Month: March 2019

Fluid approach to water

How Rotary has changed to help people get clean water for longer than just a few years

By Ryan Hyland

The lack of access to clean water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene resources is one of the world’s biggest health problems — and one of the hardest to solve.

Rotary has worked for decades to provide people with clean water by digging wells, laying pipes, providing filters, and installing sinks and toilets. But the biggest challenge has come after the hardware is installed. Too often, projects succeeded at first but eventually failed.

Across all kinds of organizations, the cumulative cost of failed water systems in sub-Saharan Africa alone is estimated at $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion, according to data compiled by the consulting firm Improve International.

Rotary projects used to focus on building wells, but Rotary started to focused on hygiene education projects, which have a greater impact.

Rotary International

Rusted water pumps and dilapidated sanitation facilities are familiar sights in parts of Africa, South America, and South Asia — monuments to service projects that proved unsustainable. A 2013 review by independent contractor Aguaconsult cited these kinds of issues in projects Rotary carried out, and the review included an focus on sustainability to help plan more effective projects.

That’s one factor in why Rotary has shifted its focus over the past several years to emphasize education, collaboration, and sustainability.

With Rotary Foundation global grants, a dedicated Rotarian Action Group, and a partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Rotary’s water, sanitation, and hygiene, or WASH, programs are achieving greater, longer-lasting change.

“All Rotary water and sanitation projects are full of heart and well-intentioned, but many of them didn’t always meet the actual demands of the community,” says F. Ronald Denham, a founding member and chair emeritus of the Water and Sanitation Rotarian Action Group. The group, formed in 2007, stresses a needs-based approach and sustainability in projects.

In the past, equipment and facilities were usually installed properly and received well, but the local ownership, education, and sustainability were sometimes lacking. Communities often did not receive enough support to manage the projects independently for the long term.

One obstacle to sustainability: the ongoing human involvement that’s required.

Rotary members, by their nature, are volunteers. “Like everyone else, Rotarians have priorities like work and family,” says Denham, who has worked with clubs on water, sanitation, and hygiene issues for more than 30 years and led projects in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, and Uganda.

Speaking of the Rotary members who work to make improvements in their own communities, he says, “It’s difficult for host clubs, for instance, to manage WASH projects long-term,” especially if the projects have complex technical components. “We’re extremely dedicated, but we need help. Reaching out is essential to our success.”

Community engagement, community ownership

That success now increasingly depends on collaborations with organizations that provide complementary resources, funding, technology, contacts, knowledge of a culture, and other expertise.

Rotary members work with local experts to make sure projects fit a local need and are sustainable. Educators Mark Adu-Anning, left, and John Kwame Antwi work with engineer Jonathan Nkrumah, center, Rotary member Vera Allotey, and Atekyem Chief Nana Dorman II on a sanitation projects in in Ghana.

Photo by Awurra Adwoa Kye

“Clubs need to better engage with the community, its leaders, and professional organizations,” Denham says. “More important, we need to understand the needs of the community. We can’t assume or guess what’s in their best interest.”

The Rotary Foundation has learned over time that community engagement is crucial to making long-term change. It now requires clubs that apply for grants for some projects in other countries to show that local residents have helped develop the project plan.

The community should play a part in choosing which problems to address, thinking of the resources it has available, finding solutions, and making a long-term maintenance plan.

No project is successful, Denham says, unless the local community ultimately can run it.

In 2010, his club, the Rotary Club of Toronto Eglinton, Ontario, Canada, became the lead international partner in a water and sanitation program in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, where clean water is scarce.

When initial groundwater tests revealed high levels of fluoride, the sponsor clubs changed their plan to dig shallow boreholes. Given what they learned, rainwater collection was a safer approach.

The Rotary Club of Nakuru, Kenya, the local host club, now provides materials and teaches families how to build their own 10,000-liter tanks. Each family is responsible for the labor and maintenance. With a $50 investment, a family can collect enough water to get through the dry season.

