Category: Current Issues

* This post was first published on the Ashoka Start Empathy Blog on April 7, 2014.

One of my most vivid memories from my early childhood comes from a family trip to Costa Rica. I remember checking into our hotel that provided the many luxuries I was accustomed to in the US, and climbing the steps to our second floor room with a balcony view of the city. Expecting the view to be as lovely as the hotel, I was shocked to look out and see endless rows of shantytown homes made of assorted pieces of scrap metal and plastic tarps. It was a bustling area with people moving in and out of the homes, selling goods on the street, and running their errands. I couldn’t imagine that many of these people I was seeing had to live in these deplorable conditions. To a ten year old American, their homes looked like something I might build in my backyard for fun, but were unimaginable to actually call these a home where people lived. I remember feeling deeply saddened by this sight and also guilty for looking down at it from my nice hotel balcony, and the eventual thought of leaving here to return to my family’s large, four bedroom home.

I believe this is one of my earliest memories of feeling empathy towards others and it greatly shaped my life. Starting in middle school and continuing through high school, I volunteered regularly in my community and largely with organizations addressing the needs of Latino migrant workers. I immediately connected with this cause because the image of poor living conditions in Costa Rica remained with me, and I understood why many of the people we served made the tough decision to leave their homes in search of better conditions. In college and later in graduate school, I studied international development so that I would have the skills and knowledge to contribute towards addressing the many social injustices in the world. And, I have followed a career path that has lead me to several amazing jobs in non-profits in the US and in Latin America.

I consider myself very fortunate for the opportunity to take a trip to Costa Rica. It is rare for someone at such a young age to have already had an experience that so greatly shaped not only their personal values, but also their education and career track. I wasn’t that student who entered college undeclared or who changed their major each semester. I was lucky that my parents valued cultural awareness and international experiences, and had the financial means to provide me the opportunity to travel abroad when I was still just in elementary school. This is an experience that most youth are not afforded until college, and even then, it is limited by financial constraints. So, how do we provide our youth with similar exposure to international issues, especially the extremities of the developing world, when not everyone has the means to travel?

The internet is an easy and obvious answer. But, google-ing images of foreign places and reading the news are not going to address this gap between those who can and those who cannot have international experiences. Instead, young people need to feel connected to a different country that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. This means interacting with the people, hearing directly from them the conditions and daily livelihood of their countries, sharing experiences and knowledge, and ultimately finding ways to use that exposure to take action and make an impact in addressing these issues. While the ideal situation would be for every young person to get the experience to spend time abroad, this is not realistic. But, with structured curriculum and mentoring, we can still provide a similar opportunity using the internet.

I work with a Maryland based non-profit called e-collaborate that connects high school students to NGOs all over the developing world through a virtual internship. Students interact directly with the staff at their assigned NGO through Skype calls, instant messaging, and email. They conduct background research on their country of placement to gain an understanding of the issues that the NGO is addressing and the population that they are serving. The personal connection and interaction, in addition to the exposure, is the key to building empathy. So far, the students and the NGO staff have hit it off instantly. This is complemented with the student making an impact by completing meaningful work assignments that support the goals of the NGO. For example, one student made a short film for an organization in Egypt that explains the work that they do, which will be used to attract more visitors and potential donors to their website. Another student is researching and writing articles for Fair Trade blogs to help increase the profile of an organization in Guatemala that works with women weavers. These experiences not only expose students to the issues of the developing world, but give them the opportunity and the skills to make a difference.

It is our goal that this experience empowers youth to continue exploring inequalities and finding ways to address the injustices around the world. Hopefully, by being engaged virtually, this will encourage young people to also volunteer in-person in their own communities and to develop a life-long sense of service. While not everyone will chose to study these issues in college or to pursue a career in it like I did, it will make them more empathetic to others around them and foster global citizenship that understands and embraces the different conditions, cultures, and beliefs in the world. With this, we will hope for a more just and peaceful world; and it is our responsibility to level the playing field so that all young people have the opportunity to have such meaningful and rich experiences to shape their lives and build their character.

