Letter to A Young Girl

This letter is written by a young woman to her earlier self whose career is about to take a huge transformation. In this letter, she reflects on which characteristics and attitudes she wishes to retain and what she hopes to accomplish as she progresses forward to achieving her medical dreams. She also hopes that it will inspire other girls to go confidently as they pursue their scientific careers.


Dear Me,

I hope you’re well. I cannot tell you what you will encounter in the next four years, the people who will change your life, the experiences that will leave an ingrained memory in your brain. A lot of questions flood my mind as I think about the journey you will go through: Do you still keep your sense of poetry? Your creative writing? Does the idea of taking care of another human being terrify you? Do you still give humorous lectures of how things work in the molecular world? Do you still only eat fish and vegetables just to keep your mental faculties sane? (Please do relax sometimes! And find time to play chess!) Most importantly, are you happy with the career path and the life that you have chosen?

But I know one thing for certain: You are amazing, and you will achieve great things in life.

I recognize your personality quirks and your ambitious drive to accomplish many things at a young age. I can tell you are shy and unsure. I can see that you attempt to cover up that insecurity by putting yourself through a rigorous sleep and diet regimen and controlling every part of your daily life. I don’t expect you to lose that insecurity overnight, but I do hope that you will harness that insecurity and your talents into becoming a better you.

Can you see your own light? Are you aware of your own brilliance?

I am aware of the times when you felt small, the times when you thought there is a “you” and “them.” You usually do not trust anyone, and you’d most likely fact-check that person’s statement first before believing them. Even though you have won many scientific accolades, “scientific culture” still feels foreign to you. You are about to enter into a profession that requires you to cope with a lot of mentally-demanding experiences, a profession that encourages a divide between the provider and patient, the healer and healed. However, I hope that you do not stray too far from what it means to be a physician, but rather exercise the rules of detachment and empathy carefully.

As you become more knowledgeable, I hope you never forget who you are. You hold your special kind of intelligence, the kind of wisdom that goes far into the future. You don’t have to compare yourself to anyone because there is no one like you. You are a wonderful collection of magical and raw talents. You have conquered obstacles that no one else could. You know things that no one else knows. You are good at things that no one else does better than you. Your life story is a work of art.

I hope you always look in the mirror and remind yourself how incredibly fortunate you are to have the choice to do what you are doing. Because even when you are in the midst of great darkness, you have the power to lead and inspire the people around you. I hope you never have an ego the size of Jupiter, and I hope you keep reflecting on your life experiences through writing. I hope you find the right specialty that works for you. Will you still strive to be an orthopedic surgeon, or would you choose to become a neurologist? I hope you find a mentor that works for you, like an enzyme and its substrate, someone whom you admire and respect. I hope you continue to not take things personally, but rather let your heart guide you to where you want to go.

I want you to keep the passion and the ambition to become the best physician, the best researcher, the best teacher… basically, the best version of yourself. Please don’t try to change who you are. Your life is important, and you cannot be replaced.

Thank you for being you.

I wish you all the best, and I hope to see you in four years.

Megan, ’16

Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons

Originally published at The Huffington Post

What Happens to Community Projects after Organizations Leave?

Post Written By Annemijn Sondaal

“It’s not a drug, it’s not a vaccine, it’s not a device. It’s women, working together, solving problems, saving lives” -Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, May 2013

Participatory women’s groups all over the world have created spaces for women to engage in dialogue, exchange their ideas and experiences and spur them to take action to improve their community’s health. The Institute of Global Health, University College London and its’ partners including Women and Children First, have shown that participatory women’s groups can, with participation of at least a third of pregnant women, cut maternal deaths in half and newborn deaths by over a third.

Women’s groups are run and attended by local women (and sometimes men), mobilising local resources to address local problems. This type of capacity-building and community-mobilising intervention is perhaps the most likely to sustain after the supporting organisation leaves, but organisations rarely investigate the long-term effect of interventions or their sustainability. This means that little is known about optimal times and methods to withdraw support, the capacities needed, and support mechanisms necessary for sustainability.
Women and Children First2

Mother and Infant Activities (MIRA) has worked with participatory women’s groups in rural Makwanpur, Nepal in collaboration with the Institute of Global Health since 2001. A paid local woman, supported by a supervisor, ran each group. She was also given a meeting manual and training. In 2008, MIRA enacted a handover strategy when the project ran to the end of it’s funding. Twelve to eighteen months passed with no intervention, and we were interested to find out what had happened to the groups. Some essential questions asked were:

  • Had they continued meeting and organising activities?
  • How had they sustained their activities?
  • If they had stopped meeting, why?

