The best way to change the world

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Alice Emasu (left) and Soja Orlowski tour the new TERREWODE Women’s Community Hospital in March 2019.

I first met a woman who has come to personify in my mind the best way to change the world via phone in 2015.

Her name is Alice Emasu, and she is the Executive Director of an organization called TERREWODE in Uganda. At the time, I had just become the Executive Director of Worldwide Fistula Fund (WFF), an organization that partners with TERREWODE to treat obstetric fistula — a childbirth injury that leaves women incontinent and too often turns them into social pariahs.

Back in 2015, Alice was struggling to secure funding to serve 200 to 300 women annually with holistic fistula care, which can include surgery, counseling, and job training.

In just a few days, Alice will realize her dream to open a dedicated fistula hospital, The TERREWODE Women’s Community Hospital (TWCH), which will have the capacity to serve 600 women and girls annually. TERREWODE is also now the Uganda Ministry of Health’s key partner in implementing its national strategy to prevent and treat fistula.

How did Alice go from a struggling nonprofit leader to a thriving visionary?

Most of that is down to her own hard work and perseverance, but even the brightest stars need partners, colleagues, and advocates providing not only funds, but support to develop their full potential and realize their dreams.

I believe the best way to change the world is to invest in women.

Melinda Gates summarizes the reason to do it in her new book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

“When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.”

When women have greater control over household spending, more money is spent on children’s health and education, leading to sweeping improvements in economic growth, according to the World Bank. A strong correlation can be found between GDP per capita and gender equity. These facts alone offer a persuasive case that investing in women is smart economics, but it’s more than just that.

Alice’s story illustrates the innumerable benefits of investing in women with both time and money.

Finding her first advocate

Alice traveled to the United States in 2008 to pursue a Master’s in Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

By then, she’d already established TERREWODE. She wanted to find the best way to eradicate obstetric fistula, which currently devastates an estimated 75,000 women in Uganda.

One of the first things she did upon arriving was seek out renowned fistula surgeon Dr. Lewis Wall, who taught at Washington University. Dr. Wall founded WFF in 1995, and Alice believed he might support her goals.

He did. Dr. Wall became one of her earliest advocates and her research advisor.

Alice’s master’s research was an analysis of national fistula strategy in Uganda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo to gather best practices. She was developing TERREWODE’s strategy to advance women’s rights — beginning with access to treatment of preventable childbirth injuries.

Alice returned to Uganda with more than just a plan. She had people who believed in her and an organization that continues to support her.

No one can transform the world alone

A few months ago, I visited Alice in Uganda for the first time. We speak on the phone regularly, but it hadn’t ever been in the budget for me to go. There always seemed to be something more important.

One afternoon, I was having lunch with Alice and her team. Alice was explaining how I provide her advice on staffing, communications, and how I help her frame problems and find solutions.

Soja asks me tough questions, she said, I often don’t know the answers.

Her admission made her staff — and me — laugh, but her comment captured the importance of our partnership and of something as simple as a weekly phone call. Money alone can’t empower people to reach their full potential.

The best way to change the world

Change is made not only possible but probable when we partner with and invest in women.

This isn’t a new idea. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn explore it in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

“Women’s empowerment helps raise economic productivity and reduce infant mortality. It contributes to improved health and nutrition. It increases the chances of education for the next generation.”

Countless resources and research tell the same story, but knowledge and implementation of this valuable development tool isn’t widespread.

As I looked at Alice, I thought about all she’d made possible.

Thousands of women cured of fistula. Thousands empowered through job training. Hundreds of community members turned into advocates. A close relationship with the government. A new hospital about to open.

Alice is exceptional, there’s no question about it. Maybe not every woman is capable of such greatness, but she can be added to the growing number of examples of how investing time and money in women is the best hope the world has of eradicating its most pervasive problems. There’s an African proverb I love that touches on this idea:

“When you educate a man, you educate an individual. When you educate a woman, you educate a community.”

If you want to change the world, start with women.

Soja Orlowski is the Executive Director of Worldwide Fistula Fund. She holds a Master’s from Northwestern and completed undergrad at the University of Illinois.

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