Three Women, Countless Stories: Celebrating International Women's Day
To celebrate International Women’s Day, InterExchange is highlighting the work of three Christianson Fellowship recipients. This grant enabled these dedicated volunteers to help better the lives of women around the world. Read on for details on how Kristin worked to decrease sex trafficking in India, how Kelsi practiced midwifery in three countries, and how Anna is working to empower young girls in the Dominican Republic.
Kristin Fighting Sex Trafficking in India
Kristin spent a year interning with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti sex-trafficking organization in India. This small grassroots organization operates in Kolkata, Bihar, and New Delhi, and was highlighted in Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky.
Apne Aap Women Worldwide
This organization’s primary focus is lifting women and girls out of the sex industry by informing women of their rights and providing legal assistance, helping girls to enroll in schools, providing non-formal education and other training, providing housing assistance, and connecting women with information and access to necessary resources.
The program also pushes for policies that shift the burden of criminal punishment from the victims to the perpetrators, and is currently running an ad campaign aimed at men, deterring them from buying sex.
Kristin’s work: Empowering women to create businesses
“I had been to India twice before… I wanted to commit to a full working year to benefit myself, give back to an organization, and more importantly, help educate my family back home,” said Kristin.
After six months of working in the Apne Aap head office in 2011, Kristin headed to the field office in Najafagarh, Delhi, where she started working on an income-generation project. This project focused on creating an alternate to prostitution through making and marketing handicrafts.
“This completely changed my internship experience,” said Kristin. “I started interviewing the women and girls we work with directly. I went into their homes. I attended their weddings, got to know their families and community. They took me with open hearts and changed my time here for the better.”
Not only was Kristin able to do impactful work, but she also had a fantastic cultural exchange experience which forever changed the way she views the world.
“Sharing a meal, even in a working environment, is important,” she said. “The whole office eats together, sharing food and drink… it shows the importance of community in India, which is a much more prominent role than in the West. Here the social structure is based on kinship and family relationships.”
A lasting impression
“I am forever changed by the people I met, the challenges I faced, and the places I went,” said Kristin. “The images and faces will always be with me, inspiring me. This year would not have been possible without the InterExchange Christianson Fellowship. It’s given me the financial opportunity to grow in ways that I never would have been able to been able to. I never could have been able to complete this year without this grant. I am going back to my country now full of cultural awareness that is impossible to learn from a classroom setting. Armed with passion and drive to continue marketing this income-generation project stateside, I feel that this is just a beginning of a new chapter.”
Kristin surmised, “I urge anyone who is faced with a choice to travel, whether it is for an internship or pleasure. Whatever the excuses may be, ignore them all and go. It will be the best decision of your life.”
Kelsi Providing Crucial Health Care to Mothers
Kelsi received a Christianson Fellowship for her volunteer work with Midwife International (MI). MI places midwifery students in partner clinics abroad as a way to create a cadre of globally-minded midwives for the future and assists local clinics in improving maternal care for their communities. Her yearlong program combined community service work, leadership training, and international midwifery training. Participants are placed where they are most needed, so Kelsi’s original placement plans were different than where she actually ended up working!
One year, three placements around the globe
From February to June 2013, Kelsi volunteered at an independent birth center in Attiak, Uganda. “During my time at this site, I helped re-organize the clinic: cleaning out and stocking the pharmacy, writing protocols and procedures, and identifying ways to make the clinic meet requirements for universal code. My daily schedule consisted of prenatal appointments, midwifery meetings and workshops with the preceptor, and attending births,” explained Kelsi.
After her time in Uganda, Kelsi moved to Cambodia where she worked with two government clinics in rural villages. Kelsi focused on births and prenatal care, as well as a postpartum follow-up program.
“Each day we traveled by tuk-tuk to visit each woman, three times during the 40-day postpartum period. Here I was responsible for performing an exam on both the mother and baby as well as organizing our charting system for this program, as way to ensure our supplies were well-stocked,” said Kelsi.
Kelsi ended her year in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, working with Asociación Manos Abiertas (AMA), an independent women’s clinic focused on providing natural birth alternatives for Guatemalan women. “During my time at this site, I participated in several trainings with the clinic staff and indigenous midwifery students on the use of herbs in pregnancy and childbirth, Mayan massage, robozo techniques, and procedures for pap smears,” explained Kelsi. She also assisted in appointments, supported the women and families through labor and birth, and assisted nurses with cervical cancer screening.