To date, the project has funded the construction of more than 3,000 tanks, bringing clean water to about 28,000 people. Family members no longer have to walk several miles per day to collect water, a task that often fell to women and children.

As owners of the tanks, women are empowered to reimagine how their households work. And with the help of microloans they get through the Rotary clubs, mothers are running small businesses and generating income instead of fetching water.

“With ownership comes liberation, not just for the mothers but for their children, who now have the time to attend school,” Denham explains.

Teaching WASH

It takes more than installing sanitation facilities for a WASH project to succeed in the long term. It’s also important to cultivate healthy habits. Good hygiene practices can reduce diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and pneumonia by nearly 50 percent. Washing hands with soap can save lives.

More than 4.5 billion people live without a safe toilet, the U.N. says. A lack of toilets leads to disease and also keeps some girls from going to school. In Ghana, Rotary and USAID projects at schools are leading to fewer days missed due to illness or menstruation.

Photo by Awurra Adwoa Kye

The Rotary Club of Box Hill Central, Victoria, Australia, facilitates Operation Toilets, a program that builds toilets and delivers WASH education to schools in developing countries including India and Ethiopia. The group constructs separate facilities for boys and girls to ensure privacy, and Rotary members teach students how to wash their hands with soap. Workers at each school are instructed in how to maintain the facilities.

The program works with the advocacy group We Can’t Wait, which raises awareness of WASH needs and promotes education to the community. Since the project launched in 2015, nearly 90 schools and more than 96,000 students have directly benefited from the program.

In another example of successful WASH education, the Rotary Club of Puchong Centennial, Malaysia, partners with Interact and Rotaract clubs in the Philippines to teach at several schools in Lampara, Philippines. The groups invited several speakers to instruct students about oral hygiene, hand washing, and the importance of frequent bathing. After each presentation, students were given kits that included toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, combs, and other toiletries.

10 years of sustainable WASH

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Rotary-USAID Partnership, which has brought communities and resources together to provide clean water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene education in developing countries. Rotary and USAID, the world’s largest governmental aid agency, bring distinct strengths to the effort. Rotary activates a global network to raise money, rally volunteers, and oversee construction, while USAID provides technical support to design and carry out the initiatives and build the capacity of local agencies to operate and maintain the systems.

Rotary-USAID education programs are teaching students in Ghana, like Philomina Okyere how to effectively wash her hands. More than 35 Rotary clubs are working in partnership on WASH projects in Ghana. Learn more about how our projects in Ghana will help 75,000 people in our interactive graphic.

Photo by Awurra Adwoa Kye

“Rotary brings a lot of energy to the program and has the ability to create a lot of buzz,” says Ryan Mahoney, a WASH and environmental health adviser for USAID and member of the Rotary-USAID steering committee. “They have been great at leveraging their relationships with community leaders to get projects off the ground.”

In Ghana, which was a focal point when the alliance launched, 35 Rotary clubs across six regions will have implemented more than 200 sustainable WASH programs by 2020.

Fredrick Muyodi and Alasdair Macleod, members of The Rotary Foundation Cadre of Technical Advisers, visited 30 of them last September to assess and evaluate their successes and ongoing challenges.

Macleod, a member of the Rotary Club of Monifieth & District, Tayside, Scotland, was impressed with the education efforts he saw. Most of the schools he visited had built-in education components, including a dedicated WASH educator on staff. In one case, the WASH teacher and students made and distributed posters about the importance of hand washing.

“Long-term projects need to start with the younger generation,” says Macleod. He adds that students can be agents of change in their own homes and in their communities by teaching the proper technique.

Other site visits revealed unexpected challenges, such as security. When a school has sanitation resources that are otherwise unavailable in a community, for example, the risk of break-ins and vandalism increases. Muyodi, a member of the Rotary Club of Kampala City-Makerere, Uganda, says that projects can lessen the risk by expanding to include the surrounding community.

