Montana State University

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Teen brings girl power to Indonesia

"Is everyone in America rich?”

The question was put to Katie Baldwin, 19, when she visited a rural slum in Indonesia, a place where people bathe, drink and throw their waste in a waterway called the Smelly River, a place where prostitutes, scavengers and petty thieves live in shacks.

Baldwin, a Montana State University student and Bozeman High School grad, stumbled over an answer. “No, no,” she said. “Not everyone.” But she knew that she was walking in with a digital camera and Sierra Design jacket, while their homes had no bathrooms and people subsisted on noodles.

Baldwin shared her culture shock as well as the joy she found in Indonesia in a talk before a crowd of about 50 on Tuesday, May 23 at Pilgrim Congregational Church.
She went to Indonesia in March for three weeks to meet five girls. They had used the Internet to contact Girls International Forum, which is holding a summit in Minneapolis in July, made possible by a U.S. State Department grant.

The summit will bring together 100 girls from China, India, Africa, Uzbekistan, Mexico and the United States, said Baldwin, one of the event’s leaders. They plan to write a paper on issues that concern the world’s girls – such as education, AIDS, health and violence against girls – as well as proposed solutions. It will be presented to the United Nations.

With a grant from MSU’s Office of Research and Creativity, Baldwin traveled to visit the Indonesian girls, ages 14 to 17. They live in Yogyakarta, a rice farming village of 2,000, where people are hardworking yet poor, live in huts with their animals, but are better off than the slum dwellers.

Baldwin had trouble adjusting to the lack of toilet paper, toothbrushes and food refrigeration. She was impressed by the villagers’ generosity and their children’s thirst to learn English. She taught English at the crowded local school. Kids would cheer when she spoke a word in Indonesian. “I felt like a mix between an alien and celebrity,” she said.

One of the mothers confided that they may not be able to send their daughter to middle school next year, because it’s costly at $8 a month.
Baldwin and the five girls brainstormed about ways they could improve their lives. One was easing the burden of the school fee. Another was fighting accepted sex discrimination. A big issue was ending physical punishment at school.

Girls International will give the girls training on how to hold a petition drive and a debate, to try to convince the community to support change.
Baldwin is optimistic about their chances, but still troubled by the gulf between her own middle-class life and theirs.

One girl asked her about Christmas, and Baldwin talked about going to church and being with her family. She didn’t tell the girl that they spend more on food at Christmas than the villagers spend on food in a year, or that they have stocking for their dog.

Baldwin is raising money for the Indonesian girls’ trip to Minneapolis. For more information or to donate, call 570-8727, or e-mail Katie_baldwin2000@yahoo.com.

By Gail Schontzler, Bozeman Daily Chronicle