New Internationalist

The Girl Store

Please take a moment to view this website. ‘100% genuine girls.Young. Innocent. And available…’ reads the intro.

No, dear readers I haven’t lost it completely. The first I saw of this ad was when two NI editors sent it to me separately, asking me if I’d like to blog about it. I was predictably disgusted and I’m not alone, apparently. Several bloggers have commented on it, though the publicity managers of Mahindra, a key player in the Indian automobile industry, defend it.

They feel the shock value has got them what they aimed for – attention seeking publicity. Ms. Mehta, spokesperson for Mahindra says:  ‘Some were stunned by the name, some said we are promoting child trafficking. But we are doing exactly the opposite. We are saying “buy a girl her life back.”’

She informs us that the 1000 or so donors they attracted through the ad are supporting – or ‘buying back’ – the lives of 75,000 girls from across India. My feeling, like many other viewers of the ad, was did they have to resort to cheap, tawdry sensationalism? Did they really need to run an ad in such appallingly poor taste?

Mahindra is a billion-dollar business. They could give the money away in the blink of an eye without feeling the pinch. Using crude sexual gimmickry is surely unacceptable by any standards, besides being shameful and disrespectful to the girls in question. It’s crass and revolting.

A few decades ago, we refused child sponsorship which would have ensured hassle free funding for our project with adivasi people in South India. Our donors advised us that accepting the sponsorship would make our lives infinitely easier financially. It would make everything smooth sailing.

But we thought the idea was wrong. In some indefinable way, we felt it was demeaning to the child, to the family and to the community. As a funding strategy it simply lacked dignity.

When I thought about it carefully, though the ad shocked and revolted my sensibilities, at another level, I’m not seriously surprised. Values and ideas about what’s acceptable have changed so drastically in the last two decades that I sometimes feel we are seen as living in another century if we protest about things that outrage us.

In the 21st century, the end appears to justify the means, mostly. It leads me to wonder about a question that has bothered me over the years. Should we take money from a cigarette manufacturer to pay for our impoverished cancer patients? Mother Teresa thought it was okay to take money from questionable characters if it was to help the poor. It’s practically a mortal sin now to even question, let alone criticize, Mother Teresa. Canonizing may have its consequences.

I was also appalled when I heard that some young women I know were happy to organize a bunny party to raise money for charity. But, apparently only ageing feminists would consider that shocking in the year 2012. The young women were genuinely puzzled. Why not a bunny party? They didn’t get it at all.

Yes, the times they are a changin’. Maybe I’m getting old. Perhaps we can get a sense of how others react to this by throwing it open to our readers. Comments please everyone? 

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  1. #1 Priya 04 May 12

    Disgusting and nauseating, wonder if Ms. Mehta has a daughter? Simply put, the deprived objectified by the depraved. What's being pawned off as the end is actually the means itself, means to publicity and to profit.

  2. #2 Xavier Dias 05 May 12

    Corporate Social Responsibility at its best! Would have been good to post a link to the ad if it is available as I did not see it.

  3. #3 Sarah 05 May 12

    I just checked out the website. I was first shocked by the fact that the little girls were not static but subtly moving. Then I noticed that some of them who are supposed to be 8 look like they're at least 14 years old. And finally, there is no mention of 'a person' anywhere. Only 'Girls'. And 'Products'. I clicked on 'Products': the first one available for purchase is a female tutor!!
    This is definitely not a question of age, Mari.
    Keep going!!

  4. #4 mari 05 May 12

    Here's the link to the :original

  5. #5 Giedre 05 May 12

    This ad is appalling, to say the least. Such methods as saying ’Experience the sensation of buying a girl...’ and then 2 seconds later, ’her life back’ would work in some comic circumstances, perhaps on stage during a humour festival, but in this case it is not only bad taste, it is actually making a mockery of the whole ’good cause’.

    You are so right, Mari, in pointing out that our sensibility and sensitivity as human beings is being eroded. Does the end justify the means? It's a tough one, but I'd say if there are alternatives for doing things, and good ones for that matter, then it doesn't. Portraying girls as products to be bought is certainly not one of them.

  6. #6 Isla McLean 06 May 12

    Hi Mari

    I think we firstly need to note that 100 years ago the amount of advertising people saw in their life time is shown to people today in a single month!

    Consequently to ’punch through’ your message effectively so you are ’heard’ you need to be somewhat controversial otherwise, sadly, you're wasting your time, effort and money.

    So I don't necessarily like this ’shock advertising’ approach, I accept it is necessary to today's society and therefore the ends (certainly when you're using shock to do good) does justify the means.

    Moving to ’bunny ears’ - although I don't particularly have a burning desire to wear them, I do think culturally we have moved on and that what was once something seen to be degrading, girls of all ages (and I can say all ages as ladies in their 70's who complete our fundraising Midnight Walk, willing wear and pay for them) voluntarily wear them, find them fun and I believe have ’taken ownership’ of what was once used in a derogatory fashion for male ’fantasy’. I like that we have moved so far on that we can wear such items and laugh at them: to continue to see them as degrading is a ’step back’ in progress.

