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Don’t Let a Period Stop Her

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Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day!  Menstrual Hygiene Day (MH Day) was initiated by the German non-profit WASH United in 2013.  MH Day is a global advocacy platform that brings together the voices and actions of non-profits, government agencies, individuals, the private sector and the media to promote good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) for all women and girls. Poor menstrual hygiene caused by a lack of education on the issue, persisting taboos and stigma, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure undermines the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. Today IDF is proud to feature the work of one of our grantee partners, ZanaAfrica, an organization that equips adolescent girls in Kenya with the tools they need to safely navigate puberty and step into their potential, while also leading global advocacy efforts to break the period taboo.

Imagine if 60% of girls in your community dropped out of high school, if the average age of sexual debut was 14, and 30% of teen girls were pregnant.  Pause and think about that for a moment.

For many of us, this is simply too hard to imagine. But for millions of girls around the world—and for the thousands of girls we serve each year in Kenya—this is their lived reality.

The joys and challenges of adolescence are universal. No matter where girls live, they have big aspirations. They dream of becoming doctors, artists, teachers, you name it—but for girls in our program; extreme poverty, harmful practices, and entrenched gender norms derail their futures.

Beyond this, 60% of girls in Kenya cannot access menstrual health management (MHM) products due to cost and availability.  The impact on girls’ confidence, safety, and dignity is tremendous. Shame and stigma silences girls and their elders from openly discussing menstrual and sexual health together, further perpetuating misinformation and marginalization.

When I traveled to Kenya last month, I heard directly from parents who wished they could support their children with information about puberty but lacked their own knowledge to impart.  They also discussed the painful material effects of period poverty—how they often have to choose between buying food and buying sanitary pads for their daughters.

It’s obvious. Without sanitary pads and related health education, girls suffer, and their potential is put at risk. They often feel ashamed or distracted by fears of staining their clothes.  Some girls use homemade materials to absorb their flow. In severe cases, girls engage in transactional sex to obtain pads.

We need to do more.  To create sustainable change, we must support girls and the communities in which they live. We must provide engaging, culturally informed, rights-based health education to not only girls—but also women, boys, and men.  We must ensure girls have safe people to confide in and reliable products to manage their periods—which are a sign of their health and vitality.  We must support positive rights-of-passage that celebrate a girls’ transition to womanhood, and also advocate for policies and programs that expand access to menstrual products and comprehensive sex education that break harmful taboos.

It’s time for action. On this day advocates from across the world are celebrating Menstrual Hygiene Day to raise awareness of this global issue. This is not just an issue facing girls “over there” in Kenya or other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. These challenges exist around the world and in our own backyards. If you can do one thing this month, raise your voice today and speak up about the need for menstrual health management and reproductive health education. Raise awareness of the real challenges facing girls. Together, we can ensure no woman or girl is left behind because of menstruation.

Do your part. Don’t let a period stop her.

Alison Nakamura Netter is the Executive Director of ZanaAfrica Foundation, US based 501c3 that equips adolescent girls in Kenya with the tools they need to safely navigate puberty and reach their full potential. To learn more about ZanaAfrica Foundation, visit: www.zanaafrica.org

Igniting the Power of Collective Action

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Real sustainable change takes collaboration and a willingness to learn from one another about what is and is not working for communities. This year, we decided to create a new category in our portfolio called Ecosystem Grants. These grants support new ideas and efforts which are enhancing the efficacy and interconnectedness of the work of social change. We are privileged to partner with economist Courtenay Cabot Venton in the launch of The Share Trust to amplify, support, and equip grassroots work that cuts through many sectors to something very simple yet high leverage: women gathering together in small groups to support one another’s aspirations and social capacities. We have been honored to connect many of our grantee partners with Courtenay’s work which she shares more about in this post.

The leveraging power of investing in women and girls has been a highly visible and studied topic in the last few years. Studies have consistently shown that interventions targeting women’s education, health, and livelihoods can multiply and magnify positive outcomes, especially in contexts with high levels of poverty. Films such as Girl Rising and Half the Sky have played a key role in growing visibility with a wider audience around the importance of investing in women and girls.

Nonetheless, evidence suggests that our funding and programming are systematically missing one of the most important drivers of change for women – their social capacities.

We typically design programs to target resource constraints, assuming that a lack of supply is the main driver of people’s poverty. For example, we program to deliver better health and nutrition services, ensure that more girls attend school, or enhance women’s financial inclusion through better access to credit and skills for starting small businesses. While all of these activities are critically important to poverty reduction, they are based on an assumption that poor people’s decision-making is consistent with rational economic reasoning, and that external constraints prevent poor people from accessing what they need.

