Inspirational Woman Leader Spotlight: Marie A. Abanga

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

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Marie A. Abanga, is what many will call a dynamic and determined woman. She goes by the three Ds of Determination-Discipline-Dedication and yes in most of what she does,  she strives to do it to her best thus she says. Marie read Law in the University and got called to the Cameroon Bar as a Lawyer. She practiced for three years and due to some personal and professional challenges, left her country to further her studies in Belgium. She is currently an LL.M Candidate in International Law with International Relations but she is especially a Feminist, a fervent blogger, an author, a mental health advocate, and also the Regional Manager Africa for the Women In Parliament Global Forum.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Marie A. Abanga: I grew up in the city of Douala Cameroon and had dare I say a modest but emotionally charged childhood. I grew up seeing most women around me ‘abused’ regardless of perception that all was well in their households. Maybe that is what kept drawing me towards advocacy for women, the marginalized in general and defence of the most vulnerable during my brief practice in courtrooms. l still remember winning my first case in which l valiantly defended a ‘street kid’ charged with three grievous accusations.

Women LEAD: Why is feminism important to you?

Marie A. Abanga: Feminism is important to me first of all because if my mother hadn’t been ‘whisked’ off to school by her own ‘illiterate’ mother, l wouldn’t be what l am today. In her era and as it still applies in certain areas today, the education of the girl child is considered a ‘waste of resources’. My grandma fought hard and even left her marriage all together so that her daughters could have a better opportunity in life than she did. Today, I don’t have any daughters but l am advocating for equal rights among the sexes and more empowerment for women so that all women and girls should be free to make the choices which impact them most in life.

Women LEAD: You are the Regional Manager for Africa for the Women in Parliaments (WIP) Global Forum, which harnesses the collective strength and abilities of women in Parliaments across the world to address global challenges. Can you tell us more about this role with WIP?

Marie A. Abanga: WIP endeavours to find ways to address global challenges by using the collective strength and ability of women in Parliaments across the world. Women need three things to fulfill their potential: Communication, Connection, Community. At WIP, optimizing the power of communication and connection builds new communities of support for women in politics everywhere. I am in my capacity as regional manager for Africa,  in charge or organizing, coordinating and implementing WIP’s policies for and in Africa.

So far, I have been instrumental in the organization of two major WIP events: the Iceland Study Trip and most especially, the Rwanda Summer Summit. The later was such a remarkable summit with the participation of over 200 delegates from over 45 countries. Africa as expected was ably represented and the women were unanimous in their support of our Forum and other key issues of grave interest to them. Remarkable among such issues was their call to governments to step up their efforts in supporting the search for the girls abducted by Boko Haram a few months ago. Powerful declarations are issued each time and it is my responsibility to liaise with these delegates to keep the network growing. 

Women LEAD: Moreover, up till May, you were a Global Community Champion for the Knowledge Gateway of Women’s Economic Empowerment. Can you share some of your experiences?

Marie A. Abanga: The economic ‘stagnation’ of women has for all time hastened their dependence on men, consequently their, ‘abuse’.  This impacts heavily on their own well being, and of course that of their children and hence the well being of the community as a whole. Yet, today, statistics have proven to all extent how much benefit a society reaps when its women are economically empowered. It is for these reasons, that l volunteered mindful of my schedule, to be one of the pioneer Community Champions for the Knowledge Gateway  for Women’s Economic Empowerment.

I had to champion the Gateway’s cause and help rally as many women, organizations and stake holders to the platform, as I could. The Knowledge Gateway  sure doesn’t provide magic wand solutions or grants for women’s ‘economic waterloo’, but it provides that platform where women can read about others’ views, share ideas, discover networks and learn about opportunities like those free e-courses offered ever so often. The platform even if just for encouraging women to sign up and get acquainted with basic ICT tools (l think particularly of my African Mothers in some of those remote or even difficult ‘terrains’), is one to be supported and championed all the more. To me, the Knowledge Gateway is a more practical platform to better communicate the mission and vision of UN Women as a whole, mutatis mutandis, that of the UN who definitely know that there can be no completion of the MDGs without the full and equal participation of Women.

Women LEAD: What does women’s empowerment mean to you?

Marie A. Abanga: Women’s  Empowerment involves the ability to make social, economic and financial choices, which entails a process of change of all the components of societal structures that shape and reproduce power relations and the subsequent unequal distribution of society’s resources and opportunities .  Empowered women can make those choices while non-empowered women cannot. I state it simply as that. For example, my grandma of whom l often quote, was the first woman in her own village to inherit landed property from her father. This was of course a feat and several legal battles were fought for this to happen.

l mean, we can look at the prejudice suffered by women from all angles and see how this impacts their general well being be it emotional or otherwise. They suffer great abuse because of the patriarchal societies we live in and this impacts even their will to continue the struggle for empowerment. I am thus fighting this battle both from a personal and professional front and I believe the future generation will be grateful the likes of us lived.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Marie A. Abanga: As other inspirational women have said, talking about just one woman is very difficult. I will just mention three or so. My ‘illiterate’ but dynamic and loving Grandma of fond memory, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf first African Female President and my own mother. My Mother does capacity building for women entrepreneurs of S.M.Es and several other ‘projects’. She has been such a support, saving me even from my own self when I almost succumbed to a ‘nervous break down’.