    But this is here in the UK and I accept that this may not be true to other countries across the world in different stages of cultural development.

    These, for what they are worth, are my comments.


  7. #7 Bev 06 May 12

    As a young adult in pre-liberalised India, (working in advertising then), CRY (Child Relief & You) was the first NGO (founded by Rippan Kapur that helped me look at the issue of child poverty for the first time - and realize I could do something. At the time, Action Aid had opened a store - and I remember bying folding chairs for my first rented home from them - without a clue what they did. (I had to move to the UK to figure that out.) Only then, did I have some understanding of the issues in India, and how someone who knows so little about them, could do something, however miniscule.

    Even so, only very recently I got the simple Math: children (and parents) with no alternatives could and do end up trafficked. Till then, they were 2 disconnected issues in my mind.
    If this Ad did the same for 1000 Indians, it has the potential to make a start, in engaging India's massive middle class who don't know the channels that exist. And if it helps to prevent second generation child trafficking...well, it's a great Ad, for me.
    I've often heard how corporates or India's many super rich give just a miniscule. In percentage terms. But isn't that argument true of all of us? Until we realize it isn't the Government's sole responsibility or the corporate or the rich... we leave ourselves out of the ability to make change happen.

    India has phenomenal creative talent - if those in the sector want to tap into that (and I've honestly met more caring people in advertising than in development, just my experience.)then you need to engage them - help them understand these issues that truly committed, inspiring change makers like Mari and Stan can do. Condemning them for communication that could have been 'better said' while being provocative and engaging is also up to all of us.

    Fascinating piece, thank you, made me think. Lots.

  8. #8 Bev 06 May 12

    Some feedback from Indians who aren't experts in the sector. (posted it to FB.)

    ’I thought it was a very powerful ad too and brings the issue down to basics, and sort of attacking the traffickers like for like. In the sense, the girls are 'sold' after all. They are 'products', bought for money....and only money will buy them back. The ad is as distasteful as child trafficking, and just at that level it works.

    Mari says Mahindra could just give the money, sure they could and probably do. But by just giving you don't create awareness, which this ad does.’

  9. #9 keira 06 May 12

    I think that while they might create awareness*, but in addition to that, every image of a little girl looking shy, awkward or sad, set to sexy-ish music, with full body pan contributes to the commodification and sexualisation of young girls. Every image, no matter what their aim.

    I'd rather see happy little girls playing, with some facts narrated over. Still shows the contrast between what should and should not happen, still makes people aware, but without attempting to incite sexy thoughts about children.

    *Awareness as the goal annoys me. Seriously, who isn't aware that awful things happen to girl children?

  10. #10 Bev 07 May 12

    The founder of iPartner India told me that her point of 'Awareness' or shock realization was when an NGO friend dropped in to see her at her posh corporate offices - and mentioned that she was actually meeting the children outside the building, who were child prostitutes - girls she drove past every day.
    Only then did she realize that the girls had this dead expression in their eyes and that some of their 'clients' were in the same building she worked in, that's why they hung around there.

  11. #11 Bev 07 May 12

    This discussion haunts me because I now work on Communication campaigns on development issues. So often the gatekeepers of morality (mullas, priests, donors, NGOs, et al) reduce the campaigns to safe and politically correct - so millions of dollars don't create the impact needed, so another campaign is done.

    With the example above, it was someone trusted who conveyed the message that added credibility. Had a stranger said the same, it may not have evoked the same chilling awareness and the action that followed.

    In some way, Mahindra is using the trust it has to raise awareness AND engagement on the issue. By using corporate language of 'products sold', it shocks, yes, (and the more advertising creatives understand the issues, it will start to be reflected in the campaigns they create.) I'm still learning...

  12. #12 mari 07 May 12

    Thanks for the lively debate Bev and Keira, its good to see different points of view. I think some things like bunny parties, are generational, and women of my generation will never understand why anyone wd want to be seen dead in a bunny outfit.
    howsomever, the question of using sexuality for shock value when kids are involved makes me feel like I'm looking at a pedophile ad...unacceptable (for me) by any standards.
    Bev do send me yr email and phone details wd love to dialogue further and also enlist yr help for some UK advocacy advice. Many thanks everyone for all these comments.

  13. #13 Esi Dadzie 07 May 12

    The sentiment may have been worthy yet in my mind the images of a market full of people interested in buying another human being is too much...

  14. #14 john dsouza 08 May 12

    The sickness of the idea is a natural consequences of the concept of nanhikali itself. You think you have bought life by buying a few things, all of which have been portrayed as ’goodies’ to be consumed.. charity also..

    There is everything, porno like photography, projection of consumerism as the ambition of the poor, guilt easing consciousness, no need for love, just goods..

    at least the child sponsorship schemes had a system where you pretended you had a relationship with the child you sponsor, the subject matter is a person.. here it is a over-priced thing,, the dress, the fancy school bag, the school uniform paid for in dollars! etc..

  15. #15 hamandpeaches 09 May 12

    Ariel Levy's book 'Female Chauvinist Pigs' goes some way to explaining why things like 'bunny parties' have become accepted. She makes the point that nobody wants to be the one to challenge these things, because to disagree with it is to disagree with fun, to be ugly and prudish and boring, rather than actually thinking critically about something.

