Archive for October, 2010

This post is cross-posted at JWA

There was a really interesting article in The New York Times last week by Kristof about individuals who are, in effect, creating foreign aid on their own. He writes about various people who, feeling passionately about helping the world, got up, changed their lives, and simply, did it. He tells a few stories, highlighting the fact that many of the members of the “Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid Revolution” are women. One that I find to be particularly interesting is the story of Elizabeth Scharpf. While interning for a summer in Mozambique with the World Bank, she learned that many women were hesitant to go to work while menstruating because of the high cost of feminine hygiene products. When she came back to Harvard, she asked around, and discovered that a similar problem existed in many countries around the globe, but that it was often a topic too taboo to discuss.

So she came home, contacted people she knew in pharmaceuticals and biotech, and tried to design a company to produce cheap sanitary pads that women could distribute through a franchise system. After discovering that commercial pads were expensive to manufacture because of pricey raw materials, she got together a team that designed a pad made out of banana fibers that proved to be eco-friendly, absorbent, and significantly cheaper to produce. After winning a grant and a fellowship, Scharpf has created an organization called Sustainable Health Enterprises that will begin manufacturing pads next year in Rwanda and that is advocating for the Rwandan government to lift the 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products to make them more affordable.

It’s unclear how much of an effect the banana-fiber pads will have. Perhaps they will still be too expensive for families to buy, or girls will still miss school because of menstrual cramps. There are studies that show that providing girls with pads actually increases school attendance, and studies that show that bicycles would help more than pads; the pads’ immediate effects are still an unknown.

However, I think that even if her project does not have grand, sweeping results, it’s important to think about the fact that this is exactly the type of innovation that our world needs today: ideas that take into account and carefully consider monetary, environmental, and social concerns. Often times, we think about philanthropy just in terms of giving money, and forget that money needs to go somewhere—and that where it goes matters. Instead of trying to pay for women’s sanitary pads and continue to supply women with them, Scharpf is trying to create a sustainable system that can exist without a constant stream of money from outside donors. Not only that, but she’s trying to empower women by filling an obvious void in their lives, and relieving them of one more burden preventing them from going to school. It takes a lot of time to change a society in which women are expected to miss school often, but providing them with the tools they need to allow them to feel comfortable school is the first step.

I wanted to share this with you all because I think it’s an interesting and important story, but also because as Jewish women we should remember that we’re part of a long train of healthcare activism. Lillian Wald, the woman who first coined the term “public health nurse,” was a leader of a movement of nurses who worked outside of hospitals inside poor communities. These women, taking a new and novel approach to healthcare, worked on preventative health as well as treatment of ailing patients. Under Wald’s influence, the New York Board of Health began to organize the first public nursing system in the world. Wald did not just work for a short-term solution to a problem, but rather succeeded at shaping a long-term healthcare system. With her in mind, we should applaud women like Scharpf for their innovation and efforts.


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I was very excited to see this article in The New York Times today. Titled “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair?” it addresses an issue I have long wondered about myself–why do women automatically cut off their hair when they reach a certain age? The mothers of most of my friends all have some variation on the same haircut, cut either slightly below the ear or above the shoulder. To me it just seems to be the “mom” haircut–and I’ve always been kind of saddened by the idea that one day I too will have a “mom” haircut.

Since I was small, I thought that a close family friend of mine had black hair. However, when I saw her head of black hair replaced with a head of white, I discovered that she had been dyeing her hair black as white strands began appearing, until finally around age 50 she decided to give up and allow her entire head to turn white. At first I found it slightly shocking to see an entire head of long, white hair (she is one of the few “long haired” women that I know), but I soon began to appreciate it for uniqueness and, albeit surprising, beauty. She looked so natural with her hair that I couldn’t help but wish that more women learned from her and let their hair grow out and not try to change it too much.

So I loved the fact that Dominique Browning wrote an article about having long hair at 55. Not only does she have long hair, but she is letting it naturally go gray. I really admire her for that, as I frequently tell the aging women in my life: getting old is nothing to hide–everyone does it. She addresses the biggest complaints she has heard against long hair: that it is “acting out” against society, that it is proof that she is deluding herself into feeling like she is still living in the 70’s, that it is high maintenance, and finally, that men like it. And she addresses them by affirming them: she explains that she is “rebelling” against the idea that women must look a certain way, that the women of the 70’s are still good role models, that while she does have to think about her hair she does not have to spend tons of money or time on it (some people forget that not all long hairstyles require expensive products), and finally, that there is nothing wrong with having hair that men like. All I have to say is: amen.


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I’ve been reading my copy of the newest edition of Ms. Magazine all morning, and on the last page, as a part of its “No Comment” section, which features blatantly offensive advertisements for which people are encouraged to write to the offending advertisers and request that they be taken down, it features this:.
Now, in case you can’t see the print, the first step in how to ask for a raise is as follows: “It should start with your usual routine and all the things you do to feel your best, including showering with Summer’s Eve Feminine wash or throwing a packet f summer’s Eve Feminine Cleansing Cloths into your bag for a quick freshness pick-me-up during the day.” Steps 2-8 include eating a healthy breakfast, leaving early, and focusing on things you have done that show your worth. But, of course, Summer’s Eve comes first.