Women LEAD: What advice would you give to those interested in women’s rights advocacy?

Marie A. Abanga: Do it from your heart and not just your head. Half of the world’s population is made up of women and the other half is here thanks to women. It is high time we realize we are damaging our own future if we continue to deny women equal rights.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?

Marie A. Abanga: I will cite a few:

With regards to books, there are several, and l am an avid reader too. I love most especially the true stories/memoirs of women who made it  in their lives in whatever aspect,  in spite of the numerous ‘challenges’.  A book l am yet to read but is a must for me before this summer is over, is: This Child Will Be Great by H.E Ellen Sirleaf Johnson herself. My other favorite Authors include Maya Angelou, my humble self, Iyanla Vanzart and several others who share their most personal struggles as women and their ‘break through’ aka empowerment, so that other women like them, may not give up the fight.

Feminist Camp Day 5: Bodies and Power

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Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

The final day of the Feminist camp began with a small treat for all the campers: some extra time in the morning! Some of us chose to sleep in and relax, while some chose to take time out to reflect on the week or go around the city.

Our first workshop was at the LAVA studio, a space for a troupe of artists who develop and perform original works with a combination of dance, theatre, and acrobatics. Sarah Johnson, the founder and Artistic Director LAVA spoke about how the group did not confirm to the sexualization of females in dance forms. They focus on acrobats, physicality, relationship exploration and connection between the dancers, rather than solely on entertaining the audience. LAVA studio had no mirrors, emphasizing the importance of dance rather than how the dancers looked. Our session then focused on engaging us into their LAVA world. Some of the exercises we did like leading a partner around the studio with their eyes closed, making them lie down and lifting them up from the floor helped build trust between the group members. We also tried scissor kicks, handstands and airplanes to build strength. At the end, we were divided into three groups and asked to create a dance form using any moves we learned during the session or feelings we felt. Our group chose to incorporate feelings of nervousness, resistance, and then of trust through the dance moves.

Energized after the session, we went to The Doughnut Plant to honor the National Doughnut Day, and then headed towards The Paradise Factory in order to watch MOM BABY AND GOD! The show was a one-woman political theatre piece about a rising teenage anti abortion activist. The humorous piece is a result of extensive primary research of the ‘pro-life’ activists. The protagonist, Jessica, is someone many teenagers can relate to: her personal sexual desires intersect and contrast with the idea of chastity and purity promoted by the pro-life movement. After the show, the performer gave us inside scoops on her research that led to this theatre piece.

After the show, we went to Zucker café for a cocktail party with Amy, Jennifer, Carly and some alums of the past Feminist Camps. Cherishing the camp over amazing food and talking about Disney, we also had a chance to interact with alumnae and hear about their work and activism experiences. We all were also honored with Soapbox Feminist badges for completing the program!

I am grateful to Claire Charamnac, my former internship supervisor and co-founder of Women LEAD for recommending me to apply as the program assistant for the Feminist Camp. As our beloved Gloria Steinem says, “Women have two choices: Either she’s a feminist or a masochist.”  All us campers have made the choice, to recognize and strive for equality of all genders. This camp has been an intensive week of meeting passionate and intelligent feminists, nurturing and challenging our knowledge on feminist issues, and building connections. As we return to our daily lives, our views and perspectives might not always be accepted or respected; however, this week of immersion has equipped us with the skills, strength and reasons to stand up and strive for change!

 

Feminist Camp Day 4: Reproductive Justice

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Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

For the first session, we were divided into different groups, each of which would visit an organization that works towards reproductive justice. Our group went to Inwood House, the only organization in New York City focused primarily on comprehensively serving the needs of pregnant and parenting teens. We talked to three members in their staff, and they told us about challenges to fundraising as a non-profit organization, as well as their competing stakeholders’ interest between government and private donors. They talked about vocational and educational training given to the pregnant mothers for a financially sustainable future. Another of their impressive programs is focused on school students by providing afterschool tutoring and leadership development. We also had a mini discussion on cost of living in NYC, and how people manage their standard of living in such an expensive city!

