Grade 12 student Anjali was recently awarded Plan Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 Award. This award recognizes Canada’s brightest youth, celebrating their innovation, leadership and achievement in creating positive change. Earlier in the year, she was also awarded the BC Community Achievement Award, which honours those who have made a significant contribution to their community through outstanding service.
Anjali is the founder of GirlsCo, a non-profit organization that seeks to educate and inform youth about the issues that women and girls face, while raising money for girls education in developing countries. As part of GirlsCo, she also founded Bombay Pads, a program to deliver sanitary pads and provide sexual education to schools and orphanages in India.
Anjali’s love for community service started in the home. “My whole family has always been involved in service,” says Anjali. “My parents instilled in me and my brother, from a young age, the importance of giving back.”
Both her parents grew up in small villages in South India. “My mom and dad did not grow up very wealthy,” says Anjali. “When my dad became a doctor, he had the means to donate and always found the time to give back. He helped out in soup kitchens and homeless shelters.”
Anjali’s passion for service grew during frequent trips to her family’s homeland. Anjali’s father made a point of showing his children where he grew up, and the orphanages near by. “When I was eight or nine my dad took me and brother to a slum ten minutes away from my aunt’s house in Mumbai,” remembers Anjali. “I was terrified and confused. It didn’t feel real – it looked like a movie. You don’t think that people live under blue tarps and that eight people can fit in a cardboard box.”
This surreal experience stuck with her. “I walked away feeling lucky. It gave me perspective – we are so fortunate to live in a house with food. ”
Service to the community started to become second nature to Anjali and her older brother Anjan. When she was in Grade 6, Anjali and Anjan (who was in Grade 9 at the time), decided to volunteer at a Canadian-run school in the Khar slums of Mumbai, through the organization One! International.
“It was strange seeing people similar to me – who looked like me and were even the same age as me,” reflects Anjali. “I could have easily been one of them, but just by the circumstance of being born in Canada meant I had a different life. I could have easily been born there. My volunteer experience in Mumbai gave me a lot of perspective when it came to complaining about tests, having too much homework or not having my own cell phone – these people didn’t have enough to eat.”
When she was in Grade 9 she visited the Khar slums again. There she met Amina, a girl her own age. “Her life was so different from mine. She had been raped, was pregnant, and abandoned by her family.” Other girls were being prohibited from going to school or were being taken out of school to be married off. Anjali couldn’t fathom the fact that no one was doing anything to help these girls, and that they had no support.
Upon returning home Anjali thought long and hard about what she could do to make a difference in the lives of girls like Amina. She started talking to her friends and family about what she experienced. “People were shocked and wanted to help out, but they didn’t know how.”
This is why Anjali started GirlsCo — to help raise awareness about the issues that women and girls face, and raise money for girls’ education in developing countries. She began sending out emails, contacting Justice for Girls, the Girls Action Foundation, the YWCA, and hosting small discussion groups at her home.
“I started GirlsCo to educate the public and my friends about what I experienced in India,” says Anjali. “It eventually became about raising awareness about gender inequality in Canada and beyond.”
GirlsCo arranges elementary school workshops that discuss the differences between Canada and countries such as India. They also organize an annual summit for high school students. This year the conference, held in May, was called “Conference Ignite” and featured workshops from Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and Women Against Violence Against Women. The keynote speaker was Almas Jiwani, the President of UN Women Canada.
Conference participants worked in groups to come up with a solution to a problem: how to help youth affected by domestic violence and abuse. The “winning” solution proposed was a domestic violence hotline run by youth. The group (which included YHS Grade 9 student Jasmine) was provided with funds to help them put that solution into action, and representatives from BWSS offered to assist.
Anjali has incorporated her passion for service throughout her time at York House. In Grade 7 she participated in a service project at the YWCA, and volunteered at Monroe House in Grade 9. She was a Student Ambassador in the Senior School, a member of the Globe Leader’s Group in Grade 8, organized the sponsorship of One! International with the Junior School Read-a-thon, organized a YHS presence at the Light the Night Walk, was a KidSafe at-risk youth tutor in Grade 11, and most recently acted as one of two Community Service Captains on the Student Executive.
In October 2014, Anjali was presented with two fortuitous speaking opportunities. She travelled to New York to speak to the United Nations on “what it means to be a girl”, for International Day of the Girl (read her message here). It was an experience of a lifetime. “I toured the General Assembly, and met the Head of UN Women and various diplomats.”
As Anjali was the only Canadian speaking at the UN, Dr. K. Kellie Leitch, the Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women in Canada, made a point of connecting with her. Dr. Leitch invited Anjali to speak at the Strong Girl, Strong World Summit held in Toronto a couple of weeks later. These two opportunities led to Anjali’s appointment to the Government’s newly created Girls Advisory Council.
The Council is similar to what to Anjali has already spearheaded with GirlCo. “They are hoping to start ‘girl committees’, where each committee has their own initiative within their community and tries to raise awareness and funds for it,” she says, giving domestic violence as an example. “The committees will have open discussions about the issues that girls face, and propose solutions. The Girls Advisory Council will work with the Minister of Status of Women to implement the solutions, and strengthen programs already in place.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Anjali to juggle her schoolwork, participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs, and find the time to keep up with her volunteer commitments.
“When I was Grade 10, I played played soccer and field hockey, and was in the school band. I would get up at 6am for band practice and get home at 10:30pm after field hockey practice and volunteering. But when you enjoy something, it doesn’t feel like a lot of work.”
Volunteering has put things in perspective for Anjali. “A lot of people get stressed out about academics. I do care about my marks, and obviously want to do well, but it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t get enough time to study for a test,” says Anjali. “I’ve learned that in the long run I’d rather be doing things that make me happy or help other people – that mattered more to me.”
Anjali will soon be joining her older brother Anjan (who is in his third year) at Stanford University this fall. She will be studying International Relations with a minor in Gender Studies. The school is a great fit for Anjali. “Stanford’s liberal campus and their initiatives for women, such as their policies around rape and sexual assault, appealed to me,” says Anjali. “Their recent conference on women and gender equality was similar to what we do at GirlsCo but on a much larger scale.”
Anjali hopes that in the future she can be involved in policy-making, human rights work, or research. We know that whatever she does, she will make a big impact.