-Beth Davis




After completing Water 401 with the Asian Studies classes at Churchill High School, e-collaborate staff sat down with their teacher, Ms. John, to discuss best practices, lessons learned, and the challenges of adapting the eKWIP Challenge curriculum to fit her classroom needs. Watch this video to learn how the lesson was received by her students and her suggestions for other instructors.

The e-collaborate team with author Homa Sabet Tavangar.

The e-collaborate team with author Homa Sabet Tavangar

Today was a good day. It was an interesting day and overall our first event as e-collaborate was a success.  We hosted author Homa Sabet Tavangar at Busboys and Poets on 5th and K Street for a lunch event and had a great turnout! We were so happy that so many people were able to see Carolyne from Maury Elementary and Laura from Ashoka’s Empathy initiative, speak about their work.  It was also wonderful to share our story about how we began and the journey of how we got to where we are today. 

 After I explained e-collaborate, I had the honor to introduce Homa to the crowd.  Homa took the stage with grace and confidence, the same qualities I admired about her when the e-collaborate team saw her speak at a conference last year.  Curve balls kept getting thrown our way, but Homa handled them quite well, even when the fire alarm went off during her presentation (I guess this will be an event our guests remember for a long time!)

 As expected, Homa shared wonderful pictures and anecdotes about raising her three girls and living in many different countries. She captivated the audience with her stories and left a lasting impression. To me the best part of the day was after the presentation when many members of the community from the audience came up to us to say that they now understand what we do and were happy to be part of the conversation on global citizenship.  One of my former colleagues mentioned how much there is to learn on the topic and how much more there is to explore.  One of the best things about Growing Up Global is that it offers tangible ways to make your family more aware of the world that surrounds them.  It offers different perspectives and makes it easy to engage by trying simple things you already do on a daily basis with a small twist. 

 Again, I would like to thank everyone who came, donated, or just wished us luck on this event. I would also like to thank Homa for coming down to DC and sharing her story.  We had a great time talking about our ideas with the community and I look forward to sharing our next event with you. 

Naina Boveja

Executive Director and Co-founder of e-collaborate

Jose and Lucila working on their film project with Donna.

Jose and Lucila working on their film project with Donna.

The Mayan population in Guatemala has experienced centuries of oppression and violence. The Peace Accords that ended a 36 year war and genocide of the indigenous population occurred in 1996. There are ongoing efforts for restorative justice for the crimes against humanity, but racism still runs deep and it is a difficult battle to find justice. This history has impacted both the traditional culture and the psyche of the Mayan population. Many traditional practices have been lost or evolved into a blend of Mayan and Spanish tradition. The Mayan people often are made to feel inferior and as second class citizens. However, there is an effort to restore many cultural practices and to build an understanding and respect of indigenous history.

“Unlocking Silent Histories,” a project by education and technology expert Donna DeGennaro, uses film and an anthropological lens to address this issue. She works with indigenous youth to explore how they are historically portrayed in documentary films. Donna encourages the youth to question this portrayal. Through discussions, they think about how they would actually like to be portrayed and what is an accurate picture of their culture and history. She then works with the youth to create their own documentary about their cultural heritage and history. This includes developing a story line, shaping interview questions, learning film techniques, and video editing.

While she provides the tools and skills to complete the documentary, the young filmmakers independently identify the stories that are most important to them personally to tell and they come to their own conclusions in the storyline of the film. For example, one student focused on lost traditions in her community. After starting to film, she found that religion was a large part of the decline in indigenous culture and is now focusing the storyline of her film around that central thesis.

I went with Donna to San Juan, one of the communities she works in, to visit her students and see the program in action. Our first stop was Jose’s house. He had newly recorded film clips that he wanted to show Donna and upload to her computer. Jose explained the concept of his film as “the mountains.” At first I was not clear what that meant. He showed us some clips he had taken of his mother using natural dye to make the thread for her weaving work and other film clips of women weaving using the traditional back-strap method. He explained that the cotton used for the thread and the different colors of dye comes from the mountains surrounding their community. The tradition of weaving, which is the main source of work for local women and the source of production for all traditional clothing, is at risk because there is so much environmental degradation happening in the mountains. Due to lack of economic opportunities, many people cut down trees, which leads to deforestation. This has a trickle effect on all the natural resources needed to maintain the weaving tradition.