We then went to Judson Memorial Church for a few more sessions; the church itself was an interesting place of convergence of religion, art and activism. We had Lauren Mitchell talk about how she formed the Doula Project, an organization offering holistic support to pregnant women by pairing them with trained doulas for support and help during a woman’s abortion or birth experience. Then Melissa Madera talked about her Abortion Project, where she compiles audio recording of stories of individuals who have had abortions in the past. Her aim is to humanize the politically charged topic of abortion, and encourage sharing as well as healing.

For the most awaited part of the day, we went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to attend the 2014 Sackler Center First Award. At the event, we got a chance to meet with Gloria Steinem, hear her as well as Elizabeth Sackler speak.  We also saw Anita Hill being honored with the 2014 Sackler Center First Award for her stance and work against sexual assault in the workplace. The award was preceded by a documentary Speaking Truth to Power (Anita Hill), which showed how she was a pioneer in fighting against workplace sexual harassment when she spoke against her supervisor the ‘Injustice’ Clarence Thomas. We then toured the Brooklyn Museum quickly, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party stood out the most to me. Amidst the interesting sessions and Sackler Awards, the brief meeting with Gloria Steinem definitely stole the show!

Feminist Camp Day 3: Feminism and Sexuality

Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

How often do we think of gender and sexuality as a broad spectrum rather than limiting labels of male and female? How often do we ask a new person we encounter what their preferred gender pronoun is? These were some of the many questions that came into mind as we sat through the third day’s sessions focused on feminism and sexuality.

The session was held at a very special location: Ms. Foundation for Women, an organization that in its early days was a pioneer in providing access and growth to women philanthropy. The foundation till date focuses on women’s issues that do not get mainstream attention. After a quick recap of yesterday’s gala organized by Sanctuary of Families, we started with the sessions with our first speaker Kristin Russo. Kristin is the co-founder of the website and organization ‘Everyone is Gay’, that works to improve lives of LGBTQ youth using humorous yet informative videos, school tours and working with parents of LGBTQ. She firstly told us about her journey as a theatre undergrad, graduate student gender studies, and the co-founder of the website ‘Everyone is Gay’. She also relayed to us the importance of diversity training as it relates to sexuality and the lack of such model among teachers. She said social media has helped her activism greatly, and shared with us some tips about the various times when specific media might be used more, e.g. Instagram during evenings, etc. She also highlighted the importance of donating, not just in monetary term, but skill sets to the non profit world. Another important take away for me from the session was asking people their preferred gender pronoun, instead of assuming their gender identity.

Amy and Jennifer then shared to us more about their personal moments of realization in feminism, and importance of identifying needs in workplace and initiating change to bridge that gap. Our second panel of speakers was from Choices in Childbirth, a non-profit that works to improve the maternity care and experiences by providing access to range of choices regarding procedure and place of birth to mothers. We started the session with quick introductions of two staff and two interns in the panel. We then watched a half an hour-abridged documentary titled ‘The Business of Being Born’. The documentary focused on the increasing rates of Cesarean sections during delivery, the high usage of drugs and lack of proper knowledge or consent of women during childbirth. The idea of gynecologists intervening, and eventually performing cesarean sections on mothers take away women’s agency or power over her body and choices of childbirth. The documentary proposes and illustrates examples of low risk pregnant women opting for midwifery for delivering their children at their own homes. Our discussion following was focused on the gap of information regarding ways of delivering children, and places. The discussion also focused on the health insurance, and how prevalent class systems affect access and choices in maternity for women. It was interesting to see the statistics of how the US ranked second last among the top 50 most industrialized nations in terms of high maternal mortality rate. Another interesting data was to observe was the rate of delivery done by midwives compared to OB/GYNs in the US and Europe. While midwives in European countries deliver 60-80% children, midwives in the US deliver only about 8%. The idea that mid wives and doulas are generally there for pre and post delivery for mother’s care, and enable women to make educated choices about their pregnancy and childbirth was important. After the session, Amy shared with us her ideas of motherhood, and how motherhood is considered as a validity of women’s identity. She said validating and entitling women just for their motherhood is disempowering.

Next we had speakers from the Sex Workers Project (SWP), which provides client centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work, whether by choice, circumstance or coercion. It was said that SWP was the first organization in New York to work against sex trafficking. There was a discussion on how there is a divide in feminism when it relates to voluntary sex workers. The organization has a great record in helping individuals vacate their prostitution convictions in New York, and lobby for ending employment discrimination issues that arise. The speakers from SWP approved of the Switzerland model, where voluntary sex work is not legalized but is decriminalized. They believe this reduces the stigma around sex work, and empower sex workers by giving them a freedom of occupational choice.

After the interesting sessions, we watched a documentary: Valentine Road. Based on the shooting of Lawrence “Larry” King in a high school California, the very compelling and emotionally moving documentary raises a lot of issues about sexuality, social perceptions and abuse. The documentary helped wrap up the complicated topic of today: feminism and sexuality, while leaving our minds stirred with million questions!

