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After a successful run as a real estate developer and Internet entrepreneur, Swiss-born Yann Borgstedt decided it was time to give back. He sold his company in 2005 and headed to Morocco in search of inspiration. Shortly after, the Womanity Foundation was born.
For Borgstedt, philanthropy is more than charitable giving, “It’s a business, in the sense that having an impact is about being involved.”
From creating better opportunities for education to fostering public discourse, Womanity brings women’s issues to the forefront and successfully finds sustainable solutions. When women enjoy equal rights, countries experience economic growth, social progress, and are at once more stable and peaceful.
Morocco, Womanity’s Roots
While in Morocco, Borgstedt discovered Institution Nationale de Solidarité avec les Femmes en Détresse (INSAF), an organization advocating that girls be kept in school rather than enter the workforce at an early age.
Brokers recruit “little maids” (girls aged between 6-11) from rural areas to work in the main cities. Unable to complete their education, a disproportionate number go on to become prostitutes, single mothers and are much more likely to become victims of abuse.
Parents are promised a stipend for sending their daughters to school, but Borgstedt soon realized that in philanthropy, “sometimes you think you do something good, and actually create the problem yourself.” The formula ultimately encouraged parents to send away their daughters to receive a reward upon their return.
Lesson learned: Womanity changed its tactic to provide food, school supplies, and tuition instead and has since reached over 400 parents and 1,000 girls.
Putting a school in a box
Womanity took on women’s education in Afghanistan in 2007. Schools throughout the country suffered greatly due to the wars, particularly for girls. Sixty-eight percent of teachers lacked formal training, and approximately 50% lacked necessary infrastructure.
Womanity selected Al Fatah, the largest girls school in Kabul serving 5,000 students, to create a so-called “School in a Box,” a model enterprise that could be replicated across the country.
The project built up capacity and infrastructure, provided training for teachers and staff, counseled students facing obstacles for attending school, and fostered community engagement to support girls who wished to continue their studies.
Within three years, it was the first all-girl school amongst the nation’s top five schools. Today the program exists in nine schools and reaches nearly 26,000 students.
Taking over the airwaves
In late 2009, Womanity launched Radio NISSA, a women’s radio station and website based in Palestine. Programming aims at empowering women by spotlighting both their struggles and achievements.
Radio NISSA, meaning “Radio Women,” quickly became the fastest-growing station in the region, with nearly 2 million listeners spanning generations. The programming schedule includes three primetime broadcasts, interactive talk shows, music and investigative reporting.
Producers strive to include men’s voices to engage in a dialogue between the sexes. Through social media and calls, listeners contribute and produce their owns stories, elevating women’s opinions and experiences to popular discourse.
Borgstedt’s goal is to create inspiration: “You feature women engineers and journalists. Other women never thought they could do that. You want them to be able to dream, to do things they never thought they could.”
An entrepreneur’s mentality: How Womanity Has Reached Success
Borgstedt’s background as an entrepreneur has impacted how Womanity operates, “It’s like we are creating startups. We’re willing to do things that others are not–in terms of taking risks–because we’re smaller. If it works, other people can run with it.”
Investing in women is not only morally right but also a smart business decision. For every year of education, a girl completes past the fourth grade, her wages increase by 20%, and her family size decreases by the same amount. When 10% more girls attend school, a country’s GDP increases 3%. Women who graduate high school are twice as likely to send their children to school, and three times less likely to contract HIV.
Projects address the particular needs of each population. In Morocco, it’s keeping girls in school. In Afghanistan, it was a “School in a Box.” In Palestine, a radio station that reaches women directly in their homes. And these are only a few of Womanity’s programs around the world.
There remains a common thread through all the projects: “It’s about creating role models,” says Borgstedt. “Their reality needs to change. By creating inspiration in their own context, you give women and girls the ability to dream”, he concludes.
Learn more about the Womanity Foundation here. ■