Three days ago, I discovered that two of my friends, Alexis and Catharine, would be in Boston for the weekend. Excited that some college friends would be in town, I immediately texted them to see if we could grab a drink while they were in Boston. They explained that this weekend wouldn’t lend itself well to socializing because they were running a conference for a non-profit they co-founded, Students For Education Reform
(SFER), but extended a warm welcome to check out the conference.
I quickly accepted the invitation (mainly because I wanted to see them, but also because I was curious to see how much SFER has grown since its inception in 2009) and headed over to the Summit this morning to attend a workshop. While I was familiar with SFER’s work through conversations with Catharine and Alexis and a general knowledge of their existence on Princeton’s campus, I had no formal experience participating in any SFER events. I didn’t know if I would fit in, or if I would be judged for knowing close to nothing about education reform.
I arrived a few minutes into the first workshop. Not wanting to be any tardier, I jumped into the first classroom I saw, which was home to a workshop on “Building a Diverse Coalition.” I was expecting to watch from a distance and remain silent. What did I
have to contribute to the conversation? When I entered the room, I was quickly invited to sit in the circle and, once it was my turn, introduce myself. I was just another participant in the room, interested in contributing to the conversation on education reform and diversity.
During the session, we were given the opportunity to be honest, challenged, and vulnerable. After the main exercise, we were asked to reflect on what we had just done. I felt the urge to speak, reflecting on the opportunity to converse with individuals with mainly different, but some similar, backgrounds as mine. “Never have I been in a room this diverse before. This has showed me that I still have a lot of growing and learning to do.”
Throughout the workshop, I couldn’t help but think about how SFER has influenced the way I think about Pasand. I watched SFER grow from two students on one campus to hundreds of students on over 100 campuses within the matter of three years. There are so many causes out there that warrant widespread support, but what about SFER was so contagious? Why has it grown so rapidly? I can’t help but think that Alexis and Catharine’s model of mobilizing key stakeholders, students, has contributed to its success. How could Pasand garner widespread support to promote change in gender equality in India and worldwide?
I was also struck by the diversity of students there. (I should note that most, but not all, of the participants are students who are or were involved with SFER on their college campuses). This wasn’t a charity event for privileged students trying to fix an unjust problem. Nor was it a rally for students who are the success story of a failing school. This was a gathering of students with all different stories a common belief that something needs to be done to ensure that everyone receives the education they deserve. I was struck by SFER’s ability to engage people with such different backgrounds. While feminine health education in developing countries is a drastically different issue, it does require that all people – young and old, male and female – engage in a conversation about feminine health in order to ensure a more productive, equal society for all. One of Pasand’s greatest challenges moving forward will be creating a health curriculum and awareness program that can reach all communities, including those in the U.S.
Since starting Pasand, I have seen everything as a learning experience. Something that may appear irrelevant or insignificant may actually enlighten, engage, support, encourage, and educate you in unthinkable ways.
I am so lucky, humbled, and thankful to be able to learn from my friends in new ways every day. While I may not have found the solution to bringing diversity to the conversation on feminine health education or figured out how to best grow a movement centered on gender equality overseas, today I learned that I need to ask those questions and challenge myself to think in new ways. (Post written by Rebecca Scharfstein)
Every day, more than three billion people survive on less than $2.50, barely more than the subway ride that took me to my job at Endeavor Global in Manhattan each morning this summer.
As I learned at Endeavor, these individuals are almost without exception unemployed, underemployed, or working in an informal economy with little income stability. Simply put, they are united by one desperate truth: they are a group who needs jobs.
My research and consulting internship at Endeavor was without exception the most rewarding position I have ever held. By challenging the currently popular notion that the solution to poverty is the “everyone should be an entrepreneur!” mantra, and replacing it with the well-supported concept that systematically accelerating high-growth enterprises creates thousands of jobs – that are also more stable and offer better benefits – in the same amount of time, I have also begun to challenge the way I think about the developed world’s approach to eradicating poverty. As one of my professors at Princeton puts it, how can we be smarter about addressing the world’s “wicked problems?"
Through Pasand and Endeavor, I have come to believe that it often means tackling a project that is counterintuitive and perhaps not as glamorous. For instance, a government doling out microloans has “look, we care about the poor (and you should vote for us!)” plastered all over it, but if that same government realized that it would create 100 times more jobs in the same period of time by helping fast-growing medium businesses (read my report if this is an interesting claim!
), its hands would be tied because their logic is going to be misinterpreted as pro-corporate and anti-poor. Instead, all over the world, we have misplaced money that could be used better:
while I was in South Africa near the end of the summer working on an extension of my Endeavor research, I walked through a row of 50 identical hair salon booths, with no differentiation – and no customers. Because the government was handing out loans to people who had no idea how to run a business, they just did what their neighbor did, leaving everyone worse off. The great irony is this: the microentrepreneurs I met were not happy
with the government for giving them a loan. They wanted jobs that had a predictable salary and benefits. The government’s attempt to appease its poor constituency had the opposite effect because their policy needed to be smarter. The problem of poverty is complex enough
without factoring in how to promote the self-interest of the institutions and officials tasked with ending it.
While I wasn't working directly on women's issues this summer, it is clear that the success of women in business in the future is deeply connected to Pasand's work.