Feminist Camp Day 1: What is Feminist Media?

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Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

After yesterday’s wonderful and energizing welcome workshop with Kelly Tsai all of us were excited for the first day of the Feminist Camp. We began our day with an Orientation Breakfast at Amy’s house. Over bagels, fruits and croissants, we talked about yesterday’s session with Kelly when we had to write to a person (real or abstract), who we were in conflict with, first from our perspective then theirs. After the discussion, Amy and Jennifer talked more about themselves, their journey as feminists, and briefly went over our schedule for the week. All of us then shared our personal entry points or aha! moments into feminism. It was inspiring to hear everyone’s journey into feminism. We then headed to the Feminist Press for our afternoon sessions on media.

The first speaker was Wagatwe Wanjuki, Feminist Camp alum, an activist and writer who uses new media primarily to reform sexual assault policy. It was interesting to hear how she uses websites and social media sites like Facebook and Tumbler as tools to advocate for sexual assault policy reforms and other feminist issues. She said her experience in Tufts made her create and use website as a platform to share her survivor story, and encourage other students to share their stories of sexual assault. Through protests in front of Department of Education and online petitions, Wanjuki played a pivotal role in the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Using this as an instance, she told us the importance of linking Internet activism with on-field efforts, and that online activisms alone mostly lose value without an offline initiative to support it. She talked about power dynamics in the mainstream media, and how voices of marginalized groups whether it be in terms of race, gender or immigration status are often unrepresented. She contrasted the mainstream media with feminist media by saying that feminist media does not present information as black or white, but takes into account the different shades of gray. When asked what skill sets were necessary to succeed as a feminist journalist, she mentioned reading, willingness to learn, accept criticism and negotiating your worth (often financially).

Jennifer, along with the staff and interns of the Feminist Press (FP), explained to us in detail about FP’s goals and activities. As a business major, it was interesting to hear about their non profit financial model; whereby they fund one half of their operations through sales of the books, and the other half through fundraising initiatives. Jennifer also talked about the transition Feminist Press was going through from its Second Wave beginnings to better adapt to the world today, where almost every media house publishes feminist books. It was also interesting to know that the Feminist Press did not limit its publications to a specific genre.

Our third speaker was Jodi Kantor, the Washington correspondent for the New York Times. One of the most prominent things she said was that today gender issues and dynamics need less rhetoric and more reporting. She explained to us the difference between opinions and facts while reporting in new media. She emphasized the importance of approaching an issue with a multifaceted approach, by taking the complexity of factors involved into account. Prior to her session, we were asked to read five of her articles from the Times. We then discussed the articles and she shed light into behind the scene aspects of the articles. The articles we read focused on gender gap in pay, class and its affect on breastfeeding, the Obama marriage, changing gender dynamics in Harvard Business School and Mormon churches. She seemed like a reporter who would be most proud when her articles were initiating discussions among the readers, and inspiring them towards solutions.  When asked if she was a feminist journalist or journalist who prioritizes gender issues, she said the latter. She said she does not let her identity as a ‘feminist’- a word with different meaning and connotations throughout various groups- hinder her work of listening and reporting untold stories of various groups. It was inspiring to see her humility and warmth in spite of being so successful.

After the thought provoking sessions, we headed to Tai Thai for dinner before going to the Sadie Nash Annual Garden Party with Janet Mock. Sadie Nash is a leadership project that promotes leadership and activism among young women. After welcome reception and presentation of the Petticoat Award, two young women interviewed Janet Mock. A bestselling author and activist, Janet Mock talked about the importance of sisterhood, and being supporters instead of competitors to women in our lives. After the beautiful garden party, we headed out for some shopping time at SoHo.

Overall, the sessions on media helped us understand the use of social media as feminist tools, the power of addressing nuances in reporting and supporting our fellow feminists. After today’s session, I am inspired to get involved with the newsletter at my university, and use it as a platform to report issues that need to be heard and discussed.

 

Feminist Camp Day 2: Career Day

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Dipeeka is a 2010 LEADer who recently participated in Feminist Camp. Feminist Camp includes five immersive days of meetings and workshops across New York City highlighting diverse forms of feminism in action. Each day centers around a theme. Her blog posts about her time there originally appeared on the Soapbox Blog.

As feminist, I have often wondered how to channel my passions as a feminist into practical careers. Today was a day focused on meeting financially successful feminists to receive some practical career advice.

