WHEW! I’ve said this many times before, but it hasn’t held the same meaning since Women’s Health Empowerment Worldwide was formed in 2010. The non-profit organization was co-founded by Sarah Scott (A good friend of mine!) and Ashley Gardiner in partnership with The Fistula Foundation’s Circle of Friends program. WHEW’s primary goals are to promote women’s health worldwide and address the growing need for obstetric care in developing countries, specifically in relation to fistula’s. Pardon my ignorance, but I actually wasn’t aware of what a fistula was until Sarah educated me a year ago. So, just in case you’re wondering:
Fistula: A fistula is a hole. An obstetric fistula, the kind that occurs in many developing countries, is a hole between a woman’s birth passage and one or more of her internal organs. This hole develops over many days of obstructed labor, when the pressure of the baby’s head against the mother’s pelvis cuts off blood supply to delicate tissues in the region. This hole results in permanent incontinence of urine and/or feces. (C/O The Fistula Foundation)
In the U.S., our obstetric care has advanced to the point where fistula’s aren’t a concern and surgery is immediately available. However in developing countries this isn’t the case. Women faced with this problem are often abandoned by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.
Sarah Scott took a few moments to answer questions about WHEW and their cause:
How did you and Ashley become aware of The Fistula Foundation and what drove you to start WHEW?
Ashley and I both read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, and are also fans of Kristof’s NYT Op-Ed column. Another great read on the topic of women’s health, and specifically fistulas, is Cutting for Stone. While we were working together at an educational policy organization in DC, we became friends and realized that we were both passionate about women’s health and empowerment around the world, and had both been very moved by Kristof’s writings/stories (especially after both traveling in Africa and falling in love with it!) So, we decided to do something about it! While I was living in Bolivia, (June- December 2010) we agreed that fistulas were a specifically terrible and understated medical condition affecting mothers around the world. We contacted The Fistula Foundation (located in San Jose, CA), and they warmly welcomed us as a new Circle of Friends chapter, a fundraising and awareness raising group.
Can you give us a comparison, what are the risks for women in developing countries v.s. the U.S.?
Think about your daily life as a woman in the US. If you are lucky, from the moment you wake up, you are surrounded by choices: what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, how to get to work, (what you want to do with your career, education,) who you have lunch with, if you go out or to the gym after work. Now, imagine you are a poor, 20 year old girl living in the Congo with 4 children and a husband who works all day. You had to leave school in 3rd grade to help your mother around the house. You wake up every morning and have no choice. You must take care of your children and provide the best life possible for them. Or imagine that you are a teenage girl living in Afghanistan and you have been betrothed to a man whom you have never met, and as soon as you get your period, you are forced to leave your beloved family for a life unknown. Basically, I think that it comes down to options and education. Options with your body, your life, your education. Without having a say in these issues, you are left very vulnerable.
You held your first fundraiser on August 12th, when will your next event be?
Since I returned to DC in February, we have had two wine and cheese parties where we showed friends a documentary from Despair to Dignity, a moving and educational documentary produced by The Fistula Foundation (another amazing documentary on fistulas is A Walk to Beautiful). We’ve also had one very successful fundraiser happy hour event where we raised over $1000 that went directly to The Fistula Foundation. We are planning our next event, a dinner/fundraiser for the end of October, and this potluck dinner group will meet every month, and then we are planning to have another happy hour fundraiser in November/early December in DC.
How can people interested in donating and/or getting involved with your foundation in a larger capacity do so?
The Fistula Foundation’s website has great ways to get involved, check it out! We would love for you to follow the WHEW blog (http://wheworldwide.tumblr.com/) , and like us on Facebook, where we post recent news stories on maternal health, events and articles. A great way to start becoming involved in women’s health and empowerment is to read, read, read and start conversations with friends and co-workers, raise awareness, and if you can, money too to support the doctors and hospitals working to repair fistulas.
If you had one piece of advice for young women (or anyone) interested in forming a non-profit, what would it be?
Give it a try! Nothing bad can come out of giving something like this a chance. Educate yourself on the issue, become an expert on what you are passionate about (I’m working on it!) and reach out to your community. I need to be better about it, but take chances! Reach out to professionals in your field to ask for advice and connections. Every bit can help, don’t think that you can’t make a difference, because each of us can.
What are you thankful for?
I am thankful for my AWESOME supportive friends and family, and to be living a life full of options. Choices are the key to a successful, healthy and healthy life especially as a young woman. Think about all of the choices you make every day; what to wear, how to get to work, what to eat, who to meet up with for happy hour, when to go to bed, who to spend your time with and who you love. This isn’t the case in some countries, especially if you are a woman. In some countries, women have no options, they are told at a young age who they will marry, when they will drop out of school (if they get the chance to attend), what to wear, who to speak to, how many children to have; a large part of their life is dictated by others. Be grateful for your daily life, for the little things, and for the people who help make that possible, your parents, your siblings, your co workers and loved ones.
I have some really amazing friends doing amazing things! Thank you, Sarah and the rest of WHEW for sharing! Maybe this has inspired you to donate, maybe this has inspired to to create your own non-profit, but I hope in the least it’s inspired you to pass this knowledge around and make an effort to understand issues outside of your daily life. It certainly has for me.