One of the greatest joys of being part of the movement to empower women is knowing that change-makers are fighting every day for gender equality.
At the crux of this movement is a pantheon of female heroes who work relentlessly to improve women’s health, touching vulnerable grassroots communities that are neglected, little known, or difficult to reach.
This powerful alliance of women leaders, social entrepreneurs and volunteers continually inspires me to soar from strength to strength in the pursuit of improving women’s health, reminding me that an investment in women’s healthcare and education will pay dividends that ripple throughout society and the wider world.
This past month, I had the honor of interviewing women who inspire me: Rebecca Scharfstein, Aunna Wilson and Ashley Eberhart of Pasand and Marilena Choguaj of Starfish, on their women’s health-focused initiatives in the domains of sanitary protection and reproductive health respectively.
Ashley Eberhart, Rebecca Scharfstein and Aunna Wilson of Pasand
The lack of access to feminine sanitary products affects millions of women in India – an estimated 88% of women in India do not use commercial sanitary pads during their periods.
As a result, hygienically unviable alternatives to pads like cloths are used and reused, breeding increased risks of reproductive tract infections because cloths are often washed in contaminated water. The limited amount of sanitary products that can safely last through a school day also prompts some girls to miss school during their periods; some girls even choose not to continue their education. Consequently, girls are unable to break the vicious cycles of poverty and gender inequality through education, and the disadvantaged status of millions of women and girls remains perpetuated.
Pasand is the brainchild of Ashley Eberhart, Rebecca Scharfstein, Aunna Wilson and Alexandra Deprez, who were Princeton University undergraduates during the organization’s founding. It has a two-fold mission of expediting “widespread access to women’s health education and sanitary protection in India”. Since its inception, Pasand has developed a culturally-sensitive, innovative women’s health curriculum and is “actively seeking product partners to combine forces and sell an affordable sanitary product alongside teaching our health curriculum”.
The women who founded Pasand, fervent champions for women’s health, never cease to inspire me.
The ability to make well-informed decisions is the quintessence of women’s empowerment, and giving women access to feminine health education and sanitary protection offers them a medium to achieve this.
Pasand’s vision is one that resonates deeply with me, sonorously telling me that:
We must help create a world where no barrier exists for a young girl – in India or elsewhere – specifically because she is a woman. We believe, as many do, that women must have a globally-recognized and enforced right to health, dignity, and choice. -The Pasand Team
Marilena Choguaj of Starfish
For a 12-year-old indigenous girl in Guatemala, a harrowing future is on the horizon – a future that entails putting friendships and education on the back burner in favor of child marriage, early sexual initiation, and frequent pregnancies. Data from statisticians corroborates the ill consequences of this norm: maternal mortality is three times the national average, 46% of women are married by age 18, and fertility rates remain as high as 114 in 1000 girls aged 15-19.
Yet, when a girl completes her secondary education, she marries later and has fewer children. But academic education alone does not suffice – a reproductive health curriculum in tandem with academic programs is essential. Starfish, a grassroots organization focused on empowering girls in Guatemala through education and mentorship, understands the need for such a program.
Marilena Choguaj, the Coordinator of Innovation at Starfish, ensures that reproductive health curriculum mentors have the most updated information that is presented in the most dynamic way possible. She more than empathizes with the girls’ challenging circumstances: “In Guatemala, there is a culture of shame and silence around sexuality and reproductive health. It is imperative that we change this attitude. Being informed about this topic should not be looked upon as a sin, but as a right.”
During our weekly mentorship sessions with the Girl Pioneers, we […] work on building self-esteem, and we provide unbiased information about sexuality. Knowledge is power and this knowledge, in combination with a strong sense of self-worth and the confidence to make good decisions, empowers our students to act in an informed, responsible way. -Marilena Choguaj
Marilena’s ethos of empowerment and passion never fail to embolden me to change the world. Marilena, who assimilates a high cultural relevance and sensitivity into Starfish’s reproductive health program, is an inspiration. She reminds me that an empowered woman is a woman who is informed and at liberty to make her own decisions:
An empowered woman has discovered and developed her personal strengths. She is able to vocalize and share her thoughts. An empowered woman is a woman who knows she is capable. That SHE is capable of making her life anything she wants it to be. -Marilena Choguaj