Another purpose of the visit to San Juan was to prepare for the upcoming community festival. The festival included a naming of the new “Queen of San Juan.” The current Queen hosts a party at her family’s home and invites the Queens from all surrounding communities to attend. This marks the end of her reign and the beginning of the new one. There is a traditional dance and a parade through town, as well as typical carnival rides and games like a ferris wheel and more. Several other of the young filmmakers joined us and worked out a plan for filming the weekend’s activities to include in their documentaries.

While walking around with the film group, I discovered many unique qualities of the town. It was clear that this was an artist community. There were beautiful murals on most buildings and the weavings being sold on the street carried designs and colors that were very different from what you typically see in Guatemala. It was also a very traditional town. I heard more of the local indigenous language being spoken on the street than Spanish, and I do not think I saw a single woman not in traditional clothing. I also felt a strong sense of community there. Typically, homes have large fences around them with spiky tops to protect against intruders. In San Juan, the neighborhoods were much more open. Jose explained that the community members watch out for each other and protect their neighbors against crime. It is part of their pride for their town. He said there had only been one incident in the past year and that the culprit was an outsider. This is really incredible given the high rates of crime and violence that most of Guatemala experiences.

In just the few short hours I spent with the group, I learned a lot about the history and culture of San Juan. I witnessed the pride and excitement that the young filmmakers were putting into their project. This project is a really significant opportunity for them to share with the world what it means to be indigenous in Guatemala and to share their own history and culture through their eyes. It is an empowering experience for a group so accustomed to oppression and outsiders trying to erase their history and culture. They are telling their story in their own way and reclaiming history through the modern technology of film. Quite ironic that modern technology is a means to preserve an ancient culture and tradition, no?

~Beth Davis, Manager of Educational Programs

The tremendous stress and quick rate of destruction that we inflict on the Earth make global Earth Day celebrations extremely important. Earth Day provides an opportunity to educate people on issues facing the environment and encourage them to take action. It is an opportunity to build new environmental activists and foster a global movement to protect the Earth. As seen in many of the Earth Day celebrations around the world, people are using this day to protest corporate destruction of natural resources or to recruit new volunteers to clean up parks and waterways. There are countless ways to get involved and make an impact.

This year, the theme of Earth Day is “the face of climate change.”  Earth Day organizers encourage people around the world to share their photos, showing the different faces working to improve the environment. By linking the people to the cause, greater connectedness is felt and there is a sense of collaboration. As explained by Bryan Buchanan, spokesman for the Earth Day Network, “[climate change] has real consequences for real people, as well as places that we love and animals. We want to bring this massive problem down to size. It makes everyone who’s doing their part (no matter how small) feel connected to the bigger environmental movement.”

eKWIP Challenge does this year round.  The program raises awareness and encourages students to take action to solve contemporary environmental issues like the global water crisis, which contributes to climate change. Through sharing photos, videos, and more, students put a face to others like them who are taking action to learn about the environment and find solutions to end the destruction against it. The Challenge builds collaboration and makes the problem real, with real people sharing their personal experiences with their own environment.

To get involved this Earth Day, go to the new eKWIP Challenge website and sign up for one of our courses on the global water crisis. Educate yourself and other students about environmental issues and connect with likeminded people around the world that are working for a better future for the environment and for the world.


Anderson, Nick. “Earth Day 2013 focuses on climate change” Washington Post. April 21, 2013

I recently participated in an online forum called Women and Social Media: Path to Freedom of Expression and Transforming Culture. The discussion was hosted on Google Hangout, live streamed on Youtube, and took participant questions from Twitter and Youtube posts. The forum included speakers from every region of the world – Mexico, Serbia, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Ghana with just as diverse participants tuning in to watch. It was a creative way to integrate many free online tools to connect people globally and share ideas.

It was discussed that the internet is an easy form of democracy because it is a tool for empowerment and informed choices. People can use the internet to learn more about proposed policy or political actors. It can take away any myths or misconceptions. Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter also empower people to be more active citizens by connecting people with similar interests and passions, and mobilizing them to act collectively. There are also opportunities for more traditional educational tools like online mentoring programs.

