“When you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation.”
Nbyia Rasoully is the Founder and President of the Women’s Initiative for Sanctioning Empowerment (WISE), a NGO based in New York, United States.
She also works for the United Nations and is the point person for the HeForShe campaign promoting gender equality for the Middle Eastern and Northern Africa Region. The IPF caught up with Nbyia to find out more about her organisation and what inspires her to work for the empowerment of women.
Could you explain to us what WISE is? What are the organisation’s goal?
WISE is a non-profit organisation with a mission to empower women whose rights and opportunities have been undermined and violated. Ideologies of extreme patriarchy are prevalent in war-torn countries and have a significant effect not only on women, but their families as well.
At WISE, we started our first mission in Afghanistan—a country that has experienced decades of war and a whole generation that has grown up never experiencing peace within their country. Many Afghans are struggling to cope with the psychological, economic, social and physical ramifications of the conflicts both past and present. The country has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.
Our goal is to empower women in these communities by providing them with necessary medical supplies, public health knowledge, and midwifery training so that they can support themselves and their families.
We believe that when you educate a woman, you educate an entire nation.
That sounds amazing. How have you been implementing this project? And who have you been working with to get the right supplies to the right people?
For this project, WISE volunteers collected medical supplies and nutritional supplements in the United States. We received these supplies as donations from various pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, universities and individual donors. After shipping the supplies to Afghanistan our US members joined WISE volunteers in Afghanistan to meet with the Minister of Public Health and identify communities in need.
We travelled to rural areas in five provinces: Kandahar, Nangarhar, Bamiyan, Wardak, and Laghman. In each province we visited a total of three to five orphanages and two to three health clinics, shadowing doctors, training midwives, and treating malnourished mothers and children at no cost.
We provided medicine such as folic acid, prenatal vitamins, children’s vitamins, pain relievers, and cough and cold medicine to patients who visited the clinic and were unable to afford the medicine. Sterile supplies such as labour and delivery gowns, gloves, surgical masks, and iodine washes were donated to each clinic we visited. The orphanages were given school supplies such as notebooks and paper as well as children’s vitamins and pain relievers.
“Despite some initial challenges, the project was a great success and WISE served approximately 8,000 individuals throughout a three-week period.”
WISE has also recently partnered with UN Women to launch the HeForShe campaign in the country. Our mission is to promote the empowerment of women by supporting men. We work with tribal elders, community leaders, and other influential figures in the country to promote women’s rights and education.
It must take so much determination to lead a project like this. What inspired you to do it?
I was fortunate to have been born and raised in the United States, but my parents immigrated here during the Soviet invasion, so I often heard about the struggles women faced and the lack of opportunity they had.
While I was studying Biomedical Engineering as an undergraduate, a friend and I created a chapter of an organisation called Global Medical Brigades. This organisation provided medical assistance to third world countries by setting up temporary mobile primary care clinics in areas such as Honduras, Ghana, and Panama that had no doctors within a 20-mile radius. Due to the security risk, our proposal for travelling to Afghanistan with Global Medical Brigades was rejected.
At the time, I also worked as a consultant with several local Afghan companies to build vocational training centres throughout various regions of the country. We worked closely with tribal elders and used the jirga system—a traditional assembly adopted by tribal leaders to make decisions according to Islam—as our primary means for conflict resolution and promoting female education within villages. This was when I was inspired to create my own non-profit organization; one that was able to ensure that overlooked communities in areas of Afghanistan received the necessary attention and care they needed.
“From my first trip to Afghanistan, I was amazed to see so much ambition and hidden talent when observing an Afghan female—whether they are young, mothers, educated or uneducated.”
I felt that if these women were equipped with the right resources they could reach beyond the scope of what we have accomplished in the western world.
Afghanistan can be a very hostile area to work in. What difficulties have you come across while working on WISE projects?
In June 2014, WISE completed its first official mission to Afghanistan. We visited many volatile areas in the north-east and southern provinces of the country. It was a treacherous three-week journey in which we travelled with caution due to challenges ranging from damaged roads to frequent stops at check-points by Afghan security forces and sometimes even the Taliban.
One time, in the village of Shinwari in eastern Afghanistan, in what was considered to be their most reliant hospital within the 40-mile radius, our team found women delivering on the floor of the maternal ward in 110 degree fahrenheit weather and unsterile conditions. This was one of many clinics we visited that lacked qualified staff, had underpaid physicians and a surplus of patients from rural areas.
The clinic was within 20 miles of several villages that did not have any health facilities nearby. They relied heavily on external aid for medicine and supplies and still used malfunctioning neonatal incubators that were donated to them from the United States in 2001. While distributing medicine to needy malnourished women and their children, the hospital director warned us of an attack close to the hospital. Within half an hour before our departure from the clinic, there were bodies brought to the Emergency department from when four individuals were killed in a Taliban attack nearby.
In addition to these security concerns, the health conditions of the women and children were one of the hardest things to see.
“Children were dying from malnutrition or basic illnesses that are considered easily treatable in the western world.”
Women did not follow basic protocol of hygiene or personal care when caring for themselves or their children due to lack of education. Although our goal was to deliver over-the-counter medicine throughout the country, it was an emotional experience when we were not able to provide assistance for more complex conditions such as emergency obstetrics, limb replacements, or illnesses like hepatitis.
While conditions have greatly improved within the past few years, there are still many challenges in Afghanistan.
“Females still struggle to battle social stigma, harassment, and threats when going to school.”
With the decrease in foreign aid, one school is closing after another and the state of education for Afghan women is still shaky.
Even after billions of dollars of aid, Afghanistan lacks proper resources and is unable to provide for its people independently. Afghans must travel abroad for complex medical care and the rural population does not have access to basic healthcare needs. The challenges for sustainable care in 2015 will be immense.
You’ve spoken about the emotional challenges of the work you do. Personally, what do you feel is the best part about working at WISE?
Through WISE, I have been able to work with a group of passionate individuals who are dedicated to the same goals of serving humanity as I am. Even the smallest of our efforts have been able to help save the lives of thousands of families.
Our mission is to provide change, whether it’s educational or municipal, and start a new cycle of optimism, hope, good intention, and a better future for communities that are vulnerable worldwide.
Your story and determination to make a change are really inspirational. Do you have any advice for other women who would like to work for women’s rights or set up their own organisation for helping women?
Each one of us can make a difference but if we work together we can transform. Start off in your own community if you can. Whether it’s tutoring underprivileged students or seasonal clean-ups, be active!
“The first step is the smallest but in reality it’s the hardest and most effective.”
The most common way you give up power is by thinking you don’t have any. Nobody gives you the power to help humanity. You just take it.
To find out more about WISE, visit their website.