Wife of former British PM teams with Meera Gandhi to support charity

MSNBC, December 1, 2008


From left, Cherie Blair, Meera Gandhi and Dr. Nevin Gokalp at a charity event for Cry America in Eleanor Rooseveltís former New York City home on Oct. 11.

Each month, Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity's work on behalf of a specific cause. This month, we speak with Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Meera Gandhi, humanitarian, diplomat, businesswoman and mother, about their involvement in charities that help impoverished children in India.

Cherie Blair is the president of The Loomba Trust, a U.K.-based charity that educates children of poor widows in India. The charity is named after Shrimati Pushpa Wati Loomba, who became a widow at age 37 in 1954 in Punjab. Although she had no formal schooling herself, she managed to educate all her seven children single-handedly.

Meera Gandhi is involved with CRY America and Childrenís Hope India. CRY stands for Childrenís Rights & You and seeks to bring awareness of childrenís rights in India to people around the world. Childrenís Hope Indiaís mission is to give poor children in India a chance for a better life through 30 different projects in India and the United States. Childrenís Hope India launched a program in a slum community in Delhi called Asha Prayas, which provide services from a childís infancy into adulthood.

Cherie Blair

Question: What brings you out to support CRY America?

Blair: Meera Gandhi is a friend of mine, and she invited me here. And, of course, I have lots of connections with India through the Indian community in the U.K. and through the Loomba Trust, which is a charity for widows that Iím involved in. And, I know a lot about the plight of children in India, so this is obviously a very good cause.

Q: What energizes you to help out with charities?

Blair: I think the more you give, the more you get back.

Q: Is there one moving experience that youíve had while working with any charity in particular that sticks out in your mind?

Blair: There are lots of experiences. One of the things that Iím very interested in Ö Iím about to go back to India myself because Iíve been involved with the UNICEF and their campaign for water and sanitation across the world. Many girls, particularly in India, stop going to school as they get to a certain age because there are no toilet facilities. This means at certain times of the month they donít want to go to school, and they miss out on their schooling.

They drop out for the want of what is a very simple remedy, which is to provide them with proper functioning toilet blocks. Girls are missing out on their education. I think thatís a terrible thing to happen, so Iíve become a real expert on sanitation, which my children think is a bit embarrassing really. I probably know more about recycling waste than you would probably want to know.

Q: Can you tell me about your own particular charity work?

Blair: Iím particularly involved in relation to India with a charity for widows [Loomba Trust], because widows across the world are often very much discriminated against. When they lose their husband, they often lose their home. Often they donít have a chance of earning an alternative livelihood, and that means that they have to rely on their children working or indeed themselves falling into prostitution, which is a bad thing. So, weíre very much involved in making sure that widows get their rights, which they are often very much deprived of.

One of the things I want to do is to try and help widows help themselves by training them so they can actually earn a livelihood. I think itís so much better to give people the dignity of work rather than just giving them handouts.

Meera Gandhi

Q: What is CRY America and how does it help people?

Gandhi: CRY is one of Indiaís most well-known child-rights organizations. It has an established reputation of effectiveness and trust and it has transformed the lives of over 1.5 million children in India. CRY America was established in 2002 to extend CRYís movement to the U.S. The organization channels the concern, goodwill, time, money, skills and civic responsibility of individuals and organizations in the U.S. toward programs in India that aim to restore basic rights to underprivileged children.

They address all issues impacting children whether it is education, health, child labor, child abuse, feticide/infanticide, etc. They seek the underlying root causes of the deprivation whether it is gender, discrimination, lack of livelihoods. Finally, they empower and mobilize communities to find long-term solutions to their problems. Thanks to the organization's emphasis on child rights, we have witnessed in hundreds of villages 100 percent enrollment and retention of children in schools, villages that are 100 percent child-labor-free today, villages that have functional public health facilities, and issues of child marriage and child exploitation are addressed.

Q: How long have you been involved with CRY America, and what is your role within the organization?

Gandhi: Iíve been in involved with CRY America since 2006. I am on the advisory board for CRY America. I provide support and advice to increase the visibility and credibility of the organization and I help open doors so that they can enhance their revenues as well. I got involved when I was approached by Ingrid, who was then the president, who needed someone to really be a face for CRY here, because it was [a] very new charity. Even though they were doing incredible work in India, they were really not known to us here in the community.

So, given the depth and the breadth of work that CRY is doing, I was delighted to get involved. They address very pertinent issues for children like illiteracy, female infanticide, malnutrition, [and the] right to drinking water. In some villages, children donít even have the right to drinking water. So, itís been invaluable to have CRY in India, and Iím delighted to be involved.

Q: Why is this charity important to you?

Gandhi: Itís important to me because everyone who knows me knows that I really love to support charities [having] to do with women and children, because I feel that enough attention, enough money is not diverted to these causes. The situation of children in India is grim and as an Indian I cannot ignore it. Also, children are the future of India and the future of our planet, so itís key to really invest in those children from now. Thatís why Iím involved.

Millions of underprivileged children have their survival threatened on a daily basis due to malnutrition, illiteracy, child labor, preventable diseases, abuse and exploitation. One in six girl children dies before their 12th birthday, 50 percent of children aged 6-14 are not in school and India is home to 17 million child laborers! CRY has a proven track record and I know they are making a sustainable difference to the lives of children in India.

Q: Have you had one particular moving experience that sticks out in your mind while being involved with CRY America?

Gandhi: There have been many experiences. Thereís been the experience that has been shared with me about the child who went to get drinking water, and he was told he was a Harijen, an ďuntouchable,Ē and he had to drink water from a gutter. No child should be born on this planet and have to drink dirty water from a gutter when thereís well and water available in the village. When I heard about that sort of injustice, it moved me.

There have just been so many instances of injustices committed against kids. Child labor, a child thatís forced to wake up at 5:30 in the morning and carry heavy bricks on his back, by the time heís 20 heís going to have a deformed back. I mean, so many things, children sold into bonded labor. I can go on and on. Itís quite horrific whatís happening in the world today, not only in India, everywhere. But being Indian, I feel more strongly about the Indian children.

Every time I hear a case story about a child who has been empowered by CRY I am moved. For example, there is a district in a state called Uttar Pradesh in India famous for carpet weaving and all the children were bonded laborers in the carpet-making industry. CRY and its partner have been working there for many years to change the situation and now a man called Subhag Lal who was once a child laborer is now the head of the village!

Q: What are some of the improvements that youíve seen over the years that youíve worked with this organization?

Gandhi: As CRY gets larger and larger, CRY has a voice. CRY has a very important voice in the government of India. They are changing the legislature, they are affecting legislation. Now a law has been passed in India, the right to education. Every child in India has a right to education. So, by law, if a child is not sent to school ó this is not being practiced as much as it should, but by law he can actually go to a panchayat (a village council) and say 'I should not be working in the fields, I should be in school.'

CRY is really becoming the voice of childrenís rights in India, and every year they get more and more powerful, so yes, yes they are successful in what they are doing. Weíve seen it year, after year, after year, and itís growing.

Q: What do you hope this charity will accomplish in the future?

Gandhi: I hope CRY America can get their message across to as many people in the U.S. as possible and will continue to enable people to take action for children. They have a vision of a just world for EVERY child and so I hope they are able to raise significant resources to enable them to continue to expand their movement for children.

Q: How do you find time with your busy schedule to be involved in this cause?

Gandhi: The situation cannot be ignored, and I know I have the capacity and resources to help so I will always find the time.

Q: When there are so many other causes out there, why is it important for people to support this cause?

Gandhi: CRY is unique because they donít just provide Band-Aid solutions to problems. They know from experience that just handing out food or rescuing children from sweatshops are important but temporary solutions. It is essential for communities to be empowered to realize their rights and take control of their own lives and that of their children. So when someone supports CRY they enable long-term, sustainable change.

Interviewed by Giacinta Pace, NBC News