Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Bernadette Lim is a passionate women’s health advocate. She is a pre-medical student at Harvard University majoring in Human Biology & Women’s Studies with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. Bernadette is the founder of Women SPEAK, a 2014 Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action and lead author and editor of the “2015 Report on the Status of Women and Girls in Boston”. She serves on the National Youth Council for the March of Dimes and directs the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics. Additionally, she is currently working on projects regarding girls’ hygiene and primary school education in western Kenya with Mass General Hospital, volunteers as a Health Leads advocate, and writes editorials for the Harvard Crimson. Bernadette’s work/writing has appeared on various outlets including USA Today, Business Insider, the Huffington Post, Seventeen Magazine, the Harvard Crimson, and Girls’ Globe. As the daughter of a Filipina immigrant mother and Chinese-American father, Bernadette aspires to work for the diversity, equity, and well-being of women, children, families, and minority communities.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Bernadette Lim: I am a junior at Harvard University, studying Human Evolutionary Biology and Women’s Studies with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy. I’m originally from Los Angeles. I’m very much into the intersection of women’s health and social justice. In my spare time, I’m a yoga teacher and I love going to Zumba.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder and Executive Director of Women SPEAK, which is a girls’ health and empowerment program. Can you tell us more about Women SPEAK and its impact?
Bernadette Lim: Women SPEAK is an organization I founded with three other high school friends. It’s based in Los Angeles and we are a girls’ health and leadership program. We concentrate on four main issue areas for girls: positive body image, gender in the media, healthy relationships (especially on sexual assault awareness) and youth leadership. We have a couple of programs that we just launched, but our main feature is our Girls Leadership Summit, which we just initiated this July. Our first Leadership Summit brought over 100 girls from the Greater Los Angeles area and we had workshops and keynote sessions for girls. From there, we were also able to establish a mentorship program with high school girls and college girls of the Greater L.A. area and that mentorship program will sustain a continued conversation on our four mission areas.
Some other programs we have are a monthly webinar series called Community SPEAK. It’s a monthly webinar series where we talk about current events regarding the media’s portrayal of women and girls and current affairs that affect women and girls. That happens via Google+ Hangout. We also have one more program, an Ambassador Program, where we allow high school girls and young women to help us out with our campaigns, social media, and community visits in their hometowns – different organizations and people who are related to women’s and girls’ initiatives. They spread the mission and awareness of Women SPEAK and hold their own awareness events in their communities.
Women LEAD: You are also the Principal Director of Project SHE, which was a study on girls’ menstrual hygiene and outcomes in Kenya. Can you tell us more about your involvement with Project SHE?
Bernadette Lim: Project SHE is an intervention research project that I started in the summer of 2013. I was able to go to Kisumu, Kenya, with the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Global Health, and I was able to take a class on global health and also interned at a local NGO called Sustainable Aid In Africa (SANA). Project SHE is an intervention project that guarantees (s)anitation latrines, (h)ygiene supplies in the form of sanitary pads, and (e)ducation on menstrual health hygiene for girls throughout western Kenya.
As an intern at SANA, I was able to talk to a lot of girls within primary schools of Kisumu. One of their main projects is to build sanitation latrines for girls. Latrines are essentially bathrooms, usually in the form of an elevated pit. When my colleague and I saw the conditions of the old latrines, many were dirty, unsanitary and unusable. As part of the SANA intern team, I conducted many interviews with girls about their access to education and the effectiveness of the latrine intervention. During my interviews, however, we realized that sanitation latrines weren’t enough; it was also the fact that they didn’t have any sanitary pads during their periods.
According to current statistics, one in four Kenyan girls miss at least six weeks of school because they don’t go to school during their periods. In addition to not having clean latrines, girls were using old rags and banana leaves. When we were talking to girls, we also noticed that there so no open, gender-inclusive education on the biological and social processes attached to monthly menstruation. This problem deepens by the fact that nearly 80% of the teachers were male and didn’t have proper education about menstrual health hygiene so girls were reluctant to approach them.
As part of Project SHE, we also received a grant from Harvard to study the links between primary school education outcomes and the intervention of having all three of the Project SHE components implemented within the schools of Kenya. We’re planning to have Project SHE provided to 6000 girls in Kisumu, Kenya.
Women LEAD: Can you share with us some of your experiences with directing the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics?
