Bowled over by Jessica Posner Odede

Girl Effect has reached more than 23 million young Indian women online

I was intrigued when media personality Alex Kuruvilla sent a tempting invitation to an evening of cocktails, connections and conversations about the ‘Power of Girl Effect’, hosted in the Zenith at the St Regis Hotel. Dressed in a crisp white blazer, Jessica Posner Odede, CEO of Girl Effect, an international NGO that helps girls in Africa and Asia make choices on multiple levels, was busy greeting invitees. Supporting her in this inspiring initiative was global media mogul Jonathan Newhouse.

Around us were some of India’s best known philanthropists, like Adar and Natasha Poonawalla. After the informal meet and greet formalities, Alex introduced Jessica and her dedicated team—giving guests an idea of what exactly Girl Effect is all about. It was left to Jessica to take us through her incredible journey from Kenya to India, that has led to Girl Effect making vital inroads and transforming lives of confused adolescent girls here and in Africa—those who have no direct access to much-needed information regarding basic female health. Nor do they enjoy the emotional support required to process sensitive matters involving taboo subjects—menstruation, contraception, pregnancy and more. It was when Jessica heard a teenager say, ‘the first time I menstruated and saw blood, I was convinced I was dying’ that she decided to do something about it and launch Girl Effect, which has reached more than 23 million young Indian women online.

Jessica Posner Odede | Courtesy Jessica Posner Odede | Courtesy

“Go forth and shine,” she urges girls, while encouraging confidential conversations in a safe environment through media and tech products. In India’s Hindi belt, Girl Effect proved to be a real boon, with young girls relating to content such as a specially created web series, chatbots, a girls-only Facebook group, and an informative website, which Jessica claims encourages every girl to write her own story. An online community—Bak Bak Gang—provides a safe space for non-judgmental conversations about love, life and sex. Bol Behen acts as a virtual big sister and offers advice to girls at every stage.

When the dynamic, articulate Jonathan proposed an eloquent vote of thanks, several questions arose in the room—around how one could contribute. This was the prime objective of the evening, and it was heartening to see the passionate engagement of high-powered invitees, ready to open their wallets and extend support in whichever manner.

My husband and I were blown away by Jonathan’s prodigious memory—travelling across the world, interacting with hundreds of people as he has been doing for decades, Jonathan retains an awe-inspiring recall, even for the tiniest detail. He reminded both of us about our conversation back then, and we shared a few laughs—mainly over my tattoos and his! Since mine are powerful pro-women Kanji symbols, they seemed an apt representation of Girl Effect—what a delightful coincidence. Jonathan said he had to make sure to cover his inking while travelling in Japan, where tattoos are associated with Japanese criminal gangs (Yakuza). While tattoos are not illegal in Japan, most visitors cover up at temples and shrines, and make sure not to expose their tattoos while strolling through the streets of the country. Phew! Jonathan just saved me from future embarrassment since we are travelling to Japan soon. Thanks Jonathan—that was a very valuable tip, indeed—I will make sure my arms stay covered!

As for Jessica, she made me aware of how urban, female youngsters living in Tier-1 cities, take sensitive information so much for granted. Compared with their less privileged counterparts across India, our young female adults are so much better armed to deal with adolescent challenges. It is time to step up and offer other far less informed counterparts the same knowledge-access as we enjoy.

@DeShobhaa @shobhaade