Our sessions today were held in Newman Ferrara LLP office, and our first speaker was Courtney Chenette, alum of the first feminist camp. A social justice lawyer in a real estate firm, Courtney considers herself an ‘undercover agent,’ who is slowly transforming workplace environment for females. Some cases she currently works with are sexual assault cases as they relate to boys, and police conduct carried out by the NYPD. She also talked about the financial ramifications of being sexual assault victims. Another area she focuses on is how institutions while restricting health insurance access to same sex couples ignore equal marriage law. She also talked about importance of creating a community of young women who have similar career interests and choices. One of the most influential things she said was that nothing replaces hard work in a career, and in order to move up the professional ladder, it is important to give your best. She talked about her hardest first year in law school, and that we should surround our lives with passionate people. She said, “Those who ignite passion in you will help you be essential”.

After Courtney’s interesting session, Amy and Carly talked about their experiences as interns, and the necessity to go above and beyond your assigned roles to be noticed by the employers. Carly also talked about identifying our personal goals and working style preferences to align to our prospective jobs.

Our next speaker was Stacey Tisdale, a financial service reporter, and former cash management analyst. She talked about financial issues of our generation, and pointed out how money is the leading cause of depression, abuse and self-image. She talked about importance of transparency in health care sectors, and social media changing financial sectors in years to come. For financial literacy, she focused on setting financial goals, knowing our distractions and knowing how we are perceived in the world (whether it be in a gender, class and race basis). She also mentioned that all of us have different childhood scripts, social scripts, and our perception of money that affects how we relate to money on a daily basis. Another crucial aspect on financial management she talked about is how feminism, and sexist viewpoints affect how women relate to money. She also mentioned the importance of negotiating as working women for better pays and opportunities as work.  It was exciting to receive a signed copy of her book titled The True Cost of Happiness: The Real Story Behind Managing Your Money.

We then talked to Adrian Granzella, the Editor in Chief at The Daily Muse. She started her career as a PR person, and then moved into event planning, marketing, and communication. Her four major career advice were, negotiating and asking what we want from the job. While 60 percent men negotiated their first salary, only about 6% females do so. Another advice was to have a variety of mentors, and to ask for opportunities when they show up. The advice that most resonated with me was accepting the change, uncertainty, and to accept it if we have not “figured out” our lives yet.

We then departed for our mini internships; Hanna, Asella and I had our mini-internship with Women Make Movies. Kristen Fitzpatrick, the public exhibition and acquisitions director and WMM hosted us. She walked us through the history of Women Make Movies, and explained how they mostly do distributions now. She also gave us practical advice on living in the NYC and some beautiful neighborhoods that are her ideals for living. Over pizza, we then watched Forbidden Lives, a documentary on young girls from Cuba, China and Iran who are raising awareness and initiating social changes through blogging and social media. We also watched another quirky documentary named ‘How to Lose Your Virginity’, which is based on the myths surrounding virginity in a society that does not have just two sexual identities anymore.

In the evening, we volunteered at a gala for Sanctuary for Families, an amazing organization that works to support survivors of domestic violence. It was a glitzy affair, and we got home a little late, but all in all it was fun!    

Inspirational Woman Leader Spotlight: Allison Grenney

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

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Allison Grenney is a social entrepreneur who is incredibly passionate about empowering and educating girls’ globally. She is the founder and owner of EduKate, a socially conscious business that sells USA made tote bags to support girls’ education worldwide. From camp counselor and eventually head counselor, to girls varsity athletic coach in two sports at St. Mary’s Academy and the founder and owner of EduKate, Allison is consistent in her passion to lead girls into education and becoming a part of the solution to the world’s problems.

Megan Foo: What is your background?

Allison Grenney: I grew up in Denver, Colorado and went to the University of Denver. I majored in Environmental Science and International Studies. After college, I worked at an all girls school in their admissions and marketing department. I then traveled around the world where I was inspired to start EduKate. When I returned I worked at a charter school incubator while developing EduKate. I opened EduKate less then a year later.

Megan Foo: You were the Founder and Owner of EduKate, a socially conscious business that sold USA made products and the profits supported the scholarship and mentorship of girls in Guatemala, Tanzania and Cambodia. Can you tell us more about EduKate its impact?

Allison Grenney: Since its inception, EduKate has:

  • Helped provide funding for the scholarship and mentorship for over 45 girls for a year
  • Involved over 1000 people in the funding process of those girls
  • I spoke at about 25 schools, community events and clubs educating people on the importance of investing in girls education
  • Employed 10 women locally in Denver to manufacture the bags

Megan Foo: Why are you passionate about business and its potential to create positive change?

Allison Grenney: Business is an essential part of our culture that has been happening for hundreds of years. In the past 50 years business has gotten a bad name for itself because some business have been only motivated by profits and have lost sight of the “WHY”. Business has the opportunity to not just provide the solution to these desires but to also do it responsibly. Business is one of the best ways to create a win-win situation. You can simulate the economy through creating jobs and filling human needs with products that were made with the planet and people in mind.

Megan Foo: On a personal level, what does girls’ education mean to you?