Now, I think we should all think about the fact that many doctors specifically recommend against douching, since a woman’s body naturally cleans itself. Douching simply covers up a smell–women should call their doctors if they feel that they have a serious problem. So, clearly, using Summer’s Eve is not going to help your vagina or body feel better and set you up for a good day.

Besides that, the problem with this ad is in the two problematic messages that it sends women. First, the obvious fact that it tells women to cover up their natural scent, as if there is something wrong with their bodies and their natural functions. Second, this ad makes it seem as if the most important thing for a woman to focus on in a workplace is, in fact, her womanhood—the fact that Summer’s Eve is first, and work advice only starts at #4 sends a message that it is more important for a woman to have a pleasant-smelling vagina than to present herself effectively to a boss. Now, at a time when women make less than men but are less likely to ask for a pay raise, I see this as a significant problem. According to the linked article from The Guardian, studies show that women tend to undervalue themselves and are afraid of being seen as pushy—women aren’t not asking for raises because they’re afraid of having their vaginas smell bad. As a society, we should be working to help women be more assertive in the workplace, and helping women learn to value themselves in the same way that their male counterparts do. We should not be teaching women to criticize their bodies and add to the already-existent worry inherent in asking for a raise.

So, write to Women’s Day and ask them to remove this offensive ad:
C.B. Fleet Company Inc.,
4615 Murray Place, Lynchburg, VA 24502

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A few quick words about the Facebook “I like it” meme that was supposedly created to raise awareness for breast cancer.

Two days ago, I was surprised by the fact that half of my female Facebook friends’ statuses consisted of “I like it,” followed by some surface (which, upon asking, you could find out is the surface on which they supposedly like to keep their purses.) I think it’s silly, but more than that, I think it leads to complacency where complacency should not be. Yes, saying something with implicit sexual meaning is a great way to get people’s attention to a cause, but nothing about saying “I like it” and responding to questions about a status by saying that it is to raise awareness about breast cancer actually does anything to fight breast cancer. Unlike a lot of important causes that people do not often like to talk about (ulcerative colitis and depression, for example), people love talking about breast cancer–the idea of it, that is. Anywhere you look, you can find a pink ribbon or wristband for breast cancer awareness. But few people like to actually do anything to work towards fighting and preventing breast cancer–and that’s what we need to encourage, not awareness that breast cancer exists.

We need to tell women that if they have high density breasts, mammograms may not be able to detect cancerous growths in their breasts. We need to tell women about their risk factors and what they can do to try to prevent breast cancer. We need to teach girls how to do a breast self-exam. These are the things we should be doing–not spreading the world that breast cancer exists. There’s nothing bad or malicious about the “I like it” meme (from a sociological point of view it’s actually pretty fascinating), but I think that just like last year’s bra color fad, it’s very much a wasted opportunity.

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For a while now I’ve been struggling to figure out what I want to say and formulate a post about this:

And I’m still not completely sure what to say. On the one hand, the video is beautiful, in that special wow, there really could be hope in this world way and terribly sad in the wow, there are so many girls out there living lives that they should not be living way. When I first saw the video I had to watch it a couple of times to actually think about it. And then I was curious, so I looked up the website of The Girl Effect. They have a fact sheet with some interesting and relevant facts, such as the fact that “an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent” and that “out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” The statistics clearly show that there is a gap between what I (and many people in Western society) believe girls deserve and what they are getting.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to change a society, and this video is, to say the least, quite the oversimplification. How can you give a girl independence in a society that is structured around her dependence? How can you make a society pay attention to girls when for thousands of years it has not? The answer: slowly. That’s where my hesitation is–not in the ideas behind The Girl Effect, but in the idea that everything is going to be easy. If you read “Girls Count: An Investment and Global Action Agenda,” you’ll see that the people at the Center for Global Development have some very logical and seemingly important ideas, like increasing access to secondary education for girls, working to get laws passed that fight discrimination against women, and getting girls official identification so that there is an official record of what happens to them.

I read these ideas and immediately said to myself, yes, of course these need to happen. And I still think they need to happen–but sadly, I’m just a little skeptical. NGOs like the World Bank have been for years and continue to build schools for girls, and what happens? Some girls get to go to school; in many cases, thousands upon thousands of girls get to go to school. But there still remain thousands and thousands who don’t. If a law gets passed that encourages equality, a law gets passed–but it is still up to the government, police, and other officials to enforce the law, and many times corruption inhibits that from happening. This is not to say that efforts should not be made–I think they should. However, I think it’s important to remember that even though the small pieces themselves may seem simple to achieve, it is much more difficult to change an entire society. The Western world functions very differently than other cultures, and changing a society’s mores and expectations takes time. It took, and is still taking, time for women to be seen as equal in America, and that time applies in the same way, if not more, when talking about changing foreign cultures and their perceptions of gender equality.

So watch the video, share the video, and talk to people about it. It raises a lot of issues, from the idea of the imposition of Western values onto other cultures to the debate about the efficacy of micro-finance initiatives. And hopefully, slowly, girls across the world will get the opportunities they deserve–from education to not having to have a child at age 14–and be able to live up to their full potential.

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