had the incredible opportunity to join over 500 young girls across 60 countries in stepping into our dreams jobs for the day—challenging positions of leadership and engaging in spaces in which females are traditionally underrepresented, thus helping to ‘bridge the gap.’
What does International Day of the Girl Child mean to you?
In 2012, October 11thwas declared International Day of the Girl Child by the United Nations through a joint effort from Plan International’s initiative, “Because I Am a Girl.” To me, International Day of the Girl Child is a day for us to acknowledge and educate one another on the barriers that prevent young girls from thriving within their own societies. 62 million girls around the world are currently out of school and 15 million girls under the age of 18 will be married every year – that’s 1 girl every 2 seconds. On International Day of the Girl Child and every day, we work towards providing a platform for these voices to be heard. We work towards improving our communities and advocating for our sisters across the globe and within our own homes. International Day of the Girl Child is about advocacy, awareness, and education. It is about coming together and challenging societal norms and structural barriers.
What was it like having your dream job for a day?
This year, through the #GirlsBelongHere initiative, Plan International worked towards bridging the “dream gap“ — understanding and acknowledging that there are multiple barriers that prevent girls from fulfilling their dreams. Some of these include gender inequality, discrimination, and lack of access to rights such as education, health, and protection. I was honored to have the opportunity to share the office with Aboriginal Legal Services lawyer, Caitlyn Kasper. As an individual that hopes to pursue a career in human rights or international law, this was the ideal opportunity for me to learn first-hand from an inspiring and empowering woman in the field.
On October 4th, 2017, my day started off with attendance of a Sisters in Spirit Vigil that [Kasper] spoke at. This vigil was hosted by York Region Children’s Aid Society to honor the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We were welcomed by the Georgian Island First Nation community and spent the morning in the presence of some the strongest and most resilient women I have met. This morning consisted of a lot of learning and appreciation for the Indigenous culture and traditions that were shared. It was an opportunity for me to learn about the pressing issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, that is constantly overlooked and dismissed by our institutions. We often talk about the challenges girls face around the world and especially in the Global South, yet there is so little conversation surrounding the discrimination and oppression faced many Indigenous girls within our own communities.
After a very emotional and moving morning, we spent the afternoon at the Aboriginal Legal Services office in Toronto. Here I had the opportunity to engage and interact personally with [Kasper], by asking her a variety of questions about the legal field, how Indigenous issues are treated in a court of law, as well as the barriers faced prior to court rulings. She also gave me the opportunity to pull some files that we looked through together to help me better understand the kind of cases they receive, as well as the procedural steps that they must take. In sharing the office with [Kasper],I was able to visualize myself in a field and occupation that is often dominated by white males and was met with nothing but encouragement and motivation to pursue a legal field. I learned first-hand from a strong and inspiring woman that is breaking the glass ceiling with every step she takes. Having my dream job for the day made it no longer feel like a dream, but rather an attainable and perfectly achievable goal.
What are some challenges you’ve faced as a young, female activist?
As a young female activist, I have struggled with being dismissed and disrespected because of my identity. As a woman of color who is involved in the social justice realm, I think there is immense pressure to fight for our existence within the conversation. We are often judged for speaking out and speaking up. Many women of color are looked at as being outspoken and loud and are, thus, not taken seriously when they try to voice their opinion or are rather seen as aggressive. I’m constantly questioning myself and unsure of how others may view me. As a woman of color, it is challenging to stand up for what you believe in and be met with negativity and at times, unfortunately, hate speech. People are waiting to see you fall and fail, and there is this constant pressure to uphold this image. Being an activist isn’t easy. It’s not something you can just turn on and off. When you care, when you’re passionate, when it affects your everyday life, this is your full time job. Every day is taxing and a new battle. Every conversation in which you have to defend yourself and educate others or face ignorance is challenging. It isn’t easy when you are fighting for people to respect you, when all you are asking is for others to care about the discrimination and oppression that is so deeply ingrained in our society. There have been multiple times when I’ve wanted to give up and just live a “normal life.” I’ve wondered, would my life be different or easier if I just didn’t care as much? But the truth is, I was born into this identity, I didn’t choose to be living in a society that is structured to keep me marginalized. This is my reality, and if I don’t fight and speak up for myself, who else will?