Allison Grenney: Girls’ education means hope. Uneducated females are the most untapped resources on the globe. I believe the 77 million girls globally who are currently not in school are 77 million solutions waiting to be tapped. It is essential that we invest in girls’ education to create a brighter future for generations to come.

Megan Foo: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Allison Grenney: There are many women who have had a huge impact on my life; I have been fortunate to have many mentors. My mom is the first one who comes to mind because she has taught me that anything is possible and to always dream big.

Megan Foo: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs?

Allison Grenney: Passion is everything… the path will never be direct and be open minded but stick to your values.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Maureen Dugan

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Maureen Dugan worked at the Interamerican Development Bank, an international organization, before working for over 29 years as an U.S. Foreign Service Officer. She joined the Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH) as Executive Director in 2012. She has traveled to or worked in 72 countries so far.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Maureen Dugan: I come from a large family in New York.  We’re very close.  My parents emphasized the importance of education and of giving back, helping others.

For as long as I can remember, I was interested in other parts of the world and remember having overseas “pen pals” as a child.  By the time I got out of school, I had studied overseas in several countries and done internships or volunteer experience in Central and South America, Southern Africa, and the Caribbean.

I feel like a won the “zip code lottery” in life.  We were not wealthy growing up and I didn’t realize until I was grown how much my parents sacrificed for us and to give us a good education; they never complained. I was lucky to have been born in a country where all children can go to primary school and secondary school, and to university if desired.   If you’ve been fortunate in life, I believe you should give back to others who are less fortunate.

I was in the Foreign Service for almost 30 years before retiring and joining the Arlington Academy of Hope as Executive Director.

Women LEAD: You are the Executive Director of Arlington Academy of Hope, a nonprofit organization with the mission of helping children in rural Uganda reach their full potential. Can you tell us more about Arlington Academy of Hope?

Maureen Dugan: Arlington Academy of Hope (AAH) was started by two Ugandans, John and Joyce Wanda, who emigrated to the U.S. and wanted to give back to the villages they were from.  AAH has a primary school for 340 in rural Uganda that scores in the top 1% of more than 19,000 primary schools nationwide.   We have almost 300 secondary school students on AAH scholarships, about 40 university students, women’s microfinance, and have built two health clinics that keep the children and their families healthy.

Our primary school is amongst the best.  100% of our students pass the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) and go on to secondary school.  Last year, our first class entered university!  It’s well trained teachers who are present every day, working long hours with the students…well equipped classrooms, and changing attitudes and expectations of students, parents, teachers, and other Ugandan staff. We are so proud of all of them!  We share our experience and resources with poor local schools.

Women LEAD: What are the biggest challenges to improving access to education in Uganda?

Maureen Dugan: Resources and poor quality of education.  Uganda is a very poor country. The government does not have sufficient resources to provide a quality education for all nationwide.  And families are poor, so paying school fees is challenging. The schools often have over 100 children per classroom, a dirt floor, no electricity, scant books, paper or pencils, and absentee teachers,. When we started AAH, only 14% of children in the district were graduating from primary school., and the majority were therefore resigned to a life of abject poverty.  Can you imagine?!  So many parents thought it was not worthwhile to send their children to school, given the poor quality, and opted to have them work in the fields, fetch water, or go to market days.

Fortunately, we are changing this in the area we work in.

Women LEAD: Why is educating girls important to you?

Maureen Dugan: Getting an education is a basic human right, and if countries are going to economic progress, you can’t have half the population not fully participating.  If a girl graduated primary school, she is less likely to get HIV AIDS, and more likely to marry and start a family latter.  Families and communities fare better when women are educated and have more earning power, as they invest more in health and education for their children.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Maureen Dugan: Without a doubt, my mom who just passed away a few weeks ago.  She was an accomplished professional – a research scientist, a very kind and generous person, and absolutely the best mom ever.  She always nurtured and encouraged us, made us think we could do whatever we set our sights on.  After retiring from the research lab, instead of taking it easy, she started the local chapter of AARP, was on the Board of a foundation for the aging, was active at the local Senior Center, and was a volunteer insurance counselor and tax advisor for the elderly.    She was such an amazing and giving person.  She really liked AAH’s mission and focus on results, and sponsored a girl at our school who she enjoyed corresponding with.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, women’s empowerment, and education?

Maureen Dugan: I am really inspired by She’s The First – an amazing organization that sends girls to school around the world.   She’s The First sponsors over 50 girls at AAH!  And how can you not be inspired by Malala?  I also like Girl Up, Chime for Change, Girl Effect, Girl Rising, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Educating Girls Matters, We Are Teachers, and of course Givology!  There are so many others working to give girls an education.  Also inspiring are the real people I meet in my travels. Whether in Afghanistan or Uganda or elsewhere, the enlightened parents who struggle daily to survive but still manage to educate their children, and the hardworking students…They really inspire me too!