Bernadette Lim: As the Director of the Women’s Policy Group, I led the creation of the first report on the status of women and girls in Boston. It’s a huge accomplishment for the city because it’s the first of its kind in the Boston area. The idea came to fruition through a sociology class at Harvard and my attendance the launch event of the first report of its kind in California and realizing that it didn’t occur in Boston and Massachusetts.
In my sociology class, we were assigned to an issue area, of which mine was women and girls. We used Boston as a case study to identify our issue area in Boston and then identify non-profits and initiatives that were tackling that issue area. When my team and I were searching for data on women and girls in Boston, we couldn’t find information in a consolidated source online, publicly accessible source. In fact, we had to look through raw data and look through huge reports before we saw one line about girls. We had to go into numbers and make our own bar graphs to compare. The class had a huge endowment to give to initiatives that tackled key issue areas in our are, and we decided to allocate $5000 to the creation of this report.
Last fall, I started the Women’s Policy Group at the Harvard Institute of Politics and together with 20 other undergraduates, we created that report and it gathered all the most recent data we could find on the status of women and girls in the following categories: demographics, education, health, violence against women, political representations and participation, women in business, women in the military, and LGBT women. We partnered with many important organizations, including The Boston Foundation, the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement and Big Sister Association. We are launching the report in December 2014/January 2015 and are hoping that it will be adopted as either an annual or biannual report that is published about women and girls. In the end, we hope this report enables every single program and initiative that’s created about women and girls to be problem-driven and data-driven. Most importantly, our report aims to fill the information gap between what nonprofits do and the programs they implement.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Bernadette Lim: Women’s empowerment matters to me personally because I think my story lends itself to empowered women. I am a daughter of a second generation Chinese-American father and a Filipino immigrant mother and these stories of immigration, stories of moving from a familiar place to an uncomfortable one for seeking a better life but also being able to create better opportunities for family – I think that that’s one of the most selfless acts, one of the bravest acts, and one of the most admirable acts that really defined me as a person. Having that family foundation comprising a family of empowered women encourages me to listen to the stories and to the experiences of people who may not have experienced that, and who experience sexism, gender inequality to a huge amount that I didn’t have in my years. I feel like having been born into such a privileged position is such a luck of the draw and the fact that I have that privilege and some people don’t encourages me to create that privilege if it wasn’t created during birth.
Women LEAD: What inspires you to continue fighting for the improvement of women’s health?
Bernadette Lim: I’m very interested in women’s health because I find the intersection of health so integrated within the components of social justice. As a physician, I believe in not just diagnosing disease, but improving health – a holistic overview of one’s well-being in life beyond the hospital. A lot of components within women’s health have historically been put at the end of people’s priority lists. Using my knowledge as a future physician and as a future public health advocate, I want to make sure that health is seen as a basic human right.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Bernadette Lim: My mom came to the United States in the 1980s with little more than a suitcase and little more than what she really knew from the Philippines. Her bravery as a person who has not only traveled to a new land she was unfamiliar with, but to actually aspire more for herself and her family is an act of bravery I can only hope to emulate. As a mother, she was always empowering to me and always supported me with everything I did. She encouraged me to find self-confidence by being a powerful, strong, woman role model from the very start of my life and that is such a privilege to me. I think my mom’s strength it’s very much rooted in her immigrant story, her personality, and her bravery.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for prospective social entrepreneurs who want to start projects related to women’s and girls’ empowerment?
Bernadette Lim: Just start it. A lot of these things have to do with timing, luck, and the people you know. One of the really funny stories about Women SPEAK is that we started this organization in a coffee shop. We came back for summer and it was all four of us. We were friends in high school updating each other about the various encounters of sexism and gender inequality we faced on college campuses and kept asking ourselves: “What can we do?” Sometimes for people interested in starting initiatives, they always stop at that point of frustration and they let their passion dissipate because it’s hard to take that next step to action. But we didn’t stop: we met every single week, dwelling on that question and finally decided to do something. While our ideal organization would have created a student-led college network, we decided to start our prospects smaller. I also think that’s another important quality — if you want to tackle a big problem, know that it’s not just a big, huge, structural problem. Rather, it’s something made of different seeds and fruit that are subsets of the problem you have the opportunity to tackle. It’s about finding where you can have that impact. To us, we noticed that within the greater Los Angeles area has a lack of high school programming related to girls’ health and women’s empowerment. That’s the void we had the potential to fill realizing our expertise and perspectives.