What does feminism mean to you?
Feminism to me is about choosing equity over equality. It’s about acknowledging that we all come from different backgrounds and experiences that may present further barriers to attaining a certain goal or right. It’s not about fairness and treating everyone equally, but rather ensuring that everyone has what they need to be successful – and what one may need can differ based on their identity. We need to acknowledge that there are multiple factors that impact the way people in our societies are marginalized, whether that be race, sex, gender, class, ability, etc. Feminism to me is about taking these into account and striving to create an environment where we can all thrive, by catering to the multiple oppressions faced rather than generalizing them to one larger issue. Hence the saying, “Your feminism isn’t feminism unless its intersectional.”
What message do you have for young girls out there?
My message for young girls is to be your own definition of a woman—not what society has shaped you out to be. Defy the societal structure and break down the boundaries and walls you have been entrapped in from the minute you were wrapped in that pink blanket. Choose you. Choose what makes you happy. You are going to face a multitude of barriers and obstacles, but you must always remember to own your identity and the space in which you take up – don’t be afraid to claim that space. Be proud and be resilient, be unapologetically beautiful. Your mere existence is resistance.
Read more about Plan International’s #GirlsBelongHere initiative here and all the girls who were chosen to take on their dream jobs for a day.
Chocolate Lover – Bollywood Dancer – Bhangra Enthusiast – Mental Health Advocate. Jessie Brar studied psychology at Queen’s University and now works in youth mental health promotion with Jack.org in Toronto, Canada. Her spare time is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health in the South Asian community through The Mental Health Spotlight (@TheMHSpotlight). The Mental Health Spotlight is a project dedicated to erasing stigma around mental health and mental illness in South Asian communities through the power of storytelling. In her downtime, she can be found cuddled up watching/reading Harry Potter, eating Reese’s Cups, or dancing to Bollywood and Bhangra tunes in front of a mirror. Check out more of her work on her website here.
Sustainable development practices can be utilized as a model for addressing gender inequities worldwide. Empowering women with the resources to gain opportunities, learn skills and collaborate in a safe and welcoming environment is crucial to women’s growth and development as individuals.
After witnessing the first-hand effects of gender-based violence growing up in Guyana, Menakshi Babulall founded the Canadian nonprofit A Different View Project (ADVP) to promote and implement sustainable development methods across Guyanese communities. Vaksana, which means “nourishing/refreshing” in Sanskrit, is a branch of ADVP exclusively aimed at developing Guyana’s first eco-friendly women’s retreat center. The retreat will offer wellness activities, training services, regenerative farming and community outreach programs.
Babulall was inspired by Guyana’s rich rugged beauty as a child. Her dual passion for preserving the environment and aiding underserved communities contributed to her studying International Development at Toronto’s York University before launching a public service career. This eventually led her focus back to Guyana. Babulall talks to BG about her journey as the founder of ADVP, the progress of Vaksana and her perspective on sustainable and ethical charity work.
How and when did you create ADVP?
“ADVP was founded in 2016 with the vision of empowering communities and fostering sustainable development. The idea stemmed from my desire to create an organization that could address pressing social and environmental issues through innovative and collaborative approaches. One thing that fills me with immense pride is ADVP’s unique ability to bring together diverse stakeholders, including those from the diaspora, to create impactful projects that make a tangible difference in people’s lives while also providing them with an opportunity to connect with their homeland.”