All of the presenters noted how important social media is in the work that they do. With social media being a fundamental component of many professions, not only those in the social sector, it is important that young people start learning how to use it responsibly and for reasons outside of merely chatting with friends. It is a means to open doors professionally. For example, one panelist mentioned that she contributes regularly to many blogs and this opened doors for her in the journalism field with offers for different publications. It is important for young people to gain professional development opportunities online because they are easily available and required to make it in this wired world.

The importance of online security was also addressed. Young people need to learn the risks involved and be aware of online bullying. They need to be equipped with the ways to handle these situations and to know that there are ways to seek help if they experience or see online bullying. By providing young people with safe outlets to connect and share experiences with others, this risk is reduced. Programs such as eKWIP teach young people how to use the internet responsibly and for positive reasons so that they do not fall into the riskier aspects of the internet.

-Beth Davis

With so many recent books and articles documenting the rapid and unyielding rise in female educational attainment in the U.S., and the simultaneous fall in male education (The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin being the most prominent example), it is easy to forget about gaps in educational access and attainment in the developing world.

While educational equality in the U.S. and other western nations is sometimes an illusion since societal discrimination steers women to lower-paying and less prestigious careers, the inflammatory  wage differential pales in comparison to the issues that face girls and women in many areas of the developing world. Gender equality should be a goal in every aspect of development and public policy, but educational equity is doubly important because it is successful women more than gender legislation that is effective in changing social norms and perceptions. If women continue to be subjugated in the educational system, they will continue to be subjugated in their professional and personal lives as well, because for better or worse the economic value of women is tied to how valued they are as a member of their community and family.

Despite its centrality to success later in life, being a woman is a distinct disadvantage in the developing world. Although gender equity in education is a development goal that has been in vogue the last couple of decades, women still make up the majority of children who don’t go to primary school. In fact, of the 137 million young people that are illiterate in the world, two thirds are women (Kat Banyard, 2010), it is not coincidental then, that 70 percent of those living in extreme poverty (less than $1 per day) are women (Because I am a Girl: The State of the World’s Girls 2007 Report; Plan UK).

There are myriad reasons why women are educationally underachieving as compared to their male counterparts in the developing world; in many countries school is not publicly provided, and in the places that it is, the costs of school supplies preclude the possibility of attendance; parents are often forced to choose between educating their sons and educating their daughters, and in patriarchal cultures, that isn’t a tough choice; and familial caring obligations are also a key reason. None of these reasons are to be discounted in their magnitude, but perhaps the most insidious of all obstacles women face when pursuing an education is sexual harassment. The many challenges to intellectual betterment do not explain the gap in female education completely, and while poverty and family obligations are not gender-exclusive obstacles, sexual and physical harassment is.

According to the World Health Organization, school is the most common place where sexual harassment against women occurs. In Zimbabwe, an Amnesty International survey found that 92% of school-aged girls had been sexually propositioned by men or boys at or on the way to school. For women who have the opportunity to go to school, where is the incentive when they are faced with such rampant and overt sexual harassment. This obstacle to education is so unique and devastating because when women leave school because of the harassment that they face (usually with no consequences, because “boys will be boys” is still a shockingly accepted rationalization), it seems like it is a personal choice, when it’s not really.

This false choice brings us full circle, and connects educational equality in the Global North to that in the Global South; the largest barrier to equality is the current inequality. In the Western world women are steered into low paying jobs, and then gender gaps are explained away by saying that they are personal choices. While this is a significantly better problem to have than those facing many in the developing world, the root problem is often the same: women opt out of the highest quality education which will lead them to the most lucrative and prestigious careers, but they do so not out of personal agency, but because society conditions them to. Gender inequality should never be tolerated, but it is most pernicious when it precludes women from accessing the one good that has the power to change cultural perceptions: education.

– Karis McGill


Students Participating in Walk for Water, India

Students Participating in Walk for Water, India

On the 30th of January 2013, the 11th grade students at GDGWS set up a “Walk for Water” campaign to spread awareness about the shortages of clean water and informed young students about the need to save water. This was done through various activities with students of Primary and Middle school.

