En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future

Seven years ago, Tara Suri never would thought she'd be on her way to Sierra Leone as an advocate for women's health and rights.

Tara Suri is the 
Marie Claire and United Nations Population Fund winner of the fifth annual Americans for UNFPA Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Tara is blogging directly from her weeklong visit to Sierra Leone.

When I was thirteen, my grandmother told me that rape is the fault of the woman.

I'll never forget the way she stated it, so matter-of-factly, before going on to discuss the weather: Rape is the fault of the woman.

It was a remark that stunned me, burned me. Yet while my initial reaction was to turn my back on my Indian heritage, I also began to think about the larger, structural inequalities that perpetuated such perspectives. I began to see my relative privilege as an American, living in a country where for women, ceilings are made of glass instead of impenetrable stone. I knew I needed to do something.

Since I made that commitment, in eighth grade, I have started and collaborated on projects ranging from community organizing with sex-trafficking victims to working to promote girls' education. At school, I have focused my studies and research on how to effectively and innovatively transform the lives of women.

Now, seven years later, I am more passionate than ever and ready to embark on my most thrilling adventure yet as the student ambassador of Americans for UNFPA, an organization that builds support for UNFPA's work promoting the health and rights of women globally. This year, I have the incredible opportunity to advocate for and promote the synergistic impact that can result from empowering women. Back in May, I traveled to DC and had my first real experience lobbying government officials to increase support for UNFPA.

I'm now headed to Freetown, Sierra Leone where I'll be exploring and learning about UNFPA programs to advance the status of women. The itinerary is pretty packed – and potentially includes a visit with the First Lady! – but what excites me most is the prospect of meeting with 2011 Winner of the Americans for UNFPA Award for the Health and Dignity of Women, Juliana Konteh. As the Executive Director of the Women in Crisis Movement, a grassroots organization that has been bolstered by UNFPA's support, Juliana has built an effective program mitigating violence against women. In Sierra Leone, which has a history fraught with war and consequently, sexual violence, Juliana's holistic efforts to transform attitudes and communities are vital. I am sure she will provide me with valuable insight on how change really happens on the ground.

Listening to my grandmother seven years ago, I never could have imagined that I would be here, now, ready and exhilarated to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue about ending gender-based violence. In an increasingly globalized and fast growing world – in October, the the population will reach 7 billion- faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, this opportunity provides me with hope. I know if we collaborate and innovate, we change lives and we can change perspectives.

Marie Claire readers, I look forward to sharing my experiences with you!