My daughter Paula died in my arms at the age of 28, one year after being diagnosed with a rare disease and falling into a coma. After patiently watching me grieve for another three years, a time so filled with darkness I could not even weep, my husband Willie announced I needed a change of scenery and insisted we take a trip. I chose India because it was a place Paula had always wanted to visit.
After several days touring New Delhi, a city of heat and humidity teeming with every form of humanity in all its misery and glory, Willie and I booked a trip to the countryside. A turbaned and mustachioed guide named Sirinder picked us up from our hotel, the ornate former palace of a maharaja, and drove us west, into the neighboring state of Rajasthan. We traveled for hours through the heat and dust, stopping at intervals to drink a cup of chai, to ride an elephant and to wander through a village market, where I bought handfuls of silver bracelets that reminded me of the bangles Paula always wore.
Late in the day, when the sun began its descent toward the pink horizon, we spied a lone tree standing in an otherwise empty desert. Beneath the tree was a scattering of curious black-clad figures. As we drew closer we saw that the figures were a group of women, surrounded by several children. I called out to Sirinder to halt the car and walked, alone, to the tree. The women, clearly surprised to see us stop, rose to greet me, chattering in a language I did not understand. We communicated through gestures and smiles. After awhile, growing bold, they began to touch my hair and my clothing, holding their arms up to mine to compare our skin tones. I had nothing else to offer, so I handed out the bracelets I had bought earlier in the day. The women slid them over their thin wrists, giggling like schoolgirls.
When Sirinder sounded the horn, indicating it was time to go, one of the women cradled my face in her worn hands and kissed my forehead. Her gesture, so gentle and unaffected, brought me to tears, the first I had shed in a long time. Confounded by my sadness, the women comforted me tentatively, their kohl-rimmed eyes dark with sympathy. I kissed them goodbye and began to walk to the car, but before I arrived I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned back. One of the women stood before me, holding out a soiled bundle. I shook my head to communicate that no present was necessary. Gesturing again that I should take what appeared to be a clump of rags, she pushed her gift into my arms and hurried to rejoin her companions. I peeled away the top layer of filthy cloth to discover a tiny newborn as dirty as its meager covering. Seeing what I held, Sirinder shouted at me to put the baby down, yelling that it was dirty and diseased, but I was too stunned to do anything but hold the child to my body, rocking gently. He grabbed the bundle from my arms and marched angrily toward the women, who drew back in fear. When no one moved to take the baby, he placed it on the parched ground beneath the tree and stormed back toward the car. Willie, who had run over as soon as Sirinder snatched the baby, wrapped me in his arms and ushered me into the vehicle. I sobbed into his chest as we drove off, the black shapes beneath the tree quickly receding in the waning light.
“Why did that mother want to give her baby away?” asked Willie, visibly shaken.
“It was girl,” Sirinder answered curtly. “No one wants a girl.”
When I think back to that dirty, rag-wrapped baby—who if still alive would be a young woman now, around the same age as my granddaughters—I am filled with sorrow; her tiny face haunts me still. How different her life would have been if I could have taken her home and raised her as my own, filling her head each night with stories of how her mother loved her so much she gave her away to a stranger.
But I could not take her home. However, as Sirinder drove on and I wept in Willie’s arms, something blossomed within me. Those moments when I held that baby girl in my arms planted a seed in my mind: the idea that I should continue my daughter’s work. Paula was a teacher and a psychologist; she dedicated herself to helping others. Her mantra in life—a mantra I adopted in the years after her death—was “You only have what you give.” I could not save that one baby, but I would do whatever I could to help other babies like her. I would do whatever I could to prevent another mother from feeling such desperation that she would push her baby into the arms of a passing stranger in the hope of providing a beloved daughter with a better life.
Soon after returning from India I founded the Isabel Allende Foundation. Its mission is one that was dear to my daughter’s heart: to empower women and girls by protecting them from violence, exploitation and discrimination, and providing them with access to reproductive self-determination, healthcare and education. According to the UN, women like those I met beneath that tree in India make up 70 percent of the world’s 1.5 billion people living in absolute poverty. They are the marginalized and forsaken, the poorest of the poor, consistently earning less than men for the same work—assuming they are paid at all. Although women perform two-thirds of the world’s labor, they earn just 5 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property. Economically speaking, they are all but invisible—and invisibility equates to powerlessness. Worldwide, most women and girls live under a cloud of violence and vulnerability, subject to patriarchal traditions that thrive in the poorest and most backward of societies. Females are denied food, education and health care; married off as children; coerced into labor and prostitution; forced to have children they don’t want or can’t afford; and raped, beaten and even killed without repercussion. They have no control over their bodies, much less their lives. Even in developed countries, where women who are educated and economically independent fare relatively well, patriarchy undermines women’s freedom in the form of job discrimination, unequal pay and an escalating assault on reproductive rights.
Women make up 51 percent of the population, and educating and empowering them is the key to peace and prosperity. When women are empowered—when they control their minds, their bodies and their finances—everyone benefits: individuals, families, communities and the world. Studies have shown that educated women have fewer children, and that women with income and assets funnel more money toward food, medicine and education for their families than do men when they control the purse strings. The future of our planet depends on capitalizing on the abilities of more than half the world’s population.
Although my foundation has grown over the past 18 years, awarding grants to more than 100 nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping hundreds of thousands of destitute women and girls worldwide, the work we do is still just a drop in a bucket of overwhelming need. Still, each life we touch brings us closer to our vision—to Paula’s vision—of a world in which girls have an opportunity to achieve their full potential and women can participate as equal members of society. Every time I sign a foundation check for one of the many nonprofits we have supported over the years, I remember that baby girl in India; I feel her tiny form in my arms. I also feel my daughter at my side, and I hear her words: You only have what you give.
That is why I am Rising for Justice.
Find out more about the Isabel Allende Foundation HERE