However, a compelling but largely overlooked literature suggests that a person’s social capacities – namely their level of empowerment, aspirations (hope for the future), and self-efficacy (belief in their ability to create change) – can fundamentally affect their demand for services. For example: a 2011 study using survey data from rural Ethiopia found that people with high levels of aspiration and self-efficacy were statistically more likely to access credit and invest their money in productive activities1; a similar review across four countries2 found that aspirations directly influenced people’s uptake of school enrolment, nutrition and other investments3; and women in Bangladesh with high levels of empowerment were able to maintain their food security in a catastrophic flood in 2018.4

A recent USAID global evidence review found that social capacities – namely social capital, aspirations, self-efficacy, confidence to adapt, women’s empowerment and gender equality – were some of the strongest predictors of whether or not a person was able to cope with a shock or stress.5

If an individual does not believe that she can create change, she does not pursue opportunities to improve her wellbeing, and in turn deepens her sense that she cannot create change, a cycle that is self-reinforcing. As a result, while we focus programming on access to resources, they often remain unexploited or underutilized. Despite a strong rhetoric, empowerment and social agency are typically seen as a positive outcome of our programming, rather than something that we intentionally seek to build.

Five years ago, I was asked to evaluate a Self Help Group (SHG) program in Ethiopia. I was blown away by the changes that these women were making in their communities – setting up schools, starting small businesses, advocating for access to services, and stopping childhood marriage. Practically speaking, Self Help Groups are typically comprised of 15-25 people who meet every week to start small savings and business activities. But they are designed with a very specific and long-term focus: building women’s social capacities to drive transformative change through collective action. These groups ignite a spark – as women meet together, they work together, and as they work together, they begin to have hope for themselves and for their communities. With the power of hope in their hands, women begin to design and create their own change from the bottom-up.

As an economist, I have spent most of my career advising institutional donors and foundations on what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to reducing poverty worldwide. I have seen a lot of failure, and while there is a clear recognition that bottom-up approaches to poverty reduction tend to be most effective, how to scale such initiatives, as well as embed them in wider systems level change, has been a significant challenge. The Self Help Group model caught my attention because it seems to bridge this divide. Self Help Groups replicate organically and exponentially, with mature groups typically seeding new groups, at very low cost. As the number of groups grow, members are nominated to represent their Self Help Group at parallel cluster and federal level associations that become community based organizations with advocacy powers in their own right. These federated structures can provide the enabling environment for good governance, political change, and economic growth.

I founded The Share Trust earlier this year because there was mounting interest on the part of donors as well as implementing agencies to understand the role that social capacities play in poverty outcomes, and how Self Help Groups might offer an opportunity for greater investment. The evidence suggests that these groups are having a profound effect on a whole range of outcomes. For example, women who participate in Self Help Groups are twice as likely to participate in local politics in India.  A meta-analysis of multiple Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) in Asia found that participation in women’s groups was associated with a 37% reduction in maternal mortality, a 23% reduction in Read More

Educate! Selected as One of 20 Innovative Youth Solutions for the UN’s Generation Unlimited

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Educate! was selected as one of 20 innovative youth solutions for the UN’s Generation Unlimited. They were featured for their work to equip young people in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda with the skills to succeed in today’s economy. Read More

Building Tomorrow Has Enrolled 51,941 Out-of-School Children in Uganda since 2014

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Building Tomorrow recently announced that they have enrolled 51,941 out-of-school children in Uganda since 2014. To put it in perspective, they’ve enrolled an out-of-school child every 50 minutes since August 2014! Read More

How Mentoring Girls Will Change the World – a TEDx Talk by Jana Hardy Kinsey

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How can we help young women in Africa turn into leaders? In this emotional talk Executive Director Jana Hardy Kinsey shares how mentors can empower girls to become confident, resilient, inspiring leaders, and how those leaders are changing the world for the better. Read More

Nest Unveils State of the Handworker Economy Report

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Nest unveils their first State of the Handworker Economy Report, an immense report housing troves of descriptive data on artisan small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and home-based workers engaged in craft work. The report was generously funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and includes a forward by Verna Eggleston as well as contributions from the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), West Elm, Etsy, GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group), Save the Children Germany, and Eco-age Co-founder, Livia Firth. Read More

“The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.”
John 3:8a