$1 a day.
How far can $1 a day go? Can it really be enough for healthy meals, not to mention clothing, health care costs, transportation, and everything else that goes along with just living? Can it really be enough for one person's needs, let alone a whole family to live on?
No, of course not. But somehow about 1.4 billion people worldwide, most of whom are moms and kids, are in extreme poverty -- defined as living on approximately $1 ($1.25) per day.
As an advocate for policies and programs that help women and girls around the globe, it's important that I understand how these women survive. Since 2008, I've done Dollar a Day trips to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Burkina Faso. This year, I'm visiting Sri Lanka, Honduras, and will be back in Burkina Faso again.
To get even the smallest glimpse into the realities of extreme poverty, I'm staying with local families and living how they do for a short time. I eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, and do the work they do.
I've come to feel just how immensely hard extreme poverty is. One dollar a day doesn't come anywhere close to covering the very basics. The hunger hurts. The sacrifices and negotiations are constant.
My first trip of the year just recently ended. For two days in Sri Lanka, I stayed with Prahansa, a woman caring for her three young nieces. Their father is in prison, and their mother out of the picture. They are such vibrant girls who love to sing and dance. The eldest is 14 years old and dreams of growing up to teach traditional Sri Lankan music.
They are too young to recognize some of their circumstance -- or perhaps not. At night, the house becomes a virtual broiler, filled corner to corner with thick, unrelenting heat that makes your clothes stick to you. Prahansa can't afford bars for the windows of their tiny house to keep ill doers away from the girls during the night, so at the end of each day the windows are sealed tightly and the house becomes a sauna of discomfort.
There is hardly any kind of support system to help Prahansa raise the girls. She rises at 4 am each morning to sell cups of rice to street goers, and that's all the income she has. She has arthritis and needs pain medication to beat it back enough to walk. The medication is free at the government hospital, but the bus fare to get there and back isn't. School is also free, but again, it costs money to take the bus to and from school. Walking is free, but it's just too far and too dangerous for the girls to do each and every day.
It's no wonder that despite the very best intentions, too often girls are pulled from school to help earn money or care for younger siblings, or they are married off when they are still children. Family economics can beat out what parents may wish for their daughters. When you have just $1 a day to live on, life's choices are a little different, and sometimes they aren't even choices at all.
That's why Women Thrive Worldwide does all it can to leverage the power of the U.S. government to make the world a better place for women and girls. We bring the voices of women like Prahansa to policymakers in Washington, D.C., and work to develop policies and programs that are smart, responsive to local communities' needs, and make effective use of resources.
Good policy starts simply by learning from women about their experiences.
Follow Ritu Sharma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/womenthrive