A life-changing year
“As a prospective international midwife, the Christianson Fellowship gave me the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of maternal health around the world, as well as how I can impact this field in the future. Currently there are very limited options for learning international midwifery. This opportunity helped me connect my many experiences of birth and maternal health into one,” said Kelsi.
During the year, Kelsi had the opportunity to work with midwives from around the world, all with many cultural and educational backgrounds. “Each of these women had her own style and her own way of relating to and assisting women in pregnancy and birth,” Kelsi explained. “Not only have I learned that there are many different ways of practicing midwifery, but this experience has given me the chance to adapt the styles I have seen and apply it to my own philosophy of care for the future.”
The experience taught Kelsi to be resourceful in many ways. She learned to communicate not just with her words, but with her hands, eyes, and energy. She learned how to operate within the unsafe realities of birth around the world, making the best decision based on each individual woman and her situation. She was in situations where there were two sub-optimal choices, and learned to quickly make the best one. “If we want to improve the rights and health of women in this world we, as international midwives, must learn how to understand deep-rooted cultural beliefs, norms, and realities in order to interpret the realities of women and their families. It is not easy. And it is not easy to know when to step in and when to step out,” she said.
Kelsi concluded, “I could not be more grateful for the Christianson Fellowship for giving me the chance to use my interests and skills to experience the lives of other people in this world. What better way to learn about one community, culture, or tradition than through women, birth, and babies? I can’t think of anything better. Here you get the good and bad, the magical and unexpected, and the overall truth… all in one. The Christianson Fellowship made this possible. I thank everyone involved for supporting me to find this reality. I have grown as an individual, student, prospective midwife, friend and a global advocate.”
Anna Working to End Poverty for Young Girls
Anna partnered with the Mariposa DR Foundation to implement her project, titled La Heroína de Mi Propia Vida (Heroine of My Own Life), in 2015.
Mariposa is an organization that aims to end generational poverty through the empowerment of girls and young women in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. According to Anna, “Girls in this community face very high risks of abduction, pornography, and sex trafficking. Additionally, the DR has the 17th highest rate of child brides around the world and early pregnancy is a widespread problem. Fewer than 20% of all girls in the DR will make it past the eighth grade. Many girls are forced to drop out of school to take care of younger siblings or other domestic chores. Often, the cycle of poverty continues for generations with young mothers struggling to care for their teenage daughters who subsequently also get pregnant at an early age.” Anna believes that the girls themselves are the solution to the problems they face, and that empowerment is the way by which it will be achieved.
Anna and the Mariposa DR Foundation
Anna discovered the Mariposa DR Foundation in college, when her gender studies professor assigned a project to her on the organization. After the assignment was over, she continued to follow the organization on Facebook, reading about their ongoing achievements and projects. She enrolled in another course with the same professor who had introduced her and her passion for the subject grew; Anna became determined to volunteer her time addressing issues surrounding adolescence, gender, and poverty.
“I applied to several summer volunteer fellowships in developing nations that addressed issues surrounding adolescence, gender, and poverty,” Anna said, “but when I received an email from Mariposa’s co-founder inviting me to work at the organization for the summer, I knew I had to go.”
Anna wrote the curriculum book for her program alongside community leaders, girls’ studies experts, and the girls in the the program themselves. Her aim is to hand the curriculum over to the foundation, “with the hope that it can be sustainably used for years to come.”
Anna has volunteered with Mariposa twice - first on her own, then returning as a Christianson Fellow. Her time has been marked by challenges and insights. The experience of earning the trust of the girls was not easy, but through dedication, humility, and a genuine determination to make the most of the opportunity, she succeeded in winning them over.
Anna was more at ease during her second stint - her Spanish improved, she re-earned the trust of the girls, and she could deftly hail the public bus - but she recognized that “there is still so much I have to learn.”
In Anna’s blog, she wrote, “I do think that the collective effort of giving impoverished girls the opportunity to go to school and participate in sports and leadership will change the world. However, my own world has been forever changed by a few big-hearted, energetic, and sometimes mischievous little girls, unbeknownst to them.”
We celebrate these three women – and the many other volunteers, grant recipients, and teachers – who have dedicated their time to making the world a better connected and more habitable, more resourceful, and more empowering place for women. A special thanks to you all – especially Anna, Kristin, and Kelsi!
Learn about life abroad
Read about the adventures others have had and get excited for yours.