I’m pleased to say that my new workplace, Kasha, has been keeping me busy these past few weeks. I’m finally over the hump of not having any work to do and despite not being paid (yet!), I love the opportunity of working directly with a women’s health company operating in Rwanda.
So far, I’ve met with the primarily Rwandan staff—all of whom are amazing, talented people—and started collaborating on several projects. Mainly, I’ve been assisting with strengthening their health content, primarily surrounding family planning products/contraceptives. They offer health workshops to several populations—youth, university students, and rural women’s groups—so I’m working with them to develop formalized training curriculum for those workshops as well as pushing them to include interactive training activities to make the workshops fun and engaging. I’m also offering content for their social media platforms, creating guides for the ladies working the call center to make sure they’re offering up-to-date, factual information about family planning products, and writing documents to share with NGOs and other future partner organizations to share about Kasha’s work. They are also hoping to expand their product line into refugee camps so I’ve been tasked with brainstorming ideas and creating a strategic plan for the refugee program with the lead staff member on that project.
Basically, I get to sit around and talk about birth control all day long—so I’m in heaven.
Talking about family planning in Rwanda is a huge challenge because the topic is so taboo. (I conducted some research about 4 years ago on the reproductive health program at a youth center in a suburb of Kigali that explored the attitudes and methods of teaching—check it out if you’re interested! http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2644&context=isp_collection). In developing curriculum for Kasha, I’ve run into some barriers that remind me that Rwanda is still a conservative culture in terms of reproductive health. When we do health workshops at schools, we’re not allowed to teach about condoms or contraceptives—instead, we focus on STIs (sexually transmitted infections), other vaginal infections (most people we talk to have never heard of yeast infections! Imagine how many untreated women are walking around with incredibly painful vaginas!), and the “dangers” of teen pregnancy. When we talk about how to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies, we’re supposed to tell the youth that they should simply refrain from having sex. I cringe at this abstinence-only approach, which I know is super ineffective (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/ ) but understand that organizations like Kasha have to navigate those barriers in order to continue operating in certain sectors, i.e. schools. I’m trying to push the limits (of course) by changing the language to say “Protect yourself” generally and “Refrain from sexual activity—try kissing, hugging, holding hands instead!” to keep it positive (not shaming or scaring students) and fact-based (without actually ever being allowed to say “condom”). It’s tricky.
Last week, I got to shadow some Kasha staff during a health training workshop they offered in a rural suburb about 40 minutes from our office in Kigali. I was once again literally in my personal heaven as we sat in a circle on the grass with about twenty women and their combined 9 babies crawling between us and talked about feminine hygiene and birth control. Of course it was all in Kinyarwanda but I was able to witness the women’s reactions and the methods of teaching the staff were using to better advise on improvements. They say they want me to teach one day so they can take notes on my teaching style/methods to improve their own content delivery—I’m excitedly awaiting the day.
I also got to shadow an event at a local university where Kasha staff set up a booth displaying their soaps, lotions, pads, tampons, and deodorants to sell to students. Kasha has a team of interns who are stellar saleswomen so I mostly observed and wrote down names if we were able to convince a student to get a monthly subscription for our products. The extent of my success was speaking with a young guy interested in condoms and letting him use my phone to browse Kasha’s condom selection. He was pretty shocked by my knowledge of lubricant (which Kasha sells but he’d never heard of before) and I got him to buy my recommendation for condoms—who knew I’d be using my feminine wiles to convince guys to protect themselves. 😉
I also got to sit in on a presentation for the whole staff on marketing strategy and the overall direction of Kasha as a business, which was pretty cool. They just completed a big research project on attitudes about reproductive health in Rwanda and how customers are engaging with Kasha products and the results were pretty fascinating. Apparently, buying pads is still pretty taboo, and girls and women alike feel uncomfortable and embarrassed to purchase products. Most women buy their pads at local stores and they say the experience is terrible—the store owners are men and can’t offer information on which type of pad would be best, often the stores have men who hang out and drink beer in them (sold by the store) who watch as girls and women try to purchase their pads (read: no confidentiality), a lot of times the storeowners run out of bags so customers have to hide the pads under their shirts as they walk home, and more often than not “the pads are next to the potatoes” (their words) and get dirty. Unfortunately, the attitudes about girls accessing family planning information or products are disheartening—there’s still a lot of shame and fear and punishment if a girl is “found out” to have a condom, etc. However, it’s neat to be part of an organization dedicated to slowly breaking down this stigma and brainstorming “sneaky” ways to provide access to products in ways that are safe, convenient, and confidential.
I’m still getting used to office life—case management in refugee resettlement didn’t offer much down time so I’m having to adjust to staring at a computer screen for most of the day. Luckily I have a hubby who works on a computer all day long too, so he’s got some tips. I’ve also created my own standing desk, which amuses my Rwandan coworkers, but I think it’s great—it’s on our office porch so I get to overlook the city and trick myself into thinking I’m outside. Office life in Kigali is also a bit different than in the US—the pace of work is slower, schedules and meetings aren’t as organized (getting coworkers to use Google calendar is rough), and more often than not meetings don’t start on time or get rescheduled multiple times. But overall, I’m so pleased to be working here and I’m excited to see where it leads.