  16. #16 Bruce Terrence 09 May 12

    I'm sorry but while I sympathize with your squeamishness and discomfort over taking the money you were offered for the project in India, it is reprehensible that you thought this funding strategy lacked 'dignity' so you didn't take it. That is as decadent and limousine liberal-y as you can get. I guess the fact that the people who suffered from the lack of that money -- was it health, education, water, ???--didn't feel very dignified as a result. Were they denied food, tools, ...what? I'm sure they would like to have been consulted before you chose to deny them the benefits of the funding. But you, at least, preserved your dignity.

  17. #17 Priya 10 May 12

    I looked at the website and honestly, I found it shocking. But it took me a while to let go of my emotional outburst and articulate what made me so angry. So here goes....

    To begin with, the website seems to repeatedly refer to the ‘Indian girl’ who has, apparently, for time immemorial, been forced into sex slavery and child marriage. It makes ‘Indian women’ (who knows what that category comprises of!) seem like a battered, oppressed, voiceless lot, as if there are no stories of struggle and resistance in their lives. Ofcourse this isn’t the first time ‘a people’ have been painted over with the same stereotypical brush. We have long histories of oriental discourses that have branded races and cultures in the way they view them. The problem isn’t that these stories are untrue but that they are incomplete. Today, everyone wants to tell a story about the poor, the poor girl, or the poor girl married off as a child, or better still, the poor sex slave. The only lense through which we can look at these people, given the things we are told about them, is through pity. And we are told, that as patrons, they would be greatful if we shared a few crumbs of our table with these pitiable people.

    I also couldn’t help but wonder if the girls, who were waiting to be granted a life of ‘dignity’, were asked whether their faces could be paraded around in what even the spokesperson of Mahindra deems a controversial campaign. Today we have such a hue and cry about liability laws and personal infringement rights- are these just for the rich?

    What the website essentially does is make the problem look one dimensional. It assumes that there is no social or cultural aspect to today’s bustling sex trade industry. Moreover it makes poverty seem like an isolated instance that can be ‘eradicated’ by pumping a few billion dollars by some benevolent multibillionaire businessman. That global economic forces are much to blame for Rubeen Begum’s ‘economic hardships’ (one of their potential benefactors in the website) goes unmentioned. Ofcourse, that over consumption leads to poverty, does not feature anywhere in their narrative.
    Anyway, what about their successful grand opening in central New York? Who is paying for that? What percentage of the funds they collect go into the wine and cheese they serve at their shop?

    Ofcourse, their gender politics are dubious too. ‘Educate a girl and educate an entire family’ the website says. We’ve heard so many of these.... Women politicians will never be corrupted, bring women into conflict and we will have peace. As if women alone will make every wrong right. There are several problems with this- for one it makes investing in women seem like a fruitful option, not for the women themselves but more for the rest of the world. Moreover it perpetuates every stereotype associated with them. That women are caring, nurturing, selfless, pure, innocent- all of which work not to liberate or empower them, but force them into the same boxes they have been assigned for time immemorial. Why can’t we educate a girl, simply because the education is important to her- not her family, her children, the nation, the environment or the world!

    Ofcourse the website is filled with several simplistic catchy phrases ‘Pencils- come in a set of six but it only takes one to transform a girl’s life’ it says. The over simplification makes me wonder if they know anything at all about poverty, and I can’t help but wonder what this project is going to achieve, given their absurdly high levels of ignorance.

    All in all, I think marketing poverty and selling it at a store goes against the very problem it is trying to address. Poverty isn’t purely about economics and it takes much more than money to make the world a better place.

  18. #18 mari 10 May 12


    We did everything, education, health, income generation. community organisation, housing ..everything that the community needed, in consultation with the community. 95% of the team is adivasi with a small handful of non decision making is NOT, mine, not NOW not EVER.

  19. #19 Shikha 10 May 12

    Confused commercial by capitalist company (cattle is the other word that comes to mind). Their end of sending girls 'off to school' does not in anyway justify using, as you say, 'cheap and tawdry' means. It is appalling that selling girls like this is finding any sort of social acceptance. I'm not an aging feminist, but I agree with you. This kind of spoof sensationalism only makes light of and mocks serious underlying issues of how our 21st century society treats its women.

  20. #20 ciderpunx 11 May 12

    I’m genuinely torn here, there in a fundamental tension between the degrading and dehumanizing nature of the image and the use towards which the image is being put. As an anarchist I suppose I must fall back on the prefigurative principle — that is the idea that means and ends ought to be consistent. Nevertheless, feelings of shock and outrage can be powerful motivators to people to do something about the social issue which is being campaigned on. There are no simple answers.

  21. #21 tricia 14 May 12

    I almost couldn't bear to watch it - so who does go to this site and why? It's disgusting and simply reinforces the idea of girls as commodities. Even the attempt to 'personalise' them misfires - the names/ages/pictures are all over the place! This definitely feels to me like the ugly side of 'marketing'.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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