Distance is also sometimes a challenge, if project sites are too far away for the clubs involved to commit to regular site visits. To remedy this, Muyodi says, clubs should engage with more local residents and create better links with leaders on the community and district levels.

Denham, a member of the Rotary-USAID steering committee, attributes the alliance’s success in Ghana to better coordination and communication, from using WhatsApp to connect with partners to hiring full-time staff. As it enters its second phase, the partnership — a landmark public/private collaboration in the WASH field — has secured $4 million in commitments for projects in Ghana, Madagascar, and Uganda. Rotary clubs in each country are responsible for raising $200,000.

“Rotary is in the business of social and economic development,” says Denham. “Our work in WASH can be a testament to that.”

Profile Rotary member forms Roots of Peace to remove land mines

Profile: A vine idea

Heidi Kühn
Rotary Club of San Francisco

Heidi Kühn arrived in Utsunomiya, Japan, in 1975, a few months after the end of the Vietnam War. She was a Rotary Youth Exchange student, and what she saw and experienced in Japan led her to reflect on the post-World War II reconciliation between that country and her native United States. “The idea of former enemies bridging borders for peace left an impression in my heart,” she says.

Heidi Kühn, of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, founded a nonprofit called Roots of Peace to remove land mines and revive farmland.

Photo by Ian Tuttle

More than 20 years later, Kühn had become a successful television journalist. She was asked by the Commonwealth Club of California, a well-known public affairs forum, to host an event featuring Jerry White, a land mine survivor who had escorted Princess Diana on her last humanitarian mission in 1997. It was a short time after the death of Diana, whose efforts to ban land mines had inspired Kühn. “That night, I made a prophetic toast,” she recalls. “‘May the world go from mines to vines.’”

Kühn decided to act on those words and founded a nonprofit called Roots of Peace that has worked to remove hundreds of thousands of land mines and other unexploded ordnance from farmland and replace them with productive fields, such as orchards and vineyards.

In Afghanistan, the organization has helped restore fields in the Shomali Plain north of Kabul, which had been a thriving agricultural region until the Taliban burned vineyards, cut down fruit trees, and laid land mines. Since 2003, Roots of Peace has connected growers with supermarket chains in India. 

Roots of Peace is also partnering with the Rotary clubs of San Francisco and Bangkok Klongtoey, Thailand, which received a $197,000 global grant from The Rotary Foundation to remove land mines and plant black pepper vines and taro in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, and help farmers market the high-value crop.

Kühn and her husband and Roots of Peace partner, Gary Kühn, visited Afghanistan in 2018 to see the fruits of their labor. They flew out of Afghanistan on a cargo plane carrying the harvest. 

“To me, that was the greatest inspiration, the greatest moment in my life, to know that we can turn dreams into reality,” Kühn says. “Not just for ourselves, but for countless farmers and families around the world.” 

— Nikki Kallio

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Putting power in hands of women

Stephanie Woollard went from Down Under to the top of the world to find out if one person can make a difference

By Diana Schoberg
Photos by Monika Lozinska

The clacking of sewing machines fills the sunlit room until word spreads that the bus has arrived. At that, a dozen women clad in pink kurtas file into the courtyard of the Seven Women Center in Kathmandu, Nepal. They smile widely as a group of Australian women led by a tall blonde enters through the iron gate. 

The Seven Women Center provides a respite from the discrimination and violence many Nepali women face in their personal lives.

Stephanie Woollard bends down to let Sandhya Khadgi, the center’s bookkeeper and literacy trainer, put a dot of red powder on her forehead and a red flower petal atop her head in a gesture of welcome. Woollard has arrived with a group of Rotary members and friends to tour the center that she founded and whose goal is to improve the lives of women in Nepal.

When Woollard, now 34 and a member of the Rotary Club of Melbourne, first met Khadgi, Woollard was a 22-year-old tour guide with a passion for social justice and a knack for connecting with people. After leading a tour group to Kathmandu in 2006, she stayed an extra week to explore the city’s winding streets and hidden passageways, as tangled as the electrical wires above them. She soon made friends with shopkeepers, who invited her to tea as she asked them about their lives. 