ADVP has worked on projects within Guyana’s fertile Pomeroon-Supenaam region, a vast expanse of hills and villages that dot the Essequibo Coast. Past projectsinclude building a centralized outdoor recreation space for families and facilitating peer tutoring groups for children affected by COVID-related school closures. They also engage with the children of Queenstown Village through storytelling and interactive activities to nurture their passion for the environment. Overall, the focus of ADVP’s projects is geared toward education and sustainability while developing meaningful and positive relationships with the local community.
Babulall’s remigration to Guyana during the pandemic to oversee Vaksana was a humbling experience. Living in rural Guyana allowed her to witness the benefits that wellness and eco-tourism can bring to a community, but also highlighted entrenched socio-economic struggles. It heightened her senses of resilience, adaptability and empathy; all key facets she believed essential to an effective leader. She soon realized the importance of cementing Vaksana as a catalyst for positive change in the region, particularly as a safe haven for women and gender non-conforming individuals who may face discrimination.
“The idea of Vaksana was born out of extensive research and a deep-rooted passion for creating a transformative space that combines wellness, eco-tourism and community development. The journey began with a vision to create a place where individuals could experience holistic well-being, connect with nature and promote sustainable living.
Vaksana’s foundation is built on three essential elements: tourism, community outreach and regenerative farming/agriculture. These elements were thoughtfully chosen to ensure a holistic approach to personal growth, community empowerment and environmental stewardship. By integrating these pillars, Vaksana becomes a powerful force for positive impact, both within the retreat center and the wider community.”
Vaksana is an ode to Babulall’s Indian heritage that was originally displaced and irrevocably transformed upon arrival to the Caribbean. Like its namesake, individuals have the opportunity to reclaim and reinvigorate themselves. Future plans for Vaksana include a kitchen/restaurant alongside sustainable farming, a workshop/training facility and a multipurpose room offering wellness classes such as meditation and yoga in consultation with a behavioral psychologist and holistic therapist. Collaborations with local businesses and partnership with the University of Guyana ensures that Guyanese citizens are actively involved in every aspect of the project, providing employment opportunities and allowing them to take on leadership roles.
What is the current progress of Vaksana, and where do you hope to see the project in one year?
“As of now, Vaksana is in an exciting phase of planning and development. We have made significant strides in securing the land and are eagerly awaiting the approval of the lease for our carefully chosen site. Our dedicated team is diligently working on the architectural design and construction plans to bring our vision to life.
In one year, we envision Vaksana having completed its initial construction phase, with the retreat center standing proudly amidst the natural beauty of Guyana. We anticipate being fully prepared to open our doors and welcome our first guests to experience the transformative journey that Vaksana offers.”
Babulall believes in transparency regarding the difficulties faced with running a non-governmental organization. She has overcome several obstacles such as limited resources and bureaucratic hurdles by seeking collaborations, leveraging available resources and engaging in open dialogue with members of the community.
When asked about the misconceptions of running an NGO, she replied, “Many NGOs actually strive for financial independence by implementing income-generating initiatives and fostering partnerships that create long-term sustainability. Another misconception is that NGOs are not as efficient or effective as for-profit organizations. In reality, NGOs often have lower administrative costs and are driven by a strong sense of purpose and commitment.”
She also disagreed with the belief that NGOs only focus on aid/handouts and says, “Many NGOs prioritize community-driven development approaches, working with local stakeholders to identify their needs/strengths and supporting capacity-building initiatives that enable communities to thrive independently.”
By debunking these perceptions, NGOs such as ADVP can continue to attract like-minded individuals to participate in the diverse work they undertake to address social challenges and advance a more equitable future.
How would you suggest those get involved in ethical public sector/charity work?
“I would recommend starting by identifying your passions and areas of interest. Research and connect with organizations that align with your values and goals. Volunteer your time, skills or resources to make a tangible impact. Stay informed about social and environmental issues and advocate for positive change. Collaboration and learning from others in the field are also crucial for personal and professional growth.”
What is your ultimate goal and future plans for ADVP and Vaksana?