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Kristyn Zalota

Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter

Kristyn Zalota is the Founder of CleanBirth.org, a nonprofit organization that works to improve infant and maternal health in Laos. From 2008-2011, she worked with Burmese, Cambodian and Ugandan women and saw that prenatal and postnatal care was largely unavailable in their countries. Motivated to make birth safer, she discovered AYZH Clean Birth Kits, birthing supplies proven to reduce infection and death. Having learned about the dire state of birthing in Laos, she partnered in 2012 with Our Village Associate (OVA) to bring Clean Birth Kits and education to southern Laos. As the Founder of CleanBirth.org, Kristyn is honored to provide nurses with the adequate resources, funding and training needed to lower infant and maternal mortality rates in Laos, which are among the highest globally.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Kristyn Zalota: Following completion of a MA program at Yale University, I worked on a variety of international projects. After becoming a mother myself, I began to focus specifically on empowering women in the developing world. I had the chance to work with mothers and children in Thailand, Cambodia, and Uganda. These experiences led me to train as a doula and a Lamaze educator, and ultimately start CleanBirth.org.

Women LEAD: You are the Founder of CleanBirth, a nonprofit organization that works to improve infant and maternal health in Laos, where infant and mortality rates are among the highest globally. Can you tell us about CleanBirth?

Kristyn Zalota: CleanBirth.org seeks to prevent the needless deaths of mothers and babies in Laos, where the maternal mortality rate is worse than Afghanistan’s rate and infant mortality is worse than Sudan’s. In the villages where we work, women and babies die at even higher rates, due in part to their practice of birthing alone in the jungle.

In partnership with a Lao non-profit, CleanBirth.org trains village nurses in the use and distribution of infection-preventing Clean Birth Kits (birthing supplies). Through an alliance with the Yale University School of Nursing, we also train the nurses in the WHO’s Essentials of Newborn Care. The nurses then train local women, Village Volunteers, who live in the remote villages where many mothers give birth.

In 2013, our first full year, CleanBirth.org provided 2,000 Clean Birth Kits and trained sixteen district nurses and twenty Village Volunteers.

Women LEAD: What are the biggest challenges to improving maternal and infant health in Laos?

Kristyn Zalota: Reaching the women and getting them care in pregnancy, during birth and postpartum is the biggest challenge to improving maternal and infant health in Laos. Over 90% of women in the area where CleanBirth.org works birth at home without a trained attendant. Why? Distances are vast. Roads are often washed out during the rainy season. Transportation is expensive. Clinics are mistrusted for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the women feel that their traditions are not respected.

Women LEAD: What do you love the most about your work with CleanBirth?

Kristyn Zalota: I love giving local women the tools and resources to meet their own challenges. The nurses and Village Volunteers who we train share the same culture, religion and language as their the mothers they serve. They are able to come up with the most appropriate and likely-to-work solutions to improving maternal-child health.

Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Kristyn Zalota: Motherhood connects me to other women in a strong way. When I hear a mother say that her baby died from a simple infection caused by a dirty cord-cutting tool, my heart hurts for her incredible loss. I want to ensure that she and her neighbors have the knowledge and supplies needed to ensure a safe birth. It’s not enough to give them a kit. It’s crucial that local nurses and volunteers are trained to spread information. Knowledge is empowering and women must have access to it.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?

Kristyn Zalota: Carol Perks, an Australian nurse who has transformed maternal and child healthcare in northern Laos, has inspired my maternal heath work in Laos. She has worked for more than 20 in remote Sayaboury Province in 1991 for Save the Children. When she arrived infant and maternal mortality rate were abysmal, with only 7% of women having a skilled attendant at their births. (Carol Perks Presentation, Save the Children, 2000) With community officials, she developed a comprehensive model for providing healthcare in rural communities, with a strong focus on maternal and child health. The model is effective: within 3 years a District in another northern province of Laos achieved Millenium Development Goals 4 and 5.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality?

Kristyn Zalota: I love Girls Globe for learning about issues effecting women and girls worldwide. For me, women’s rights are so closely tied to maternal health. So a lot of the tweets and blogs I read are related to maternal health. I particularly love the work that www.maternova.com does to highlight low-cost innovations that save moms & newborns. Also the Maternal Health Task Force is a terrific resource for getting evidence-based information about maternal-child health.

Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Jordan Teague

Interview by Megan Foo

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Jordan Teague is earning her Master of Public Health degree from George Washington University in Washington, DC, focusing on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues. While in DC she has interned at the Pan American Health Organization, researching disparities in access to WASH in Latin America, and at WASH Advocates, an organization that advocates for universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation. She is now working full-time with WASH Advocates. She has also traveled to Ghana to empower women entrepreneurs to start their own water treatment businesses with Community Water Solutions. Her passion is in how WASH impacts women and girls’ daily lives, health, empowerment, and dignity, and its relationship with other international development efforts. In her spare time, she enjoys her nieces and nephew, traveling, running, and reading.