Students were told about the importance of clean water to living beings and to the environment. Banners were made, showing how water plays a big part in everyone’s lives and the importance of saving it. Banners including slogans were also put up.

The students took a walk around the school campus shouting slogans on saying water and holding up placards and banners which said the same. This was done to spread awareness to the issue of wastage of clean water and the need to conserve it.

Other activities included a brief quiz conducted by the 11th grade students for the 6th grade students, asking questions about the use of water in India, regarding how water is, and should be, used. The students were reminded again to remember to save water through minor changes in the way they use water daily. The band from the 11th grade also performed a self-composed song on saving water, making the campaign much more interesting.

-Shikharjeet, eKWIP Student

While e-collaborate focuses on educational issues, it is important to grasp the cyclical nature of global human and economic development. Separate facets of the development process do not exist in a vacuum, but rather progress in one area is related to and reinforced by progress in others. Some sectors have been shown to have particularly high multiplier effects on the development process. Aid to and investment in agriculture is one such sector.

Although historically aid to agriculture made up a large part of official development assistance, investment in agriculture as a share of the international aid budget, and as a share of domestic budgets in the developing world has been decreasing. That is a worrying trend because of the interconnectedness between agriculture and all other development goals. The pro-poor impact of investment in agriculture makes it an essential part of a successful development agenda. Since small-scale farmers are among the most economically disenfranchised people in the world, and agriculture is the single largest global employment sector, increasing the livelihoods of agricultural workers would drastically reduce poverty rates. Aid to agriculture has also shown much higher rates of return on investment than other types of aid, both in terms of overall economic growth and in poverty reduction.

Since agriculture in the developing world is still primarily undertaken by women, it is also centrally connected to gender empowerment and equity. Improving the lives and incomes of women benefits the entire family, as women have been proved to be more likely to spend their income on health and educational purchases than men are.

An efficient global or national agricultural system can ensure that all citizens have access to the amount of calories, nutrients and micronutrients they need to be as successful and productive as possible and to avoid physical and mental stunting. Access to sufficient calories and nutrients can also ensure a plethora of positive changes, improved infant and maternal health, and increased educational attainment.

The solutions to development issues are as complicated as the problems themselves. Thus, in undertaking development projects it is important to examine the interconnectedness of the root causes. Just as investment in agriculture can and does lead to increased education attainment, non-investment inhibits educational prospects. While we continue to provide educational tools and experiences around the world, education initiatives need to be carried out in the context of larger investments in agriculture and other important sectors, because a tool ceases to be effective when the target populations aren’t sufficiently empowered to take advantage of them.

Guatemala is currently ranked the most violent country against women in Latin America and has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. In 2008, 39,400 cases of domestic violence were reported and nearly 700 cases of sexual violence are reported each month.  In 2010, the Public Ministry received more than 40,000 reports of violence against women, in addition to reported domestic violence cases.  With less than a two percent conviction rate for sexual violence against women and only 11 people convicted for the over 5,000 femicide/feminicide cases that occurred between 2000-2009, women clearly do not have full citizenship rights in the country as they cannot adequately use the legal system and policy for their protection. There is an unequal power dynamic that favors men, both culturally and politically. This is also seen in the landscape of the country’s politics, with one of the lowest percentages of female representation in all Latin American governments. Only 14.5% of elected officials are women and these numbers are even worse for indigenous women. While roughly 20% of the country is comprised of indigenous women, they represent 3% of local candidates and 2% nationally for government office. In fact, illiterate women only regained the right to vote in 1985, which prior to was a means to suppress the vote of many indigenous women and exclude them from the most basic form of political participation.