The result?

80% of the women’s groups were still ‘active’ (groups who formally conduct meetings, work on strategies and keep meeting minutes). Anecdotal evidence suggests that these groups are still active to this day.

How?

Local importance: Women had experienced how the groups improved maternal and newborn survival. This motivated them to continue meeting and enable the next generation to learn about how to look after themselves and their babies.

Financial independence: Many groups had established maternal and child health funds. Being able to save, and have some financial independence attracted women to the group and motivated them to continue meeting. One woman told us: “When we save, we don’t have to depend on our husbands. We don’t have to beg for money.” Also, we found that many groups had increased their fund to support community activities unrelated to maternal and newborn health.

Leadership capacity: Active groups were led by a strong female community health volunteer or community leader. Or members themselves were confident in owning and leading the group. One group member told us: “MIRA showed us the way. They showed us the right track, and we are now confident to walk that track. Because of this, the group is still running.”

Those groups who were not meeting, or meeting infrequently felt that they had not been given enough time to reach the level of confidence and capacity necessary to continue activities and meetings. These groups told us they wanted more skill-based training: “If there would be [skill-based] training for the chairperson, treasurer, secretary on how to run the group, than we would have planned to do more.”

It is important to consider how interventions can continue after a project support stops. In Makwanpur, the participatory nature of the group and local embeddedness were not enough to sustain groups. They also needed leadership capacity, a unifying activity (such as the fund) and a strong belief in the value of their meeting to sustain.

Empowerment as a Luxury Item

‘Empowerment’ has become a buzzword in feminist circles, a rallying cry to improve the lives of women in rural developing countries as well as those trying to shatter glass ceilings in Fortune 500 companies. Four syllables capture the very abstract, but vital goal that feminists and organizations worldwide are trying to accomplish.

Like anything that has gained traction in the public consciousness, many have capitalized on ’empowerment’. A search for ‘feminist products’ will bring up novelty items like a mug with the words ‘male tears’ emblazoned on it, and Etsy has multiple pages worth of accessories and apparel dedicated to wearing feminism, quite literally, on your sleeve.

This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it encapsulates the increasingly cosmetic standard of the word. This doesn’t just redirect our attention to how we’re using feminism to make ourselves look, rather than think. It spills over into a bigger phenomenon of a superficial feminism, one that steers clear of the messy, unattractive and painful problems beneath it.

For example, Hilary Clinton should be a resounding victory for feminism, as a woman who has managed to be a serious candidate for presidential nomination not once, but twice. And during her tenure as secretary of state, she was a champion for women’s rights. However, in her campaign, where she sells herself hardest, she’s ignored basic, but crucial, policies that have an indelible impact on American women.

One often-cited example is her stance on the minimum wage. Truthout reported she supported a $12 minimum wage rather than the hoped-for $15 that Sanders endorses. Women are among the lowest paid workers, and that $3 would have a huge impact on their quality of life.

Additionally, Wal-Mart is the US’ largest private employer, and also staunchly against unionization. This doesn’t immediately strike one as a feminist issue, but labor issues and feminist issues are often tightly intertwined, and unionization is said to protect women, to an extent, from discrimination in the workplace. Clinton was, at one point, on the board of Wal-Mart. While she promoted gender diversity in terms of numbers of workers, she did little to enable unionization.

In another high-profile case of feminism-for-purchase, the controversy around Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In‘ showed the holes in an upper-middle class movement. The book spent months on bestseller lists, encouraging women to spend time pushing themselves ahead in their careers, engaging their spouse in child-rearing, and not worrying about being liked.

While it sounded empowering, some were rankled by Sandberg’s privileged assumptions. The Washington Post noted:

Sandberg is the Harvard-educated chief operating officer of Facebook and a self-avowed feminist who wants to transform the role of women in the workplace. She is also incredibly wealthy — reportedly worth hundreds of millions — and is too often tone-deaf to her voice of privilege. This makes it hard to close the distance between lucky her and the women who could most benefit from her advocacy….By the time she describes the pangs of guilt as a mother working outside the home — some of her most poignant passages — it is impossible to forget that she, like many of the female friends she quotes, is a wealthy, white, married woman with a “vast support system.” Surely she could have included a story or two about successful women who are more likely to have been born to nannies than to hire them. Or at least more who didn’t graduate from the Ivy League.”

Soon after, it was discovered the Sandberg wasn’t paying interns at the Lean In Foundation. The implication being that you were welcome to Lean In if your parents could support you during an unpaid internship.

As women, we have to be careful not to let ’empowerment’ become a luxury good, to be distributed to those who can afford it, with only a lucky few further down the social ladder maybe benefiting from the work of NGOs and outreach programs. Physical displays of solidarity are indeed encouraging, but make minor – if any – impact. Real empowerment does not fall solely on the shoulders of our politicians or foundations, but asks for active effort from ordinary citizens, in ways both big and small.

Empowerment can be as simple as donating the $3 you’d spend on a necklace to a charity, or buying ethically sourced products (though that’s out of reach of many’s budgets). In that case, it may mean volunteering your time or mentoring young women, or something as simple, but beautiful, as babysitting your neighbor’s kid a for an afternoon a week so she can take a course or do some errands or simply take a breather.

Empowerment isn’t a product, and often isn’t sexy. It is more in actions and thoughtfulness, and done right, shouldn’t be raking in profits for any one person. In the lead up to the Women Deliver Conference, we should remember who needs to be empowered most – not Sandbergs, not Clintons – but the working moms living in our buildings, struggling to get through the day; our countrymen, scraping by on minimum wage; our fellow women worldwide, eking out existences and enduring brutality, all while many of us browse Amazon to proudly display our sense of feminism.

Girls’ Globe will be present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016. 

Featured photo credit: Carlos Alfaro / Flickr

The Most Amazing Week

Although Zambia developed the Anti-Gender Based Violence Act in 2011, Gender Based Violence (GBV) still persists at high rates today in Zambia, deeply entrenched in Zambian culture and norms. Out of the Southern African countries, Zambia ranks unfortunately high for GBV prevalence with 72% of women experiencing GBV in a lifetime and high associations between GBV and HIV positive status.

As a result, young girls living in Zambia face a myriad of challenges. Pressures from emerging womanhood, boys, and social media can force girls to experiment with their bodies and sexuality, though they may lack education and resources on safe and safer sex. Additionally, girls that come from poorer areas or families might not be able to negotiate or decline early childhood marriage. All of the unique pressures that girls face in their adolescence puts them at additional risk for HIV.

To address this, the Zambia Centre for Communication Programmes (ZCCP), in partnership with Peace Corps, is running Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) camps across Zambia to educate and empower female youth by teaching them about GBV and HIV/AIDS. I had the great privilege of attending the GLOW camp on the Copperbelt last week and enjoyed every second of it.

The girls were from grades 8-11 and came from schools across the Copperbelt along with teacher mentors from their schools. They were mature, bright students who entered the camp ready to build relationships, learn, and contribute. TMAW_2

Throughout the week, we played energizing activities, danced, had lessons on reproductive organs, learned about the different types of GBV, sewed chitenge pads (reusable menstruation pads made out of chitenge fabric and towel inserts), and more. I myself learned more than ever before about sexual reproductive health!

The camp quickly became a circle of sisterhood between the participants, mentors, and coordinators where each woman felt empowered and safe to share her story. I heard powerful stories of girls seeking education, overcoming gender norms in the household to find employment, and many shared their sentiments of wanting to spread empowerment and encouragement to Zambian girls everywhere. TMAW_3

Alas, the week was too short, and the camp came to an end. But the lessons we learned and the stories we shared will continue on. Girls from each school, along with their teacher mentors, will now create GLOW clubs in their schools for other girls and will teach the same sessions we had on GBV and HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, ZCCP will host these camps in provinces across Zambia – empowering girls everywhere.

Photo Credit: Reena Gupta