“My ultimate goal is to continue building ADVP as a leading organization in sustainable community development, promoting social and environmental justice. With Vaksana, we aim to establish a renowned wellness and eco-retreat center that serves as a model for sustainable tourism, community empowerment and holistic well-being. We envision expanding our impact, fostering collaborations and creating positive change at both local and global levels.”
Guyana’s raw and authentic lifestyle has left a profound impact on Babullal as an individual and a leader. While embarking on the Vaksana project has not been without roadblocks, she is grateful to have gained the strength to confront difficult realities head-on in hopes of creating a safe place for individuals to learn and flourish. She has found contentment in the beauty of Guyana’s lush surroundings and hopes that others find its premise rejuvenating and inspirational.
To learn more about ADVP visit their website here or follow them on Instagram.
To donate to the Vaksana project, visit their GoFundMe page.
Featured Image: Menakshi Babulall | Photo Courtesy of Menakshi Babulall
To overcome global challenges, collective investments and groundwork are fundamental in advancing an equitable future across diverse communities. Sustainable development — a development that promotes growth through social, economic and environmental progress without compromising natural resources — is essential for human survival. At the young age of 21, Nirmala Ramprasad founded Green Dupatta, a sustainable development charity organization, and advocated for its importance through multiple pageant ambassadorships. As a philanthropic representative for the Indo Caribbean diaspora, her work showcases how individuals of any age have the ability to be changemakers for social advancement in areas such as environmental and agricultural protection and education.
In conversation with Ramprasad, the following answers have been edited for clarity and concision.
Growing up, did you resonate with your Indo Caribbean heritage? What ideals do you most connect with and want to pass on in creating positive change?
As a mixed-race person who grew up primarily within the Indo Caribbean community, I have always felt deeply connected to my culture and heritage. As a child I was fully immersed in all things Guyanese (I refused to wear anything but a lehenga to every school picture day). From a young age I was exposed to, and learned about, our music, food, political climate, history of indentureship and the importance of our cultural connection to India.
In regards to my nonprofit work, one of the most important lessons I take from my Indo Caribbean culture is the significance of ancestral knowledge and practices. One of the main tenets of my nonprofit work is sustainability and I have found that the most effective and practical sustainability practices can be found when we look back at the way our ancestors treated the land they lived on.
Although we are all changemakers in some way, I always advocate for community involvement in not only development, but also sustainability practices.
Can you describe what Green Dupatta is?
Green Dupatta is a sustainable development non-profit that I started when I was 21 and have since completed projects in Canada, Guyana, India and Trinidad. I work directly with project participants to co-create community-based spaces and programs that increase environmental awareness, food, water security and access to quality education through sustainable development models.
While most of Green Dupatta’s fundraising efforts take place in Canada, community projects are mainly done in Guyana and India.
In 2020, Ramprasad traveled to Guyana to work with locals in the town of Leonora. Together they replaced leaking zinc roofs, restored plumbing to old drains, re-poured concrete exteriors and repaved and repainted buildings to be used for yoga and meditation classes, affordable daycare and community gardens. To ensure donations are maximized, local contractors are always utilized. Green Dupatta aims to repair and reuse as many materials as possible. It does not dictate what the spaces should be used for, instead assists the community in having the agency select programming that benefits residents.
Across India, Ramprasad detailed Green Dupatta’s completion of seven projects in seven weeks in an eight-part YouTube docuseries. With partnership from JDS Public School in Varanasi, Green Dupatta constructed two sports facilities for student health, engaged in community outreach awareness campaigns on women’s empowerment and environmental conservation, aided in scholarship opportunities for students, helped create a community garden and provided the school with a system to harvest and irrigate water.
After this, they traveled to Devdaspur, a village with no clean water, to install a well with a shower enclosure, a water purification system and reservation tank, and a fenced enclosure food plantation. With their new ability to easily access clean water, people in Devdaspur showed an increase in social, economic and health outcomes. The community now had the resources to lower the percentage of water and hygiene-related illnesses, increase food and water independence, increase school attendance for children and increase productivity for adults, seeking work, without having to take time to filter or find clean water for their families.