“I’m a very curious person,” she says. 

One day, Woollard noticed a woman with dwarfism lugging two heavy bags into a makeshift tin shed constructed of three walls and a roof. It had no door; on impulse, Woollard followed the woman inside. 

Another woman who spoke some English told Woollard that seven disabled women lived in the shed, eking out a living selling soaps and candles. In Nepal, many people consider a disability to be karmic payback for a sin committed in a past life. One of the women had fallen out of a tree as a child and had never been treated for her injuries; another had hurt her leg and, because her family didn’t have money for treatment, had to have it amputated. Khadgi — who was one of the women Woollard met that day — was born with a jaw deformity that she covered with a mask in public. 

“When Stephanie walked into the tin shed, I felt so nervous around someone from outside the Nepali community,” Khadgi says. “In the community, because of the deformity I have, I am shunned.” But she had a feeling Woollard was different. 

The women view Anita Kerr, left, as a mother.

The experience haunted Woollard. She called home and asked her mother what to do. “Can one person make a difference?” she wondered aloud. 

She decided to use her last AU$200 to find out. 

Through the connections she had made in Nepal, Woollard hired two people to teach the seven women to knit handbags, gloves, and hats. By the time she flew home, they had crafted 12 items, which she stuffed into her suitcase to sell to friends in Australia. Meanwhile, the women kept on knitting, and Woollard looked for an outlet to sell their work.

A student at La Trobe University in Melbourne at the time, Woollard joined a group focused on fighting human trafficking and asked the members to host a booth on campus to sell the Nepali women’s products. But sales didn’t go the way she expected. She began to realize that people saw only the items, not the women behind them. So she started speaking to groups around campus to drum up interest in the group she now called Seven Women; soon sales reached $800 per week. The proceeds went back to Nepal where they were invested into more training so the women could make higher quality goods. Soon they were getting orders from fair-trade outlets across Australia. 

The enterprise went through some growing pains. When products weren’t consistent in size, Woollard realized the women had to learn how to use a ruler. The need to read and fill out order sheets turned into literacy lessons. Trying to find products that would appeal to the Australian market, Woollard searched the internet for images and, on trips to Nepal, made patterns on her hotel room floor using material from a wholesale market in Kathmandu. She and the women worked together to come up with designs that would suit both their skill level and the market’s demand. She wanted it to be their business, not hers.

“All of those things that went wrong, she turned into learning experiences. She’s creative in that way,” says Bob Fels, a Rotarian from Melbourne. “She got her hands dirty. She was practical. She was driven by wanting to help people. She was prepared to put herself out.”

The Seven Women Center provides a respite from the clogged streets of Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu — which ranks fifth among the world’s most polluted cities — blaring horns and choking dust fill the air and the crowded streets. The Seven Women Center provides a respite from all that, as well as from the discrimination and violence many Nepali women face in their personal lives. “When Steph comes here to visit, we’re excited,” says Anita Kerr, president of Seven Women. “There are always new things happening. We are growing, and the women are changing. They have more confidence.”

On this July day, the visiting Rotarians’ first stop is the sewing room, where a half-dozen women sit at the machines. They are only a few of the women who work with the center; most are based at home so they can fit in their sewing or knitting between taking care of children and other household duties. The women have just completed a large order that they’ve been working on for months for a French company, a new customer. Now they’re starting on a 10,000-piece order for friendship bracelets for a local tour company.

Kerr introduces the women and briefly tells their stories. A 17-year-old girl who used to wash dishes 16 hours a day until her hands were raw now lives at the center, where she receives an education as well as a stipend that she can send home to her parents. Eventually, she wants to own a tailor shop. Another woman is a single mother who wouldn’t give up her daughter, even though girls are seen as a burden in Nepali society. A third makes a three-hour round-trip bus ride to the center every day because it’s a place where she feels safe and happy after her abusive husband left her for another woman. “I feel like it is my home,” she says. 