Women's health education works, but until it becomes "sexy" to policymakers everywhere, we will continue to have a need for organizations like Pasand. Like the poorly-distributed entrepreneurial funding I have seen in my research for Endeavor, keeping critical health information and resources out of the hands of young girls affects the way they learn, the way they think of themselves, and the way they will enter – or not enter – the formal workplace. It's time to start talking.(Post written by Ashley Eberhart)
"Our Food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy"
A man in a NY Yankees cap is softly crooning "Love Me Tender." Ambient lighting sets the mood for a wonderful dinner. Business men sitting next to me are happily sipping on their cold beer. And the walls are decorated with more condom art than I ever knew existed, from sensually posed elephants to a full-standing "Condom Superhero" covered head-to-toe in the rubber goods.
Where one find such a random assortment of things? In the world renowned social enterprise restaurant and resort "Cabbage & Condoms
," which operates all over Thailand. I happened to be visiting the branch in Chiang Rai, a small city in Northern Thailand. The proceeds from the restaurant and other operations (such as local tours and a hill tribe museum) fund the operations of the Population and Community Development Association- PDA, which provides family planning services in both rural and urban Thailand. Furthermore, the entire operation seeks to normalize condom use, promoting "safe sex for all." As I observed a happy family dining under a giant neon sign with condoms laid out in the shape of a heart and bearing the slogan "No glove, no love" I had to think they were doing a pretty good job. The place was filled to the brim with locals, this definitely wasn't a "tourist" place (at least not during the monsoon season).
In one of the three rooms a giant trophy for the 2007 Gates Award for Global Health rested on the mantel place. In EGR 495 Professor Danner had talked about Cabbage & Condoms so I was on a mission to see it up close and personal during my backpacking trip across Southeast Asia. Getting to see a social enterprise dealing with such a sensitive and important topic in Thailand (AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for Thai people under the age of 50) was truly amazing. Condom use shares a kindred burden of taboo and sensitivity with menstruation. While a restaurant or similar attraction regarding menstruation is not likely to be popular enough to be self sustaining, observing an organization doing such amazing things here in Thailand provides both inspiration and food for thought.
(Post written by Aunna Wilson)
One of the biggest "debates" in the field of feminine sanitation in the developing world is between potentially more economical and environmentally friendly pads versus a one-time use disposable pad. This was something we struggled with a lot in the initial concept design and in conversations with people from all over the world. The advice we received was really across the page. Jack Sim, founder of the WTO mentioned that "girls don't like to use pads that appear 'stained,' like those made from natural fibers" which is why he is pursuing a reusable pad venture. When talking to the founders of Saathi Pads we discovered that "banana fibers naturally light tan, almost white without the addition of any harmful chemicals or bleaches."
Period panties are just one piece of evidence that points to the unsightly staining that occurs as a result of menstrual leaks. The girls in the home would always ask me "Didi, why are you wearing that shirt- it has a stain," pointing to a small bleach mark on the hem. Another older girl, when sorting through clothes for the girls, including sterilized underpants, put all of the ones with slight discoloration in a separate pile because "they will be used for rags, they are stained, no one will accept that." Cosmetic appearances aside, another issue associated with reusable pads is the availability to clean water and ability to wash upon changing. Indian school bathrooms, even the ones in the nicest of private schools, are open spaces that would offer no privacy to girls forced to wash their pads in front of their peers. Furthermore, access to clean water, or running water period, is also an issue for many girls, whether at home, work or school. As an elderly shopkeep in Gokarna noted, when I asked her about what was to be done when the pads needed to be changed in public, such as the ones sold by GOONJ, she remarked "it is the same as the rags you know, there is still such shame and embarrassment. Everyone must know you are on your period. And where are you supposed to put this soiled pad, in your tiffin box?" A final alternative to disposable pads would be diva cups, an alternative we have rejected in the face of extreme menstrual taboos. Choices are difficult, but after talking to the women affected, this one was pretty easy.
(Post written by Aunna Wilson)
A particular conversation from my most recent trip to India has been stuck in my mind the last couple of days. On the last day of my trip, February 8, 2012, I had a meeting scheduled with a renowned scholar in the field of gender, population and child health in India. I will withhold her name until she has given me permission but will share her story with you. After talking about the research for my thesis and discussing various methodologies I started gushing to her about Pasand and the steps we were taking to make this dream become a reality. I shared my frustration with the lack of data regarding women's health, specifically regarding menstruation and menarche, in India and across the globe. The taboos associated with menstruation are by no means isolated to India- I think all women can relate to the shame surrounding our periods as most have tucked the box of tampons under the cereal in our shopping carts or blushed with embarrassment when we have to slip a pad up our sleeve on the way to the bathroom. We then discussed one of the most exciting innovations in the field of data and health- a cross-national survey in India is running a questionairre in their next survey pertaining to menstruation and teenage girls across India.
After telling her a bit about the mission of Pasand and how we want to provide dignity and education to school girls because we truly believe all women deserve at least this modicum of respect she got a bit misty eyed. Looking me straight in the eyes she said, "I can not even tell you how awful it is. Most women will never know what its like to have to use rags, and then wash them and hang them out to dry. I grew up using these methods- the shame and discomfort was truly unbearable. When I would hang my rags out to dry, it was as if I had lost all my dignity. What you are trying to do is about treating women as human beings." I left India that night with a backpack full of chai and a notebook filled with comments, questions and conversations, and arrived back in Princeton ready to hit the ground running.
(Post written by Aunna Wilson)