See the Invisible Girl: an Interview with Jill McElya of Invisible Girl Project

A few weeks ago I sat at my desk at home, typing out a blog about 200 million missing girls and deeply thinking about the impact of a single post. I knew I had found this amazing organization, Invisible Girl Project, but IGP was one of the only organizations on my list that I had not actually seen in action first hand. Knowing that I was likely just wishing on a star, I emailed their office to see if somehow I could get an interview with any of their staff members.

Last week, I went on a skiing vacation to Colorado with my husband, my family, and some friends. I left my computer, notebooks, and anything that resembled work at home. Naturally, that’s when I would hear back that not only would I be granted an interview from Invisible Girl Project, but actually with their founder and president, Jill McElya! I was overjoyed at the opportunity!

I have been so impressed by the work of Invisible Girl Project.  As I complimented Jill on the professionalism of their organization, she explained how she got started working as a young lawyer in India with International Justice Mission.

“I learned a lot from Gary Haugen,” she told me. “He always taught us to value professionalism and excellence, and that’s something I’ve carried with me ever since.”

Jill and her husband, Brad, were both working with IJM when they got married, and they spent their first year of marriage in India battling human trafficking on the front lines.

“It was life changing, getting to experience all of that together.”

During that first year, Jill and Brad learned of female infanticide- the killing of baby girls.

“That January, Brad took a trip down to a village where we heard it was commonly practiced, and he saw first hand that it was very real. There was actually a ratio of 8 boys to one girl in one village. As Brad met the key leaders in that community, they introduced him to the local midwife. They explained that she was the baby killer: she would watch to see the gender of each baby that she delivered and kill the baby girls.”

Brad met one woman who had given birth to twelve daughters. She and her husband had tried twelve times to have a son, and because none of the previous eleven children had been boys, they had murdered eleven baby girls. They finally gave up their hope for a son when their twelfth child was a girl, and they spared her life.

Jill continued, “Sometimes in India, people wait to name babies for weeks, sometimes months. It has to be the right circumstances, the right occasion. Brad paid that couple the equivalent of $4 for the privilege of naming that twelfth baby girl. Once a child is named, her birth is legitimized. He paid to legitimize her existence.”

Jill described how Brad returned and told her all of these stories in their apartment kitchen, tears running down both of their faces.

“We both felt an absolute compulsion to do something. That was the day that Invisible Girl Project was born.”

Jill and Brad read up on the subject of gendercide, learning the traditional customs of patriarchy and the cultural belief of the insignificance of women. They studied the methods and the reasons, and they sought out local institutions that were attempting to bring the injustice to an end.

“There were local groups of Indian people combatting gendercide at the time, but there were no international organizations. As we met the national organizations, we saw that they were doing all they could do; they just needed greater capacity. We could help with that.”

In early 2010, it became clear that this is what Jill and Brad were meant to do. They obtained their 501(c)3 non-profit status in 2011, and the organization has been fighting for little girls ever since.

“We currently have 275 girls enrolled in sponsorship programs and baby feeding programs, rescued from either gendercide or trafficking. We also make an effort to support women by showing their value- because they are valuable! And it’s so much more than economic value.”

IGP partners with national organizations to support women who don’t want to kill their babies.

“Most of these women don’t want to kill their daughters, but they are pressured by their husbands and in-laws. Through these partnerships, we are able to give ‘cow-loans’ to these women, which empowers them to sell milk to provide for themselves and their daughters.”

Jill told me a story about a grandmother whom she called “Padma*.”

“A year and a half ago, we met Padma in desperate need. Her daughter Prena* had married an abusive husband who insisted she give him a son. She got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. He forced her to get pregnant again, and she delivered a second daughter. He became extremely abusive when he saw that he had two daughters. When she gave birth to a third daughter, Prena became convinced that she was absolutely valueless. She doused herself in kerosene and set herself on fire, which resulted in her death.”

The three little girls were left with an abusive father who did not want them, so Padma took them in.

“When we met Padma, all three girls were in serious need. They all had scabies, and Padma was struggling to make ends meet. Our social worker partners were able to obtain a ‘cow loan’ for Padma, and now she can provide for herself and her granddaughters. All three girls are in our sponsorship program, and soon we hope to be able to help them get into a better housing situation.”

*Both Padma’s and Prena’s names were changed to protect the confidentiality of this family.
In addition to partnering with women’s support groups and social workers, Invisible Girl Project partners with children’s homes. One home in particular houses 120 at-risk girls, all of whom are enrolled in IGP’s sponsorship program.

“We make sure these girls are taught that they are inherently valuable. We also do classes with boys, teaching them to treat girls and women with dignity and value. We know that the way gendercide will truly stop is by ending this patriarchal culture, and education is key.”

This year Invisible Girl Project will be expanding into Delhi and further into Northern India. They are introducing literacy classes to women who often don’t even know how to write their own names; and they will continue to enroll at-risk girls into their sponsorship program.

“We typically rescue about thirty-five girls a year. Some people have told us, ‘Thirty-five girls is nothing! That’s just a drop in a bucket!’ But to those thirty-five girls, it is something! Their lives are forever changed!”

Jill continued, “We have close to two thousand signatures on our online petition, and we are hoping that legislation will be passed soon to demand accountability for gendercide, trafficking, and other injustices.”

As I write this, Jill is on her way back to India. “It’s always hard to leave my husband and now my own two daughters, but they know, this is what Mommy does.”

I asked Jill what advice she would leave with me for anyone who learns about this issue- or any other injustice- and wants to do something.

“I think it’s easy for us in America to turn a blind eye and say, ‘That’s on the other side of the globe.’ But put on these women’s shoes. If you were a women in India, pressured to murder your daughters, not knowing whether your husband or your in-laws would pressure you or support you, how would you feel? It doesn’t take much to raise awareness. Share with your circle, and encourage them to share with their circles. Post about it on social media- it doesn’t take much, and soon people are talking about it. I would encourage anyone who comes across something they’re passionate about to get involved and learn how they can make a difference.”

To learn more about Invisible Girl Project, visit their website here. Sponsor a little girl, sign the petition, commit to advocate, and See the Invisible Girl.

How did Jill’s story inspire you? Did her advice resonate with you? Share your thoughts below, and share this interview with your friends!

Chat next week,

xoxo, Robin

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