A banner hanging on the wall of the sewing room depicts the life cycle of a butterfly: It’s the metaphor the women use to describe how their lives have changed because of Seven Women. They were caterpillars when they arrived, and the center is the cocoon that shelters them while they receive training in skills that include hospitality, literacy, and finances. When they’re earning money, they’re butterflies, able to leave poverty, violence, and oppression behind. And once their metamorphosis is complete, they can share their skills with others — teaching women back in their villages how to read and write, continuing to work with Seven Women, or opening their own shops and businesses. 

Kerr has her own metamorphosis story. When she was in school in her village near the Indian border, she used to wonder what had happened to girls who stopped coming to class. Then she would see them with babies of their own. In Nepal’s poor villages, where there are many mouths to feed, children are often married off or sent to monasteries.

One day, she witnessed a girl being pulled off the schoolyard by three men for an arranged marriage. “She looked so scared,” Kerr remembers. “I felt angry, and I felt pain as well, because it’s not fair that this happens to women.”

Kerr wanted more for her life. When she was 14, she left her family a letter telling them not to look for her and then took the first bus she saw to a town she had never been to. Fortunately, she met a friendly woman shopkeeper who helped her find a safe place to stay and a job cooking at a kindergarten. Later, she managed a boutique hotel in Kathmandu, where she was the only woman employee. 

“I always felt that there was something big that I was going to do,” Kerr says.

She found that in Seven Women. By 2012, Seven Women’s manufacturing business was running smoothly. While the organization had originally focused solely on women with disabilities, many other women in desperate situations were looking for help too. Woollard scouted for a location for a new center and hired Kerr to run it. 

“Anita’s an action person, just like me,” Woollard says. 

Meanwhile, Woollard herself was at a crossroads. “The joy as an entrepreneur is at the beginning — working with those seven women to set the thing up and get through challenges together. It had been running for a while, and we’d ironed out the crises,” she says. “I had been laser focused on Nepal. Now I wanted to learn more about the world and where I could make the biggest impacts.”

What should she do next? Rotary helped show her the way.

  1. “A lot of women mention that when they get inside the gate of Seven Women they feel peaceful. I feel the same,” says Anita Kerr, left, the organization’s president. 

  2. The women are eager to update Stephanie Woollard, center, on developments at the Seven Women Center since her last visit. “At other places, when senior managers come, they are treated and respected as bosses only,” says Sandhya Khadgi. “We don’t have that feeling here. It feels like our own family.”

  3. Cooking classes give career experience to women with an interest in tourism and hospitality, as well as an opportunity to practice English.

  4. Sandhya Khadgi teaches a Nepali language class. 

  5. Women at the center gain skills in bookkeeping and other careers.

The Australian Rotarians are gathered around a large wooden table in a room festooned with prayer flags as Sandhya Khadgi neatly writes out Nepali vocabulary words on a whiteboard. “Are you ready?” she asks them. Her sweet demeanor quickly morphs into drill sergeant mode as she quizzes them on the words: “Thank you,” she prompts. “Dhanyabaad,” the Rotarians reply. Then she calls on people to respond in an increasingly rapid cadence, and they all crack up as their tongues twist over the words. 

Australian Rotarians Jenny Foster, from left, Stephanie Woollard, Sue Gammon, and Susie Cole discuss ways to help Seven Women grow. After returning, they helped Woollard hold an event that raised $AU75,000 for the new Seven Women guesthouse. 

Visitors like the Australian Rotarians come to the center for language, cooking, and craft classes taught by the women, who in return receive valuable experience in hospitality skills and an opportunity to practice their English (more than 1,100 tourists had taken a cooking class over the previous 17 months, Kerr says). After their classes, tourists visit the shop where they can buy handmade cashmere scarves, silk garments, and decorative items made of felt. The center is currently fundraising for renovations on a planned 13-room hotel. When people look up the hotel online, they’ll read about the classes. 

