From High Heels to Flip Flops

Written by: Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation

When I told my parents that I was going to “take a break from my career” to start a non-profit, there was mad chaos in the house.

“How will you survive without a job?” they questioned. “I’ll use my savings,” I replied.

“How long will you be away?” they asked. “About a year.”

Even my college thesis advisor, a professor of human geography and a theorist on poverty, whose teachings has influenced my approach with the Malini Foundation, expressed concerns. If he’s “nervous for me,” as he put it, I probably should think twice about this decision.

However, when I told my colleagues at work of my unorthodox plan most of them responded saying, “I’ve always wanted to do [fill in the blank] but never got around to it.”

With that I said to myself (yes, sometimes I do that):

“You live one life, so don’t let your passion fall through your fingers!”

But, I thought, I’m going to give this one shot and that shot better kick ass because if I don’t succeed in one year, I’m not trying again.

Rather than studying up on traditional non-profit management, in which I have no experience, I decided to tackle this like a consulting project, which would make it far less intimidating to me.

At the Malini Foundation, we would think like a business, with your products being our programs on girls’ education and women’s livelihoods. Our approach would be evidence-based with strategic decision-making processes.

One of my mentors and now board members told me: “Like restaurants, many small non-profits fail due to a lack of funding.” So sustainability would be critical. Our operations should be lean, environmentally conscious and bring in some revenue so we can be self-sufficient (hence the dual-purpose of the women’s livelihood program).

I also feel strongly about the effective use of public donations (when we get them!) 100% will be committed to our on-the-ground programs. To do this and be a successful organization, we would need a strong partnership model and pro bono program.

A part of our mission is to encourage better international relations between the U.S. and developing countries. What better way to do that than by engaging college students who could also help with our research and administrative needs?

I reached out to the student programs coordinator at my alma mater, Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College. I shared my plans for the Malini Foundation and for what’s today our Global Fellowship Program. Incredibly, she remembered that I had expressed my interest in such a project 10 years ago while reporting to her as a scholar assistant. Before we know it, our first partnership was formed!

With our Global Fellowship Program we provide internship, applied-research and consulting opportunities to Schreyer scholars. We work with students from non-technical majors with a passion for humanitarian causes and instill vital analytical problem solving skills.

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I continued to travel and work on my last client project but with the support of our interns and a few dedicated volunteers we were able to get a lot of foundational planning completed. Our strategic plan included a situational analysis of potential regions to start our project, an evaluation of similar leading practice organizations, a financial pro forma, an accountability-based governance model and a partnership assessment. We even held our first advocacy event showing the inspirational film Girl Rising on International Day of the Girl.

In the meantime, we were accepted as a Development Partner with Advocates for International Development and they connected us to the law firm Mayer Brown. They helped us apply for 501(c)(3) status and developed several policies including our code of ethics.

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It was a hectic six months trying to balance my real job and working late into the evenings on the Malini Foundation but I felt less nervous knowing that we were starting on solid ground.

On my last day at work, I was running through the airport to catch my flight back home. I all but twisted my ankle as the heel of my black pumps broke off. I pulled out my flip flops and rushed to the gate. As I hastily settled into my seat I realized that literally and figuratively I had traded in my Cole Haans for a pair of Havanas. This has to be a good sign for a new beginning!

For more on the Malini Foundation, read Valerie’s previous blog post on Girls’ Globe

Grassroots Voices and Family Planning: Keeping Women at the Forefront

The past few days at the International Conference on Family Planning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia have been fantastic in highlighting an array of voices, perspectives, commitments, and calls to action from a number of organizations, foundations, private sector representatives, and individuals. Large, international conferences such as this one are important to bring people together, create new partnerships, and facilitate discussion on issues that are relevant to the rights and well-being of women and girls.

Especially important within these large conference settings, is ensuring the voices of women at the grassroots level are included in panels, sessions, and discussions. It is imperative that these voices are elevated and incorporated into action plans and goals, especially regarding something as integral to the progress of women as reproductive health and family planning. At this conference in Addis Ababa, the most insightful and inspiring ideas I have heard, came from local women and men who have dedicated their lives to working throughout Ethiopia’s rural areas to provide access and enhance choice for women in planning their family sizes and maintaining their sexual and reproductive health.

This is all well and good, but I’m still concerned. I’m concerned that similar to any other big event, where we get excited, participate and move on, we will do just that; move on. I’m concerned that as we head back home and return to a post-conference routine, the strong, powerful voices we heard while here will slowly fade. Family planning is one of the best options we have to improve the lives of women and children, and it is imperative the voices of those women and children are not forgotten in the action taken to provide access and choice.

What we at Girls’ Globe believe is missing in this process of enhancing and just as importantly, maintaining women’s voices in the development of family planning policy and programs, is connectivity. A solution would be an easily accessible network that connects grassroots women’s-based organizations with each other, with resources, and provides a platform for them to voice needs, lessons, and calls to action.