Women LEAD: What is your background?

Jordan Teague: I was born and raised in North Carolina, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my undergraduate education. Once I found my passion of public health and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), I enrolled at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, DC to pursue a Master of Public Health in the Global Environmental Health track with a focus on WASH in developing countries. I am now the Program Associate at WASH Advocates, focusing on increasing the amount and effectiveness of funding in the WASH sector, strengthening sustainability of WASH, and advocating for effective integration of WASH into other development sectors, including nutrition, gender, HIV/AIDS, education, and environmental conservation.

Women LEAD: You are a Program Associate at WASH Advocates and a WASH Consultant at the John Snow Research and Training Institute. Can you tell us more about your experience in the domain of WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene)?

Jordan Teague: While volunteering at a medical clinic in Honduras, I was astonished to find that most of our patients complained of waterborne diseases, due to the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation in the surrounding communities. While we treated their symptoms at the clinic, I did not feel as if we were doing enough. We were merely putting a Band-Aid on – not fixing the root of the problem. It was then that I decided to follow my newly found passion of public health and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), so that I could be part of the solution to so many problems that stem from lack of WASH. Since discovering my passion for WASH, I have continually realized the importance of WASH in new ways. Not only is WASH important for health in general, it’s necessary for nutrition, elimination of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), economic growth and empowerment, agriculture and food security, environmental conservation, education, and women’s empowerment. My path with WASH has taken me through quantitative and qualitative research, community development projects, and advocacy efforts. One of the projects that has been most impactful for me was when I was a Community Water Solutions Fellow in the Northern Region of Ghana. My team and I worked with two women of a village named Bogu to establish a water treatment business. Because of their hard work, the entire community including the school has access to clean drinking water and the two women have a source of income. Fewer children will get sick and have to miss school, the women and girls won’t have to walk the mile to the community dugout just to collect contaminated water, and the women and children can focus on their education and income-producing activities such as agriculture. Stories like that show the importance of WASH and the impact that it has.

Women LEAD: From a WASH angle, what does women’s empowerment mean to you?

Jordan Teague: Women’s empowerment means allowing women and girls to access the resources and tools they need to improve their lives and reach their full potential. This includes education, income, respect, dignity, and many others. WASH gives them all of those things. When there are single-gender sanitation facilities at school, girls are more likely to go to school and receive an education. When women and girls don’t spend up to six hours each day collecting water, they can spend more time on caregiving, education or income-generating activities like agriculture or selling products in the market. Women can serve on water committees, work on WASH projects, and be leaders in their communities. When pregnancy and menstruation are viewed as natural and beautiful processes, women receive respect. When women don’t have to go to the bathroom out in the open, women achieve dignity and don’t have to worry about being harassed or sexually assaulted while finding a place to go to the bathroom. To me, women’s empowerment is WASH, and WASH is women’s empowerment.

Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Jordan Teague: I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by strong and inspirational women on all sides. My mother, grandmothers, and friends as well as those women I’ve met throughout the world encourage and support me day after day. But, the two women who have had the most impact on my life, my career, and my passion are my two nieces. Though they are young and small, my entire perspective has changed since they were born. It was then that I really understood the tragedy that so many women and girls face throughout the world, and the circumstances that I was so grateful that my nieces would avoid. Their presence in my life has made me strive to work that much harder to help and support women and girls throughout the world better their circumstances, just as if they were my own nieces, friends, mothers, and grandmothers.

Women LEAD: What needs to change to break the taboos developed around menstruation?

Jordan Teague: The first step to breaking the taboo will be breaking the silence. Too many girls are unaware of what is happening to their body when they first start menstruating – many think they are dying due to all the blood. Too many women and girls don’t know what to use or where to get it to manage their periods. Too many girls must miss school because there are no single-gender sanitation facilities with a place to dispose of sanitary products. Too many women and girls must stay in isolation during their menstrual period. We, as a global community, must start and have started talking about these issues and having more conversations like this, especially ones that include men. We must make it easier for women and girls to access information and resources about menstruation. Only when women and girls themselves are comfortable with menstruation will the greater community begin to break the taboo. WASH United is working with over 80 partners and declared May 28th as Menstrual Hygiene Day. In addition, a month-long social media campaign, Menstravaganza, will take place leading up to the 28th. Partners represent international, national, and local organizations who believe in breaking the taboo.

Women LEAD: Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, women’s empowerment, and education?

Jordan Teague:

Websites:

Books:

  • I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai
  • King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, Peggielene Bartels
  • Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Leymah Gbowee
  • Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Film: