Speak up for the Poor in Bangladesh, and a vision for Yemen

By: Stephen Coats
The Yemeni American News

My years in Yemen shaped me in profound ways that I can’t always articulate, but feel deeply, with the rest of my family. The reason my parents decided to teach at the Sana’a International School in Yemen was due to the influence and invitation of my Uncle Valyn and Aunt Jean and their 4 kids, my cousins. Uncle Valyn went before us as administrator at the Sana’a International School in 1976. My mom and Aunt Jean were sisters and had always wanted their children to have a global and diverse perspective.

My cousin, Troy Anderson, is 3 years older than me, and the same age as my older brother, Tim. The older boys were inseparable in those years and I was always trying to keep up and impress them. We used to play together, get in trouble together and goof off—boys just being boys. We stayed with each other’s families when our parents were traveling. We shared all of life together. It all seemed so normal, but looking back it was quite extraordinary! And, as a result of our time in Yemen together, we share a lifelong bond.

I traveled the world with my cousins, and after several years in Yemen my cousin Troy and his family moved on to Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, then to Norway, and on to many cities in the U.S. During those years of traversing the globe, Troy saw great wealth and poverty, sickness and health. As a result, he developed a strong sense of love and justice over the years. My mother described Troy as a child in her diary: “I can’t believe the drive in that child. Troy is at the top of everything and keeps pushing himself. All the kids like him real well…” It was the same strong “drive” that my mother saw in Troy that caused him to go on to the UCLA School of Law pursuing his passion for justice. With a promising career developing as a Deputy District Attorney with the Los Angeles County D.A., Troy intentionally stayed grounded, serving the poor while living in East L.A. with a group called Servant Partners, working with the impoverished and marginalized.

On one trip to Thailand Troy witnessed the brutal abuse of young women by “sex tourists,” and this changed his life forever. He had to do something. Moved by a proverb of the Prophet Solomon (Peace be upon him) 31:8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Thus, he became the founder and International Director of Speak Up for the Poor, a non-profit organization based out of California. Troy realized that the root cause of exploitation is poverty and lack of education for girls. He began focusing his work in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. Troy comes alongside rural communities to reduce the high child marriage rates largely due to poverty. In Bangladesh, two-thirds of all girls are married before the age of 18 (according to Speak Up for the Poor’s website). One of the keys to changing this statistic is education. In the 26 villages where they work, virtually no women ever finish a 12th grade education. Through Speak Up’s Girls Education Program (GEP) things are starting to turn around. Girls in the GEP program have a 95% retention rate every year, meaning that only a very small percentage of these girls drop out of school to get married. While it is difficult to calculate a change in marriage rate among a sample of 1,200 girls from a broad age-spectrum, ages 10 to 21, they have been able to significantly reduce if not eliminate child marriage in most of the villages where they work. Of the girls in the GEP, 51 out of 54 of the girls (94%) passed their 10th grade exams. Prior to the GEP, at most 20% of the girls in these villages would finish the 10th grade. Interestingly, Speak Up is not a religious organization. They serve, hire and partner with people of all different backgrounds to achieve their goals of empowering girls in poverty.

Child marriage is an ongoing global issue, according to Pai.org “One out of every three girls in developing countries is married before the age of 18, and one in nine is married before age 15. In addition to falling victim to early marriage, these girls are typically from rural areas and have little wealth or education.” The practice of child marriage is a violation of girls’ human rights.

Recently, Troy expressed his interest in expanding Speak Up’s services to other countries of great need, especially the ones that are close to Troy’s heart—Syria, Lebanon, and, of course our shared childhood home, Yemen! That got me excited. I invited Troy to Michigan to meet some key members of the community here, to explore ways we could work together, partner, and change some young women’s lives for the better. He eagerly accepted, and soon we were dining at a delightful Yemeni restaurant in Hamtramck with good friends, starting some conversations and exploring options over a plate of Yemeni foul. According to Unicef Statistics in 2016, Yemen saw 32% of girls getting married by age 18, a better rate than Bangladesh, but still of great concern and need of change.

My admiration for my cousin and his inner “drive” continues to grow as I am inspired in my own life to speak up for the poor and marginalized. One of those tangible ways to speak up is by sharing a small part of Troy’s story with you, the readers of the Yemeni American News, and invite you to learn more and get involved by going to http://speakupforthepoor.org. Let’s work together to see many young girls fulfill their dreams of becoming nurses, doctors and lawyers—and wives and mothers, all in the right time and the right way.