Women’s Empowerment

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When I decided a year ago to leave my job to travel, I knew that I wanted service work to be apart of my journey. I spent a lot of time last spring researching and learning about NGOs and different volunteer organizations. I scoured the internet. Read blogs and articles. Bought a couple of books on service work and travel. With so many different options out there my first step was to narrow my focus on what volunteer work I wanted to do. As an educator, I was interested in helping young people. As a coach, I was interested in helping girls. As a woman, I was interested in learning how other women live. I decided to let “women empowerment” and “education” be my key words when searching for programs.

The second thing I had to decide on was what organizations to use. There are so many different ways to do volunteer work abroad. Some people pick a location and once they arrive find ways to volunteer in the local community. I knew that wasn’t my style of travel so I spent time researching exactly which organization I would work with. I was flexible with location so kept my search broad when it came to geographic location. I also wanted to make sure I understood exactly where my money was going when signing up. A common theme that kept coming up in my research was being careful when using organizations, especially NGOs, that had a fee associated with the project. Unfortunately some NGOs don’t always use the money collected for reasons they claim to.

After looking into multiple projects, I came across a women’s empowerment program in Luang Prabang, Laos. After calling the parent organization, GVI, and speaking to someone about the specific project happening in Luang Prabang, I knew I had to sign up and go.

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Women’s health workshop

As mentioned in previous blog posts, I spent six weeks in Luang Prabang teaching English to girls. If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to read my post entitled Teacher Kelly to learn more about my time and experience as a teacher in Luang Prabang. I loved teaching the girls. It was incredibly rewarding as an educator.

One of the reasons I choose GVI Luang Prabang Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP) over other teaching programs was the opportunity to participate in their menstrual health initiative.  In addition to teaching English, I taught a women’s health workshop.  GVI Luang Prabang WEP had recently partnered with the organization Days for Girls (DfG). DfG is about empowering women and girls throughout the world providing them with female health education as well as sustainable, washable menstrual kits. DfG partners with organizations and relies on volunteers and donations to help reach women and girls across the globe. According to information on their website they have reached more than ONE MILLION women and girls around the world. These are women and girls who didn’t have access to clean, sustainable menstrual options.

There were two components of the project – menstrual kits and menstrual health education.

Menstrual Kits:

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Each DfG kit contains the following: 8 liners, 2 shields, 2 pairs of underwear, 1 wash cloth, 1 bar of soap, 1 plastic bag, a menstrual tracking calendar, and instructions on how to use and clean the items. Each of these items is placed into a colorful cloth bag.

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A Days for Girls Kit

The design and construction of the liners and shields are patented to DfG. The shield has a polyurethane lining in between the two pieces of fabric that helps with absorption. The liners are made of two pieces of flannel cotton material sewn together. The liners are folded into thirds and the ends are tucked into the shield. The shield can hold one – three individual liners so that a female can adjust to the needed protection. The shield is then placed on a pair of underwear and snapped into place.

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Two shields and a liner – both of these items are hand-made using a sewing machine.
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An unfolded liner – the liners are designed to be folded into thirds before going into a shield.
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A liner tucked into the shield.
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A shield with a liner on a pair of underwear.
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The shield is kept in place by a button that snaps underneath.

The shields and liners are designed to be washed and then dried in direct sunlight. Even in circumstances where clean water is not available, hanging the items in direct sunlight is enough to help kill bacteria and allow females to reuse the items. With proper care the kits are designed to last up to three years.

The kits were a labor of love. The shields, liners, and cloth bags were all machine sewed by local volunteers and women as well as volunteer groups from abroad. All the kits were based on donations. Some people donated money for the materials while others donated their time to sewing. Leyla, the Program Director for GVI Luang Prabang projects, did an amazing job collecting materials and kits. Some of the kits and materials came from DfG chapters in Australia while some of the materials were actually sewed and made in Luang Prabang.

Through donations, GVI Luang Prabang WEP has been able to acquire a couple of sewing machines. Local women and girls in Luang Prabang were learning how to sew. This way the liners, shields, and bags could be made right there in Luang Prabang instead of always having to come from volunteer groups in other countries, making it more sustainable while contributing to the local economy.

 

Menstrual and female health education:

Menstrual health education is the second component. Most of the women receiving the kits are unaware of what is actually happening when they are menstruating or they lack complete understanding of the menstrual cycle and how it relates to pregnancy. By providing girls and women with knowledge about their own bodies, it empowers them to understand what is happening each month. It also helps dispel some misconceptions.

One aim of GVI Laung Prabang WEP Menstrual Health Initiative is for it to be locally led. This means instead of Westerns leading workshops in the field which then have to be translated, local, native speaking women and girls lead the workshops.

Since my skill set is not sewing, I was fortunate enough to help with the educational side of the program. I helped to lead a course in female and menstrual health to local young women who in return would be the ones to lead the workshops in the villages.

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Teaching young Lao women about the menstrual cycle.

