Thursday, April 12, 2012

As Yuwa Concludes, the Phoenix Fund is Born

This is the final part of my reflection from my time with Yuwa.  This organization reinvigorated my convictions and reminded me of how much a difference one individual can truly make.  Not to mention, the stories of the girls are what inspired this fund and blog.  After reading, please feel free to contact me if you'd like to get involved.  

This week, I dove straight into Yuwa's daily operations and attempted to figure out how exactly this tiny organization has been able to galvanize the community into lifting up the status of girls.  Obviously, the process of transforming the girls' situation has not been an  easy feat, and at times has seemed like an uphill battle met with resistance from brick wall after brick wall.  Even to this day with a national superstar coming from Yuwa and the successes they have had,  moving things along and making progress is still met with obstacles. Changing the culture to truly appreciate girls' potential and capabilities is not as easy as having one accomplishment known by the country; on the contrary, it is met with reluctance to change and opposition at the grassroots level. This was evident on Monday when I went with Franz to practice at 5:30 in the morning in Satu village: the problem village.  The brothers of the girls have a long history of harassing the girls and trying to kick them off the football field. Apparently, the boys are jealous and use intimidation tactics often.  While we had been at TATA during the weekend, a few  of the boys destroyed footballs and threatened the girls at practice.  These threats are common and represent the ongoing struggle for establishing gender equality in the community and for creating the understanding that girls are just as capable and hold equal value as boys.

Although dealing with the daily obstacles can seem draining, the successes seen in other pockets of the community shined through at each practice, each English class in the morning and through small increments of increasing confidence that rippled throughout the community and created change.
An example of this occurred when, Quinn, the English teacher volunteer, and I taught English in the Salidri village. This was without a doubt the highlight of my week.  Leading up to it, Quinn had told me about a girl named Sita, who  longs to be a doctor.  Salidri is an amiable village, as the families have been supportive of the girls and let the children participate in English class before school or before morning chores.  Furthermore, the boys and girls tend to practice together harmoniously, and the kids I got to know were bright and motivated. 

Class took place in a small dusty "living room" where about fifteen kids crowded in and plopped on the floor; they all brought their donated notebooks and pencils they took overwhelming pride in. Quinn led the lesson with compassion and ease, and the kids were all eager to participate.  We decided to turn the second half of class into a Science/English class. I wasn't sure many of these kids had ever been to a doctor so I had decided to bring my stethoscope and ophthalmoscope to see their reaction. Just seeing these tools left the kids in awe.  We started the science portion by having all the kids take their pulse and then listen to each other’s heart and lungs.  I then asked them what sound the heart makes.  They all said simultaneously, “tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk”  with enthusiasm that echoed throughout the room.  It turns out, tuk-tuk translates to lub-dub, lub-dub in English.  I never realized heart sounds were different in other languages! After the stethoscope was put away, I feebly attempted to explain the accommodation reflex with the ophthalmoscope.  These kids are seriously bright! I showed them that as you shine the light on the right pupil, you can see the pupil shrink, and then after briefly taking the light away and replacing it,  you can see the left pupil match the right one.  They were fascinated.  They passed the ophthalmascope around and made each other's pupils change sizes, and as the information passed from one to another, everything was slowly translated into Hindi and I could see all of the children light up (literally) as they began to understand one by one. The last activity we did was to find the uvula! This was a great way to wrap up class as "AAAHhhhhs" reverberated against the mud walls.  The good news was that no one's was deviated.

Oh, and Sita’s eyes were just glistening.

The second day, we brought an atlas of the human body from the Yuwa house, and I had a couple of the kids try and read aloud the paragraph on the cell. It was challenging task - not only to read in English but to comprehend the biology - but with Quinn’s Hinglish skills combined with Sita’s understanding of the cell, the class (I think) began to understood the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, nucleus, and Endoplasmic reticulum.  Knowing how our own bodies work is such an incredible tool, and it is so empowering.  It opens up numerous doors when you think about it.  It allows you to make educated decisions regarding how you want to treat your body when you’re both sick and healthy and about whether or not you will go to a healthcare provider or choose to suffer because of a belief in karma. This practice along with a general mistrust of healthcare providers occurs in the villages in India and in most of the developing world, so seeing Sita light up when she explained how something in the body worked was incredibly moving. I reminded her to study really really hard.  She just finished 10th grade (although she looks like she could be 12) and she now has college to go and then medical university.  I think it would be one of the most incredible things if she made it to becoming a physician. 