The various enterprises give the women opportunities to follow a career path that they find rewarding. Khadgi, who has a 10th-grade education, desired more cerebral work, so Kerr first asked her if she wanted to train as a literacy teacher and later encouraged her to try accounting. “I was very afraid, as day-to-day bookkeeping had to be done and I didn’t know anything,” Khadgi says. “I started with small tasks, and after doing it and doing it, I can handle all these things. Now I feel very proud.”

Another piece of the Seven Women ecosystem is Hands On Development, a tour company that Woollard founded in 2012 after showing some visitors around the Seven Women Center and other sites in Nepal. After hearing how the trip had affected them, Woollard had a lightbulb moment. “I thought maybe I could share Nepal with others and change their lives too,” she says. Each year, several of the tours organized by the company are geared toward Rotary members and friends. 

During a steamy cooking class at the center, the 19 people on this tour learn to make tarkari, achar, and khir (vegetable curry, tomato pickle, and rice pudding). Jenny Foster, a member of the Rotary Club of Essendon, Australia, and several other Rotarians abandon their knives and cutting boards to hold an impromptu side meeting, brainstorming amid the cacophony the ways Rotary can help Seven Women expand. Rotary buzz-words like “global grants” and “vocational training teams” fly around the room. It’s a scene repeated frequently during the tour.

Foster, who worked with her Rotary club to host a screening of a documentary about Seven Women to raise money for the organization, came on this trip with her 20-year-old daughter, Elise. “You see the work of Seven Women, but you’ve got to also see the story behind why you need to do a project such as this,” she says. “Getting into the villages, going up to see a temple, meeting the local people — you start to understand the needs of a country like Nepal and why Stephanie would want to help.”

Bimala Tamang has become a role model to people in her village, who saw her success and started sending their own children to school. “If I hadn’t studied, I would already have children,” she says. “This is all about the background; if the mothers are uneducated, they expect their children to do and become the same as them.” 

Bimala Tamang is 19 years old. She’s from Betini, a village deep in the Himalayas, a six-hour bus ride from Kathmandu followed by an eight-hour hike. Betini has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the country, and most of Tamang’s friends have several children already.

As a child, Tamang tagged along with her older brother when he walked to school — five hours round trip. In Nepal, the money a family would spend to send a girl to school is often seen as better saved for her dowry, but in response to Tamang’s pleas, her grandparents, with whom she lived after her mother died of complications from her birth, agreed to fund her schooling. 

When Seven Women brought its literacy program to the village, Tamang was the most educated female — child or adult — they could find. Though she was only 17 years old, Seven Women asked her to teach other women in her village.

Seven Women then began a microloan program in Betini, and today, the women own shops and restaurants that cater to aid workers who are helping to rebuild after a 2015 earthquake hit the area. “Bimala has had a huge role in that success,” Kerr says.

When the prospect of an arranged marriage threatened to interfere with Tamang’s dream of becoming a social worker whose focus was maternal and child health — one directly influenced by the death of her own mother — she found refuge and continued her education at the Seven Women Center in Kathmandu.

Woollard, Kerr, and the Australian Rotarians are gathered around the large wooden table in the classroom eating lunch when Tamang enters the room, beaming. She has passed her year 12 exam, which means she’s graduating from secondary school and on her way to college. The Rotarians erupt in applause and a cheer.

 “I used to doubt a girl could amount to anything,” she says. “Now my grandparents tell me, ‘You don’t need to get married. You have to do good things and show them to the villagers.’ I have already become a role model. They are so happy to see this.”

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Rotary Foundation Trustee Örsçelik Balkan dies

Rotary Foundation Trustee Örsçelik Balkan, a member of the Rotary Club of Istanbul-Karaköy, Turkey, died unexpectedly on 6 March. 

Rotary Foundation Trustee Örsçelik Balkan was a member of the Rotary Club of Istanbul-Karaköy, Turkey.

