“Despite not having the opportunity to go to a formal school, they’re incredibly smart, sharp and outgoing.”

When I relocated from New York to Bangladesh in 2013, I couldn’t have imagined the ways in which I would have to adjust to life in a developing country.

Having spent time in South Asia in 2010 and 2011, I knew that sexual harassment and women’s rights were a big problem. But living here full time and experiencing it personally on a daily basis has opened my eyes to how deeply rooted the problem is in society.

Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world, and women here are treated as second-class citizens, at best.

When I went to Cox’s Bazar to cover the surf girls last year, I was blown away. They are a group of eight 10-13-year-old girls who work on the beach selling food and jewelry, and despite not having the opportunity to go to a formal school, they’re incredibly smart, sharp and outgoing. I was and am so impressed with their spirit and gumption. They’re up against so much.

As they are getting older, they are increasingly harassed by men on the street or beach. Their parents are pushing them to marry or get more “appropriate” work as domestic workers, which can put them in an unsafe environment. Despite all of this, they have dreams thanks to their mentors, the Cox’s Bazar Lifesaving and Surf Club, and their tutor, American expat Venessa Rude.

Since January, there has been a lot of political violence in Bangladesh, which has drastically reduced the amount of tourists in Cox’s Bazar, henceforth cutting the girls income.

When Venessa and I heard that one girl’s mother was beating her for not bringing in enough money from working on the beach, we set up a gofundme page to help the girls and their families. This has made a big difference to them. They’re not under as much pressure each day, which gives them time to surf and learn in school with Venessa.

The girls know that there’s an alternative to the patriarchal lifestyle around them and they dream to be lifeguards, professional surfers, and one girl wants to be a doctor. I am so excited for them and to see where they go in their lives.

Societal changes take time and they start small, generation by generation. Despite coming from underprivileged families, these girls are equipped with the knowledge and opportunity to make something better for themselves.

They deserve it.

Explore more images of Cox’s Bazar on Getty Images