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By Tamu Bakery, Oct 15 2016 05:53AM

"When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree" - Vietnamese proverb

I wasn't allowed to ask the girls any questions about their lives or the problems they faced. All I had was 2 hours a day to bake with them.

They were disturbed, emotionally all over the place, and very demanding at the start. They wanted to bake a chocolate gateaux cake, not just some cookies they told me on Monday. I was taking it all in, slowly, gently. We just baked, and I talked about different types of dough. On the second day I ran another baking session with the same girls, and at the end one of the girls came up to me and said "I am so happy!". She was holding a warm bread roll carefully wrapped in a napkin. Was she happy to take it home to her loved ones? Was she happy she learned how to bake a bread? Was she happy she was spending a few afternoons with her teachers learning a new skill?

On my way to the last baking session with the girls I was wondering why I had come to Vietnam, as clearly this "baking trip" was not working out as usual. My taxi was stuck in traffic, just like my thoughts which were gridlocked with the question "Why? Why? Why?"... While we were baking our last cake together, the girl opposite me shouted "Yana, smile! You look beautiful, when you do!". An ordinary phrase, but the girl who said it had been one of the most aggressive and emotionally unstable participants at the start... Another girl said "I am happy because you came here to teach us". The girls were laughing, cutting the cake and speaking Vietnamese. I wasn't sure what this time baking had helped me to achieve. To connect, to warm girls hearts, to make them smile and realise that they can be happy, just from the simple pleasure of cutting a durian cake...

With my packing all done, I was sitting on the doorstep of my small hotel, watching Hanoi's colourful street-life. The grandma from the house opposite was cutting lotus stems, getting them ready to be used in tea. Lotus - like the girls I had been working with - grow in muddy water and problems, but blososm and show the world their real beauty. I went across and bought a lotus tea to take home with me. So that in time of troubles I can make a strong cuppa and hear "I am soooo happy".... That was the reason to bake my durian cake in Hanoi.

By Tamu Bakery, May 3 2016 12:15PM

"I won't give up, no I won't give in

Til I reach the end and then I'll start again"

Shakira, "Try everything"

I asked someone to be a volunteer to help me to shape cookies. On about the fiftieth cookie (as usually it happens) my companion started telling me about her life - that she would like to become a nurse (she finished primary school with great grades) and wants to help people in need. Instead she is making chappatis on a daily basis, cleans and practically looks after the household sharing responsibilities with her mother. Her brother is lucky enough to attend school and is protected from any housework. At the age of 14 her life has been decided by her grandparents, who see education as unimportant for a girl's life. Instead they are looking for a potential husband for their granddaughter. The only light at the end of the tunnel for her are the sewing classes run by a local NGO (who have seen a lot of girls like my volunteer over the years).

At my second baking session in a rural part of Jodhpur (in Rajasthan, India) I hear even more moving stories. Discussing recipes of local sweet desserts, and the role of the woman in their patriarchal society, a few ladies started shouting. They are angry. Because their husbands beat them and this is not punished in their community. Someone's husband drinks and uses drugs, brings home very little money. Others say they are scared to even walk outside their homes as women get harassed constantly. They are even more scared for the safety of their daughters - young men are the biggest threat. That's why my partner NGO, the Sambhali Trust, is running self-defence classes for vulnerable women. It seems to me that this kind of violence against women is a major factor in the practise of early arranged marriages which are common in the region.

My last session broke my heart into so many pieces again. A lady with big, deep, sad eyes was crying non-stop throughout our baking class. She was married at the age of 14 to a man she had never seen before. Soon after she gave birth to twins - a boy and a girl. Her husband left her for another woman, arguing that he had never really liked her. She can't get a divorce from him, and still lives in the hope that he will come back one day. She can't move out from her family, as straight away will become a target in her community. So no solution is in sight, leaving her to survive the daily abuse from her family, villagers and society. Without being a psychologist, I can see that she is on the verge of suicide, like many sisters around the world in similar situations. All I could do is to tell her about her rights and give her a long hug. I can still remember how she was trembling...

Since my return from India, I have been thinking about how to help so many women on our planet, how to set them free the inequality of conservative rules... Education and empowerment is the only key. Because, more likely than not, the hero of my last story will let her daughter (and equally her son) make their own choices as to what to study, who to marry, when and how many children to have. Because when a women knows her rights, when she has community advocates on her side, and when she can learn a new skill to earn an income - she is unstoppable. And no more can her relatives tell her "Don't give cuddles to your daughter, concentrate on your son. A girl is not worthy of love"!

"I won't give up, no I won't give in

Til I reach the end and then I'll start again"

Image courtesy of Jayati Saha www.jayatisaha.com