After finishing Poor Economics (Abijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo - highly recommended for anyone interested in fighting poverty),  and after staying at Yuwa for about a week, I was incredibly challenged to contemplate the traditional way 'aid' is given, development is carried out  and health interventions are created.  After racking these issues around my brain with regard to ethical and cost/impact considerations, I have been left, as any humanitarian,  in a complete mental bind.  Here's the thing about development and about figuring out the best way to help.  If you ever think you have figured it out or ever become comfortable with your methods, you're doing it wrong.  Development is a mind-(insert expletive 4 letter word of choice here). There are political and cultural sensitivity issues and serious ethical concerns to consider, and all MUST be considered even if one is merely trying to "help out."  The first rule of thumb is always, just like medicine, to do no harm.  You may think you're providing an education to girl, but maybe you're driving a family into further poverty by taking away an economic asset if you don't compensate the family for allowing the girl to be educated.  

But, there's a second rule of thumb that parallels medicine as well; it is the rule of beneficence, or doing good.  Just because the issue is complex and draining at times, it is not an excuse to do nothing.  

So with this mental bind for doing something but without doing harm came my idealistic and dreamy solution.

Here was my thinking process:

1.) There needs to be more girls.
2.) There needs to be more girls who know their worth and who know they have the untapped potential to be the most powerful person in the world.
3.)  These girls need higher education. This untapped potential needs to be plugged in! They need skills to reinvest back into their communities!
4.) A girl physician arising from a rural village in India or Nepal or anywhere might be one of the greatest assets for the community, for any developing country, and the entire world. 

Often, as westerners observe and judge the social injustices that prevail in developing countries, it is so easy to think of ways it could be better as we compare the situation to our privileged position.  It is easy to become obsessed with the idea of being the rescuer, of being the one to save the day.  But, because we really don’t and really can’t fully grasp the situation at hand, it would be absolutely incredible if someone from the community in need, could rise above and return to intervene and be a leader for their village or larger community.  (One of the most marvelous women who have done this is Somaly Mam, who is responsible for the rescue and advocacy of thousands of girls trafficked in Cambodia.  With the help and support of westerners, it has been able to grow into what it is today.)

Physicians on the other hand, are community leaders by nature of their profession.  Combining the fact that girls from the developing world invest back into their communities 90% of their earnings compared to boys who typically invest 30-40%, with the skills and knowledge physicians have at their disposal along with their respected role within communities has given rise to this idea.  A girl physician coming from regions like Salidri, Hutu, or the Lower Everst region of Nepal, that are typically isolated from traditional development aid might be the best tool the world has for fighting poverty.  This solution doesn't take westerners to come in and save the day, no credit will be given to us, but rather, it grants the opportunity to a girl to be her own community's hero.  Using the infrastructure already there, this girl can have the opportunity to receive all the credit.  Maybe this idea sounds implausible, idealistic and naive, as the odds are stacked up so highly against girls in the developing world, but I truly believe girl physicians who are motivated to make their communities better might be the best ally the humanitarian field could have.  This girl will be able to fully understand the complex nature of health problems in her community and be able to do something, to do the right thing, about them.  That girl will understand why the community makes decisions the way they do, how to change social norms and how to target the social determinants of health.  That girl can be an educator, role model and advocate for her own people.  

Hence, the Phoenix Fund was born. The details are still being worked out.  The idea is still a bit clumsy right now as I balance two degrees and in actuality, I really have no idea how to do this, but with the help and encouragement of the Leap Year Project, LittleWhiteCoats, and friends and family, it's starting to take shape. 

If this sounds like a good idea to you, or if you’d like to get involved, feel free to contact me at or Donate here!


  1. Wow. I mean, WOW! Good for you for being so involved in promoting the health, education and well being of the world's future women! In AZ right now there have been so many initiatives for ways to push women down (don't get me started on the birth control topic or stillborn babies) that something like this sounds like just the positive change the world as a whole needs to move forward. I'm not sure exactly where Yuwa is geographically but we're all connected universally anyway. Helping in one place helps everyone. I applaud you tremendously for your efforts.

    Thanks so much for stopping in at my blog from PureBloggers, I'm enjoying reading about your adventures and goals!

  2. bravo!!! how refreshing it was to read about your inspired AND inspiring efforts. blessings, amycita

  3. Thanks so much for reading Jenn! I'm going to try by all means to keep the politics out of my blog, but I can only imagine it will become increasingly difficult as the election gets closer and more extreme state policies are passed. Yuwa, by the way, is in the state of Jharkhand in Eastern India. You can check it out here

    @Amycita, thank you to you too! Feel free to forward it along to anyone you think might be interested in the cause or who would like to donate !

    Reading both of your comments are so encouraging and really keep me going so thank you!

  4. Very inspirational blog... one person can make a difference. I really believe that, sometimes it is in small ways, others can be amazing. Any way each of us can make a change to better the world is wonderful :)