Using the DfG curriculum and certification program, I spent four weeks going through the following topics: puberty, male and female anatomy, reproduction, and the menstrual cycle along with how to use and clean the items in the DfG kit. I had two girls, ages 17 and 19 respectively, in the workshop. They were accompanied by a young Lao woman who is one of GVI Laos’ Community Liaisons. She acted as a translator when needed in the workshop but she was also preparing to help lead workshops in villages as well.

What’s important to keep in mind is that I was teaching this material in English so that the young women could understand the information and then be able to teach it to others in their native language. As someone who only speaks one language, it was not lost on me how remarkable these young women were. I’ve taught biology in American high schools. I know how hard some of the material was for my native English speaking students. While their English was pretty strong, they were not fluent English speakers, yet! The girls had to work extra hard at focusing and paying attention to not only the biological information but the English language as well.

After weeks of sewing, assembling kits, and preparing to lead menstrual health workshops it was time to head out to remote villages in Northern Laos. I was very fortunate to be one of two volunteers who joined the Program Manager along with two of the young women in my health workshop.

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The team out in the field!

We went on a five day trip in the Mung Ngoi area in the mountains of Northern Laos where access to education and menstrual products is limited. Over the course of the five days we visited five villages and delivered seven menstrual health workshops in the locals’ native ethnic languages (Khmu and Lao).

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Women starting to gather for a morning workshop. We did a presentation the evening before but not all the women in the village were able to attend because of having babies and young children to attend to. We did a second presentation in the morning so they could hear the information and receive a kit.

 

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While we tried to do our workshops during the day, it wasn’t always feasible since the women worked in the fields during the day. Some of workshops happened in the evening after the sun went down. Since the villages did not have electricity we used headlamps to illuminate our diagrams. This village provided us with a single light powered by a battery.
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Evening presentation by headlamp
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This picture, as well as the one above, captures the amazing work of a young Khmu woman. At the age of 17, she is leading a menstrual health workshop. She is standing in front of a crowd talking about puberty, male and female anatomy, reproduction, and menstrual cycles! While it’s mostly women in the workshops, many of the men in the villages were curious about our workshops, too! I was humbled by her strength and courage especially at such a young age to stand in front of a crowd and present on such a topic.
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An other image capturing the moment when a student becomes the teacher.
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Women attending a workshop
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One of the things that struck me was the generation of females – young girls, teenagers, young mothers, middle age women, older women. Knowledge is power at any age.
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While the workshops were for women we always had a few men in the crowd listening.

In total, 317 DfG kits were distributed to girls and women over the course of seven workshops.

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Demonstrating how to use the kits.
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Distribution of the kits.
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Every female of reproductive age received a kit.
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Occasionally someone wasn’t able to attend the group workshop so we gave presentations to individuals or small groups so that as many women as possible could receive a kit.

I failed to mention that permission was needed by each village chief. The GVI Luang Prabang Program Manager and her husband, a Lao native as well as GVI Community Liaison, worked hard to meet with each village chief months earlier to gain their permission to come into the villages. The village chiefs, known as a nai bans, were incredibly welcoming and gracious hosts. They provided shelter and prepared our meals.

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Finishing up breakfast one morning before getting ready to move to our next village.
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Preparation of a meal.
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Unsure of numbers we packed over 500 menstrual kits.

We used every means of transportation to carry the kits. We traveled by truck, tractor, foot, and boat.

 

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The first couple of days we traveled by truck. Occasionally the road was steep enough that they had us get out and walk for both safety as well as to lighten the load!
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And by road I mean a single dirt track running through the forest.
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It was easier and faster to hike to our fourth village. We set out for an hour hike with the help of local women who carried the remaining kits to the next village.
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For our fifth and final village we traveled by boat.
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The team moving on down the river.
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Catching a little break as we wait for our final workshop.
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View of the final presentation. Access to knowledge on the human body and female reproductive health is so important. All girls and women should have access to clean, sustainable menstruation kits. No female should feel shamed by a natural and biological process. No female should have to change their routine or stay home from school or work because they are menstruating. So glad I got to be a small part of the important work being done by organizations like DfG and programs like GVI Luang Prabang WEP.
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Water buffalo hanging out at the river’s edge as we made our back to the boat after our final workshop.
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We had a two hour boat ride through beautiful scenery to our pick up point in Nong Khiaw.

Here are a few other images from the trip:

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View of a village from the back of a pickup truck as we drove in.
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Single room school house made of bamboo in one of the villages we visited.
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View of the village from the school house building pictured above.

 

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Some villages had easier access to water than others. In this village you had to hike down the side of a hill to reach water. Which of course meant you had to walk up the hill when carrying the water back.
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Having a sugary treat – sugar cane!
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After a couple of days out in the villages we had a chance to shower. It took some work and skill keeping covered up while showering in public.
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Days for Girls and GVI Luang Prabang Women’s Empowerment Program doing amazing work supporting female health.

 

 

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