Balkan, a Rotary member since 1973, was the executive senior board director of the EAE Elektrik Company, a manufacturer of electrical products in Turkey and Russia. He was a developer in the field of renewable energy. He also taught strategic planning, effective communication, and project planning for an MBA program at Istanbul Kültür University.

“Örsçelik was a Rotarian’s Rotarian,” says Rotary Foundation Chair Ron D. Burton. “He knew and loved Rotary and exemplified Rotary principles in everything he did. He always put others before himself. His Rotary work worldwide is a true testament to his commitment.”

He served Rotary as a district trainer, district governor, and RI director. He also served on numerous committees, including as chair of several.

In 1999, he led disaster relief services in Turkey after a devastating earthquake. He also helped bring Rotary services to Bosnia-Herzegovina and initiated a heart surgery project for Iraqi children. He convened Rotary Presidential Peace Forums in Sofia, Bulgaria; Istanbul, Turkey; and Nairobi, Kenya.

Balkan was recognized with the Service Above Self Award and the Rotary Foundation Citation for Meritorious Service. He and his spouse, Yasar Afet, were Major Donors and Benefactors of The Rotary Foundation.

He is survived by his spouse, Yasar Afet, sons Aydin and Gökçe, and grandchildren Aylin and Ozan. Memorial services will be held in Istanbul and Aydin, Turkey, on 8-9 March.

From peace fellow to international advocate

Rotary peace fellow creates Red Dot Foundation to fight street harassment and violence against women

By Anne Ford

ElsaMarie D’Silva of Mumbai began her career as a flight attendant, eventually rising to become vice president of network planning for one of India’s largest airlines. Learning about the fatal 2012 gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, an unusually heinous crime that led to public outrage, led D’Silva to make a dramatic career switch. 

D’Silva is the founder and CEO of the Red Dot Foundation, which works with nongovernmental organizations in India, Nepal, and Kenya to address street harassment and violence against women. In addition to community workshops, the foundation empowers women to document catcalling, groping, and other incidents through an online crowdmapping platform called Safecity. D’Silva was also a Rotary Peace Fellow at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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Q: Why did you choose to work in this area?

A: Sexual violence is a global pandemic. One in three women experiences it at least once, yet 80 percent of us choose not to make an official complaint. In India, there’s a rape every 20 minutes. We have very strong legislation, but what is legislation if you’re not going to use it? There’s still fear of the police, of bringing shame to oneself and one’s family.

Q: Was this kind of harassment something you witnessed yourself while growing up in India?

A: Yes, I’ve been groped on a bus, on the street, on a train. When I started this work, a friend of mine said, “Now I understand why you don’t take the train in Mumbai.” It was a connection I had not made myself. We don’t know how much these incidents restrict our lives.

Q: Tell us about some ways that the Red Dot Foundation has empowered women.

A: We realized by looking at the Safecity app that there was a hot spot [of harassment] around a tea stall, which is a male-only space in India. Because it was on a busy road, where women passed by, men intimidated them with staring and commenting. When we asked the women what they wanted to change, they said, “We would like the staring to stop.” In our culture, you don’t confront a man directly. So we organized an art workshop for the women, and they painted a nearby wall to say, “Look with your heart, not with your eyes.” And the staring stopped. It educated the community that this behavior was not appropriate.

Illustration by Monica Garwood

Q: Do you think your efforts have led to any reduction in street harassment?

A: I don’t think the harassment has decreased. What I can say is that the conversations have increased and that people are becoming more aware of their rights and are more willing to report. I would even say that you will hear more sad stories because people are talking about it more.

Q: What did you learn from your time as a Rotary Peace Fellow?

A: I learned that the work we are doing that we used to call “pre-emptive” is actually peacebuilding. We’re trying to help people understand gender stereotypes that reinforce toxic masculinity on a daily basis, give them a safe space to discuss this and understand each other’s point of view, and help them navigate these complex issues and be agents of change.

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