Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Rebecca Scharfstein is Co-Executive Director of Pasand, a non-profit that aims to improve access to women’s health education and sanitary protection among schoolgirls in India. As the daughter of an OB/GYN, Rebecca learned early on about the importance of women’s health and has sought to improve women’s health around the world through social entrepreneurship and economics. Before co-founding Pasand, Rebecca worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School researching ovarian cancer markers using data from the Nurses’ Health Study. Through that work, Rebecca recognized the importance of rigorous metrics-based analysis in the Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) field, which has not, to date, been studied extensively.
Rebecca graduated from Princeton University in 2012 with a degree in Public and International Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School and a certificate in environmental studies. At Princeton, Rebecca embraced opportunities to develop her leadership skills as a member of several organizations, including Leadership for Change, Project ALTA (Academic Life Total Assessment), International Relations Council, and the Environmental Affairs Forum. Rebecca is currently honing her quantitative and qualitative analytical skills as an analyst at an economic consulting firm in Boston while she is not working on Pasand.
What is your background?
Rebecca Scharfstein: I was born and raised in Boston, but relocated to New Jersey to attend Princeton University for college. I majored in Public and International Affairs and spent summers working in women’s health and public policy, as an intern at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Prior to my senior year of college, I interned at Analysis Group, an economic consulting firm in Boston, and strengthened my skills in data analysis and qualitative research. I decided to move back home to Boston and return to the firm full-time after graduation to continue honing my quantitative and qualitative analytical skills in a collaborative, intellectual environment. Shortly after accepting a full-time job offer at Analysis Group in the fall of my senior year at Princeton, I co-founded Pasand with three of my peers. Upon graduation, the founding team decided to continue growing Pasand on top of our “day jobs.” I am now an economic consultant by day and a social entrepreneur by night.
You are the Co-Founder of Pasand, which offers young women in India the opportunity to make choices about their health and dignity by improving access to sanitary protection and feminine health education. Can you tell us more about Pasand?
Rebecca Scharfstein: Pasand is the culmination of over three years of conversations, research, and experiences. In summer 2010, Pasand co-founder, Aunna Wilson, lived at Udayan Care, an orphanage for girls in Uttar Pradesh, India, where she came to understand the physical and emotional challenges that girls face during their menstrual cycles. In the fall of 2011, Aunna and I took a social entrepreneurship class together and frequently discussed social issues and potential business solutions. Over the course of the semester, I learned about her experiences living in India, and during one conversation in particular, Aunna enumerated on the pervasive menstrual taboos and the poor access to affordable sanitary pads in India.
At our professor’s urging, we sought to find a business solution to improve access to affordable sanitary protection. That fall, we co-founded Pasand. After extensive on-the-ground research and numerous conversations, Pasand has grown into an education and advocacy non-profit that partners with schools in India to teach a women’s health curriculum to young women and girls. Pasand also collaborates with product companies to sell affordable sanitary protection in schools. This summer, we will be piloting our health curriculum, Poori Pasand, in Bangalore and gathering feedback critical to improving our impact.
Why is women’s empowerment important to you?
Rebecca Scharfstein: Women’s empowerment is important to me because it represents the liberation of a historically marginalized demographic. Women’s empowerment comes down to the ability to choose, which can manifest itself in many ways. At Pasand, we see women’s health education and sanitary protection as a powerful vehicle of choice, which can have ripple effects on a woman’s entire life. Evidence suggests that the inability to access affordable sanitary protection may result in girls missing school during their periods or even dropping out. School is critical to breaking the negative cycle of poverty and gender inequality in India and provides women with the resources to get a decent job and contribute to the overall economic health of their family and their community.
What does girls’ education mean to you?
Rebecca Scharfstein: In my eyes, girls’ education embodies gender equality at its core. It means providing girls and boys with similar resources so that females and males alike are capable of being economically, socially, and emotionally independent. By educating girls, we are training a new generation of female leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, doctors, politicians, professors, and, perhaps most importantly, mothers.
What needs to change to eliminate gender-based discrimination?
Rebecca Scharfstein: By leveling the playing field between men and women, we can take steps towards eliminating gender-based discrimination. In the field of sanitation, this can be as simple as allowing women to take more frequent bathroom breaks, especially while menstruating, in order to ensure they can change their sanitary pads frequently enough, or equipping restrooms with adequate disposal facilities for sanitary pads and other hazardous waste.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Rebecca Scharfstein: My mom has challenged me to be a better person, both within my community and beyond it, through leading by example. Her actions – whether small or large – have affected how I interact with the environment around me. In second grade, I remember my mom insisting that I invite all of the girls in my class to my birthday party, even though some of them had not invited me. Although it may seem silly, I have never forgotten this small lesson in inclusivity. These lessons penetrated our day-to-day lives and have inevitably shaped who I am today.
My mom has also inspired me to engage outside of my direct community. As a gynecologic oncologist based in Boston, my mother has seized opportunities to travel around the world, most recently to Rwanda, to teach doctors best practices for cervical cancer prevention through vaccination and screening, with the hope that these efforts will enable entire communities to be self-sufficient. Her stories and experiences, as well as the outcome of her work, have challenged me to take a more global perspective on injustices and obstacles people face around the world.
Are there websites or books that are inspiring you right now about gender equality?
Rebecca Scharfstein: My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography)
Living History (Hillary Clinton’s autobiography)
Both Sonia Sotomayor and Hillary Clinton do not take “no” for an answer. Their lives have been a testament to how much women can accomplish by believing in themselves.