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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, Lamine Fellah's diplomat father was murdered in a terrorist attack in his native Algeria, but instead of dreaming of revenge, he's trying to spread a message of tolerance and peace through his unique music. We'll talk with him later in the program.

But first, May is the month where we've been acknowledging the contributions of Asian-Americans and people of Pacific Islander heritage by talking with people we call game changers, people who've had an impact through their work.

So we're going to finish up our series for this year by speaking with Ritu Sharma. She is a first generation American with roots in Punjab, India. In 1998, when she wasn't even 30 years old, she created a nonprofit called Women Thrive Worldwide. The goal is to focus U.S. policy on helping women to help themselves escape poverty around the world, and she is with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

RITU SHARMA: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Part of your mission is to focus U.S. policy on ways that they can specifically keep women and girls, the poorest women and girls in the world kind of front and center. Why is that in the U.S. interest?

SHARMA: Well, it's in the U.S. interest in so many ways. I have to say that, first, Americans - myself and so many other people included - really do care about the world and really have big, generous hearts, and that is one of the drivers for why we do what we do.

But for those who want to know what the self-interest is, it really does serve our country. In poor countries, particularly where women's rights are bad, are also the countries where governments are unstable, where we see terrorism taking root. We also know that when women have economic power, you know, the one thing about women is that we really like to shop, and that is true, around the world, wherever you go. So women really are the biggest consumer market out there.

So when they have money to spend, when they have the ability to make their own choices, it really brings opportunity for all of us.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things I noted is that in order to advance your work, you go around the world and almost - is it once a year? Is it once a year or try to go once a year?

SHARMA: Try to go once a year.

MARTIN: And you live in one of the places that you are most interested in for a week and live as the women there live and live on what they live on. You've been to Burkina Faso. You've been to...

SHARMA: Guatemala...

MARTIN: Guatemala...

SHARMA: ...and Nicaragua.

MARTIN: ...and Nicaragua. Why do you do that?

SHARMA: Well, it's - to me you really don't know what it's like until you at least try to walk in their shoes, and even though it's just a week, it's a few days, I have to say that, you know, standing there next to an African farmer and trying to weed with a little hoe that's about five inches long, you know, my back hurts after five minutes. She's out there for five, six hours a day.

And it really gives you so much appreciation and respect for women who are living on less than a dollar a day, who are - these women are rocks. They are so strong. They are so creative. They have so much life in them. They're not these poor, downtrodden women, you know, who are batting the flies off of their babies. This is not the truth for most of the women in the world who are poor. They are tenacious and all they really want from us is some help. They just want equal access. They want a little bit of a hand so that they can get ahead. They can do the rest themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Ritu Sharma. She's the founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide. She's our game changer and she's making it her mission to help women escape poverty and violence around the world and to put women in poverty at the center of U.S. policy.

The whole role of women and girls is also part of the conversation around the U.S. role in Afghanistan right now, and presumably it's also part of the conversation in a lot of economic programs. But the question that a lot of people argue is, you know, isn't this the U.S. interfering in the indigenous cultures of these countries, you know, longstanding, you know, cultural arrangements that are really none of our business, that we're imposing our values on other countries and cultures that may not welcome them? And how do you respond to that?

SHARMA: Well, cultures are not monolithic, of course, not even in our country, not even in this town. So in every place that you go, you will find women and men who are very forward-thinking, who support equality between men and women.

And what we need to do is not go in and impose our views or our programs, but we need to work with those people that are in those societies that can organically, from within, bring that change. They need to be strengthened and supported. That's how change happens.

The other most important thing that I hear when I speak with Afghan women is that they don't want projects just directed at themselves. They want their men, their fathers, their sons, their husbands to be included in the projects. Really, it shouldn't be about microenterprise just for women when a man is sitting at home with no job and a gun. That's not smart development.

So what Afghan women are saying is - is not take your Western values and go home. What they're saying is, work with us.

MARTIN: But I don't think you've answered my question. Respectfully, I think my question was the arguments that some people would make is these social arrangements, even ones that we find deeply offensive, where men have the majority of decision-making authority in these cultures, is their culture. So, even if it isn't our culture or our preference or our way of life, it's their culture and these arrangements go back thousands of years. And who are we to interfere with them? I think that would be the question, so what would your answer be?

SHARMA: My answer is - there's a difference between cultures and fundamental human rights, and wearing the burqa is a cultural religious choice. Yeah? Wearing a burqa because you are scared to death that you will be beaten with sticks in the streets - that's a human rights abuse. They're two different things. And so as human beings and as a society, we have created - and every country in the world, including Afghanistan, has signed onto the universal declaration of human rights and said, you know, this is where the line is between culture and human rights.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we have to talk about you. How did you get interested in this work and why do you think you decided to take it on at such a young age?

SHARMA: I think my parents really hoped I would become a Wall Street banker or an engineer, and my undergraduate degree is in international economics and that was, you know, a good Asian, you know, career. But my parents are also people who supported me, unlike many, many Indian parents, as a girl to follow my dreams and to be ambitious and to believe that I could do anything that I wanted to do.

So at the same time as they wanted me to go a certain direction, it's the same two people who really encouraged me to, as you say, follow your bliss and do what it is that you're here to do.

MARTIN: Ritu Sharma is the founder and leader of Women Thrive Worldwide. That's a nationally recognized nonprofit that advances the cause of women in poverty around the world. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios for our series of conversations with game changers.

Ritu Sharma, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHARMA: Thanks, Michel.

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