Empowering Girls Around the World

When Sarah Rafferty speaks of a moment that resonated with her from a trip to Ghana in March 2017, she remembers a 14-year-old girl named Loretta shaking her hand and promising not to get pregnant at her young age. This may seem like a strange promise for a girl to make, but in Ghana young women are often denied the freedom to decide if or when they want to have children, and the conditions of those pregnancies.

Fourteen-year-old Loretta shares her play script with Sarah Rafferty after class lets out in Ghana’s Volta region.
James MacDonald / Plan International Canada

Globally, about 16 million girls aged 15 to 19 give birth every year, with the highest rates in sub-Saharan countries such as Ghana. Many of these expecting mothers then face barriers when seeking adequate care, which include a lack of transportation to and from remote villages and a general lack of awareness around the importance of maternal, newborn and child health services. So, Loretta’s promise to the American actress was in fact a remarkably bold statement — one that declared she was taking control of her own body.

Sarah Rafferty meets with mothers and their children in a small village located within Ghana’s Accra region.
James MacDonald / Plan International Canada

A Celebrated Ambassador for Plan International Canada since 2014, Sarah visited Ghana to witness how its programs are helping empower children, especially girls such as Loretta, by providing them with an education, healthcare and protection. Plan International — one of the world’s oldest and largest international development agencies — implements these programs in more than 50 developing countries and works to end global poverty, advance children’s rights and transform power relations so that girls everywhere can learn, lead, decide and thrive.

Sarah says she witnessed more evidence of this progress inside a small classroom located in Ghana’s Volta Region. She remembers the excitement and the electricity in the room as students answered a question asked by local Plan International staff: What is your dream for the future? Hands shot up immediately, children eager to speak up for themselves and the betterment of their community. For some students, the dream was to become a doctor, a lawyer or a farmer. For others, like Loretta, it was to become a playwright and an actor — something Sarah could relate to immediately.

The accomplished actress, best known for playing a strong female lead on the hit television show Suits, calls her everyday life “girltastic.” She is the proud mother of two girls, and alongside her two sisters, they now have seven daughters between them. “When I met Loretta and so many other kids in Ghana, I couldn’t help but see my own girls and think about their hopes for the future,” she says. “What I learned was how universal dreams and aspirations are. So are our rights and needs, but they are not met equally, and that is especially true for girls.” And when it comes to gender equality, she learned that it takes a village.

Sarah Rafferty is welcomed by a group of smiling school children in a small town within Ghana’s Shama district.
James MacDonald / Plan International Canada

During the time she spent in Ghana, Sarah met with elders, mothers and fathers who, with support from Plan International, are challenging gender norms and changing their own behaviours to create a better life for their children. For example, she met with men who are learning how to cook and clean to broaden the definition of “providing” for their families — this, despite the risk of being shamed by community members for going against traditional gender roles. Meanwhile, women are volunteering to learn how to treat illnesses so they can support remote villages where sick children don’t have access to formal health care.

“For me, this is proof of how Plan International’s programs are empowering the community members themselves to make changes,” says Sarah. Sarah not only stands as a voice for the cause, but also as a role model for youth in Canada and around the world. She’s participated in multiple events for International Day of the Girl, commemorated on October 11 every year to shine a light on the myriad of issues that affect girls worldwide.

Sarah Rafferty poses with a group of young women to celebrate International Day of the Girl on October 11 — a day that shines a light on the gender-based barriers that affect girls worldwide.
Plan International Canada

In October 2017, she joined Plan International Canada’s President and CEO, Caroline Riseboro, for a roundtable in Toronto with a group of young leaders to discuss the state of gender equality in Canada.

“It’s so inspiring to have Sarah Rafferty involved in these conversations, because she personifies what girls can achieve when they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams, ” says Riseboro. “These intelligent young women have already empowered themselves to lead and make a difference. I know having cheerleaders like Sarah in their corner is an incredible shot of confidence.”

This recent conversation about dreams and gender equality in Toronto on International Day of the Girl transported Sarah back to Ghana; back to a handshake with a young girl named Loretta, and the realization that, while young people in Canada may face different obstacles than those in Ghana, a dream is a dream. In that way, we’re all the same.

“Everybody wants the best chance for their kids,” Sarah said. “My time in Ghana was a true life lesson —that we have so much more in common; so much more that unites us than divides us.” To learn more about Plan International’s programs in Ghana, and to endorse its work to help break down barriers for women and girls, visit changethebirthstory.ca.