Justine with a grassroots women's organization in Penang, Malaysia working towards gender budgeting
Justine with a grassroots women’s organization in Penang, Malaysia working towards gender budgeting

Luckily, we’re in the process of creating a free, online Database to serve as a platform that will do just that. We strongly believe women are capable, powerful agents of their own change, who, when provided proper resources, work well together to share ideas and create lasting impacts. With the expanding reach of technology and Internet access, an online platform that serves the work of women’s organizations has the ability to promote networking and momentum beyond conference settings, and enhance the productivity and reach of women working at the grassroots level. The need for a resource such as the Database is beyond comprehension, particularly in the realm of reproductive health and family planning, which are areas of development still riddled with social, political, and economic barriers.

If you are an individual working for an organization big or small, doing work to promote the rights of women and girls, please sign up to join the Girls’ Globe network. Although the Database has yet to be launched, joining the network now ensures you access and connectivity.

Join the Girls’ Globe Network HERE!

We want to facilitate, enhance, and expand your voice, your growth, and your connectivity!

The New Girl Power Brought to you by Rwanda

A photo from inside Rwanda's Parliament during an international conference regarding the role of leadership in gender equality
A photo from inside Rwanda’s Parliament during an international conference regarding the role of leadership in gender equality

I was extremely excited to read Annika’s latest blog post about women’s representation in Parliaments around the world and her recognition of Rwanda’s government boasting an outstanding 57 percent women MPs. Everyday as I sit and work on my graduate thesis, (which is a study of electoral gender quotas and more specifically, Rwanda’s women Parliamentarians) I find myself continually flabbergasted by the fact that Rwandan women’s political progress is not a bigger deal. When people ask what I am researching, they are generally shocked to learn Rwandan women represent a majority in Parliament. I’ve seriously considered making t-shirts that say, “Rwandan women represent a majority in government. THIS is the new Girl Power.”

Thousands of Rwandans participated in the One Million Women and Girls' March for a Better Future in Kigali, Rwanda in May, 2010.
Thousands of Rwandans participated in the One Million Women and Girls’ March for a Better Future in Kigali, Rwanda in May, 2010.

According to its history and precedent, Rwanda should still be a failed state. However, by 2011, Rwanda was very close to meeting several of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, gained its own stock exchange, and has been listed as one of the safest countries in which to live in Africa. As Annika recognized, Rwandan MPs have made serious advances in terms of women-focused legislation, and have hosted several international conferences to provide examples of how women’s leadership is integral in post-conflict governments.

However, the best part about all of this is not just that Rwandan women represent a political majority and have contributed to significant legislation that has enhanced gender equality (although those are pretty great). The BEST part about all of this is that the success of gender equal representation in Rwanda’s Parliament emanated not from a government-enacted gender quota or international pressure, but from a historically strong and united grassroots women’s movement.

Throughout the 1980s in Rwanda, laws restricted women from owning land and receiving loans and boys outnumbered girls almost 9 to 1 in schools. Women never exceeded 17 percent of Parliament and although they made up over half of the economically active population, their labour remained informal. It was during this time of patriarchal values that Rwandan women began to join together in groups to work toward a common goal of informally enhancing their status as women in society. By the end of the 1980s, an umbrella organization was established called Pro-Femmes, under which previously informal women’s groups became organizations.

This statue of a woman holding a child's hand stands just in front of Parliament in Kigali, Rwanda, in honour of all Rwandan women and their necessary contributions to the country's process of reconstruction and peace-building.
This statue of a woman holding a child’s hand stands just in front of Parliament in Kigali, Rwanda, in honour of all Rwandan women.

Post-genocide, women represented nearly 70 percent of Rwanda’s active members of society and immediately regrouped in their previously-established networks, overlooking ethnic divides, to begin reuniting families and reconstructing a country that had been completely destroyed. Considering pre-genocide laws and standards, this was not a simple task, as women owned no formal rights to land, resources, or banking. Regardless, between 1994 and 2003, women’s organizations were the most active sector of civil society. By the late 1990s, women’s councils were established by women in each small district of Rwanda, creating a steady increase in women leaders at the grassroots level. By 2001, these women leaders and 40+ women’s organizations under Pro-Femmes began to lobby Rwanda’s transitional government to formally increase women’s political representation through an electoral quota. In 2003, the quota was Constitutionally entrenched, requiring 30 percent of all decision-making bodies be represented by women. As we are aware, currently, Rwanda’s women have gained enough influence and respect to receive votes beyond the quota requirements.

Rwanda’s government, as well as gender equality still have areas in which to develop and grow. But in and of itself, the fact that Rwandan women have been the driving force behind their own empowerment despite a devastating history, is something that should inspire women and men alike. The story of Rwanda’s grassroots women’s movement truly reinforces the age-old adage that authentic and sustainable development MUST emanate from the grassroots level and from those who will reap the benefits.

Let us be inspired by Rwanda’s women. Let us feel empowered by their drive and commitment to each other as women and as Rwandans who could overcome adversity and overlook differences to work toward a common goal.

Signs throughout Kigali, Rwanda promote gender equality and non-violence.
Signs throughout Kigali, Rwanda promote gender equality and non-violence.

THIS is Girl Power. THIS is proof that women are capable, motivated, agents of their own change. THIS is a story you need to share with your daughters, sons, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and friends. If not, I’ll get those t-shirts made and gift them to everyone this holiday season. Just kidding, I’ll do that anyway.