When I joined BSR four and a half years ago and began managing HERproject, I remember wondering how impactful the program could really be. HERproject is a women's health-education program that uses the factory setting and a peer-educator methodology to disseminate general and reproductive health information to female workers. Factories are notorious for not giving adequate time or resources to initiatives like ours, and the distribution of information within the female workforce depends on the initiative, intelligence, and commitment of overworked and undereducated female factory workers.
Last week in Bangladesh, I was privileged to witness again the amazing impact our project is having all over the world, despite these barriers. Moreover, the female workers who serve as health educators, called shaystho shokhis ("health friends") in the local language, are achieving impacts beyond the walls of the factories where they work, becoming true health ambassadors to their community. During visits to their factories, they recounted some of their stories to me.
Twenty-two-year-old Monibey, whose name means "valuable things", is a sewing operator in a Chittagong garment factory. Just like the other shaystho shokhis HERproject has trained in Bangladesh, Monibey has shared what she's learned with her colleagues, sisters, children, friends, and neighbors. HERproject, Monibey said, "Makes me feel like a teacher, like a mother, like a guardian."
Monibey told me she now wants to become a community health worker. In fact, she already is one.
It was clear from our visit that the shaystho shokhis have done an impressive job educating their colleagues. Women we interviewed told us about the four pre-natal doctor visits shaystho shokhis told them they should make to have a safe and healthy pregnancy, the five vaccinations that are required for their newborn babies, and the value of having small families. They told us how their diets have changed at home, and how improved hygiene and menstrual management has led to relief from the pain and shame they previously suffered.
And the shaystho shokhis are spreading their messages beyond the factory gates too.
Sheema, 31, a shaystho shokhi at a different factory, was married by her family at age 15. She now has two daughters, 8 and 12, and her husband is a migrant worker in Bahrain. Above all, she said, she is proud to be able to share all the information she learns with her daughters.
Because of what her mother has taught her, Sheema's 12-year-old daughter has taught other girls at her school that they must take baths during their menstrual cycles to keep clean and free of infection. In doing so, she is dispelling generations of stigma: In many parts of the developing world, girls and women believe that taking a bath during their menstrual cycle will make their skin turn black, cause their hair to fall out, and make them infertile. As a result, they do not practice proper hygiene, making themselves more vulnerable to reoccurring and painful reproductive infections that can increase their risk of contracting reproductive cancers and compromise maternal health.
HERproject gave these women the simple information that a mother should be able to give her daughter. With that, these women and their daughters are changing their lives and those of the people around them.