Through successful sustainable development projects, resources are conserved and enhanced to empower communities to meet their needs, irrespective of their size or location. Like many sustainable development nonprofits, Green Dupatta’s international service delivery was significantly impacted by COVID-19 due to limitations with travel and in-person fundraising.
As a result, Ramprasad turned to her career as a special education teacher and utilized her knowledge to focus on a project that would directly help Toronto’s families and their schoolchildren.
Created as an emergency response to COVID-19 school shutdowns, Green Dupatta’s ‘Furnishing Minds’ project, “is based on a circular economy model in which slightly-used educational resources are redistributed to families in need.”
Since the program began in 2020, more than 1400 pounds of educational resources and curriculum-based materials have been redistributed within the Greater Toronto Area. Its success led to the project being formalized annually. Green Dupatta currently showcases free online guides to the Ontario curriculum, by grade level, for families looking for strategies to help their children’s academic growth and achievement.
Is Green Dupatta currently looking for more educators? How can people get involved?
I am always looking to expand my team! We are really lucky to have dedicated volunteers from a variety of different sectors and backgrounds. Nonprofit organizations can always use all the help they can get — we have general volunteers, event volunteers and sub-committee program volunteers. Anyone looking to get involved can directly message us on Instagram or our website.
What is your vision for Green Dupatta in the next five years?
In addition to co-creating new community projects and programs, I hope to continuously expand current Green Dupatta projects. With a larger team and additional funding, I would like to strengthen and scale our Furnishing Minds program, as well as increase our international presence, to fill needs and advocate for these communities. In order to build organizational capacity we are always looking to partner with like-minded individuals, businesses and other nonprofit organizations. In the past we were lucky to work with supportive organizations that provided valuable services, resources and expertise.
Outside of Green Dupatta and teaching, Ramprasad has a history of competing in pageants that reflect both her Indo Caribbean heritage and passion for service. She won the Miss West Indian Canadian pageant in 2015 and subsequently became the first Canadian representative at the Divali Nagar Queen Pageant in Trinidad and Tobago where she was awarded second runner-up. In 2020, she was invited to compete as Guyana’s representative in the Miss Face of Humanity Ambassador Search, an international event that showcases female changemakers from around the world. Ramprasad believes that competing in pageants offered, “a platform to educate others about my organization, and the importance of sustainable development as well as an opportunity to showcase myself as an individual capable and dedicated to carrying this torch.”
How was it representing Guyana on a global stage at the 2020 Miss Face of Humanity? What platform did you run on, and what message do you have for the next generation of Indo Caribbeans?
The Miss Face of Humanity competition was a unique experience for me as I was given the opportunity to represent both Guyana and the Green Dupatta Charitable Organization. I explored their intersection and looked at how my homeland and culture has impacted both my core values and philanthropic work.
Being part of a diasporic community is a uniquely beautiful, but also quite complex, place to be. All of our experiences are vastly different — some people feel deeply connected to their communities and some feel very far removed. Although there are many struggles that come from being once, or twice-removed, people are facing much different struggles in the places our ancestors called home.
My advice to the next generation of Indo Caribbeans is to remember that a diasporic community is very different from a local one. Although some of us may feel very connected to our communities and cultures as they are practiced abroad, we should make space to amplify the voices of our motherlands and remember to give back to places that have given us so much.
Ramprasad says juggling work and leading a nonprofit can be deeply taxing; often fielding criticism and making personal sacrifices. Nonetheless, she loves what she does and is eager to implement sustainable development practices around the world. Through these projects, communities are equipped with the techniques, tools and knowledge to uplift themselves. Ramprasad is forever grateful that she was drawn to a life of service and believes that it is of utmost importance to actively collaborate with communities in order to preserve the environment and improve the access to quality education.
To learn more about Green Dupatta, visit their website. You can follow Nirmala’s journey on Instagram @nrampsy.