I interviewed Mildre Yaxon, an indigenous Guatemalan woman, on her experiences working to empower women and her thoughts on women in politics in the country. I entered the discussion with my own conceptions of the machismo culture excluding women from the political arena and the difficult task of eroding this long-held social and cultural system if we are to see a change in women’s rights.  However, Mildre had a much more optimistic and probable solution, which is through greater access to education and empowering young people to use their voice.  While many of us might see education as solely a means to children’s economic future, it also addresses many other social issues and is a very practical step in addressing the gender disparities in highly unequal societies. It also shows the importance of women’s rights and advocacy groups to reach out to a variety of sectors. There are many organizations providing education and basic services to youth. We must begin to build a bridge between those organizations and rights based organizations to see the change we want in the future.

Interview with Mildre Yaxon:
How involved are women in politics in Guatemala?

I would say it is probably less than 1 percent but there are intentions to change this. It used to be zero. It does exist and there are women that have the ideology that they can be part of this type of decision making. Women have more opportunities now. In the past, there were women leaders but in an informal way, and the machismo did not allow them to participate formally. Now it is sometimes women that do not support female leaders and it is not part of their conscious that they should help support other women be leaders. Sometimes, instead of supporting women in politics, we criticize them and do not lift them up. The majority of the country is women so it should not be like this. There is not equilibrium in power even though we are the majority.

What do you think keeps women from being more involved?

In the past it was a lack of formal education. Many women participate in community capacity trainings but not formal education, unless they have the drive to express what they want and to work with groups of people in this area to achieve education. Their academic status hurts them from participating in formal politics. It is hard for women to be able to study. It was also the family’s decision if their daughter went to school. Now more young people are demanding education and this will change things for women.

How can we help more indigenous women excel in politics?

A lot of it is changing the family structure.  We need to teach our children to make their own decisions and to pursue higher education. This does not necessarily mean that we need to raise kids to be more independent from the family because that goes against our culture. But, it is hard for our young people to move away from their families to go to university because this is not an accepted practice. And then if they are able to leave for university, they are not used to expressing their opinions and having a voice. It makes them less able to participate in classrooms and do well in university. It starts as children to be empowered by your family to speak up and express yourself. Women need more education and the confidence to pursue it and use their voice.

Some scholars have argued that the lack of speaking out and having a voice is carried over from the war where it was dangerous to do so. Do you think this is true and still relevant for today’s youth in Guatemala?

I am 26 (the war officially ended when Mildre was 10) and it is still hard for me to speak out and use my voice to express myself.  It is not a fear left over from the war, but a shame because I grew up feeling like I am not valued and I lacked self-esteem, and often still do. It is hard to feel like others would want to hear my opinions or would care what I have to say. The younger kids today do not seem to be the same. They say more and yell in the streets.

What motivated you to help empower indigenous women?

My life experiences since I was a child. I was mistreated.  There was a lot of violence, and depression came from this. We did not have money to buy decent clothes and other kids laughed at me. This was all a big motivation to decide to work directly with women. My mom was a big motivation because she suffered a lot, but I saw the determination and personal growth in her. She never studied in school, but it never slowed her down from seeking more in life. She always wanted to learn more and participated in many capacity building opportunities provided by local organizations. She worked hard to achieve what she did. Her experience helped me a lot by opening more opportunities and guiding me. She was a leader in the community and of other groups, even on the municipal level at one point. This influenced how I think today and motivated me to study and to want a family. I could have been scared of the violence that could come with having a family because of what I witnessed through my mom’s experience, but she told me things would be different for me.  She advised me a lot and helped to make me strong and fight for other women. I know there are many other women like my mom, who even though uneducated, are great leaders when given the chance. I want to give women these opportunities as pay back to my mom for what she has done for me. We cannot change everything, but we can change the lives of a few. That is my passion and what I hope to accomplish.

It makes me happy to know that in other countries there are organizations and women that want to know more about us and our experiences. It is like planting a seed to do something good and to make a change. Women are the most vulnerable group in the world, and we need a lot of support to change this. I look at you and others that are fighting for women in many other places. It is like we are building a chain around the world that is connecting us to support women everywhere.


Bellino, Michelle.  “Feminicide and Silence in “Postwar” Guatemala” Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard Vol. 7 2009-2010

Borzutzky, Silvia and Carinne Ogrodnik.  “Women under Attack: Violence and Poverty in Guatemala”  Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 12., No. 1  2011

Carey Jr., David and M. Gabriela Torres.  “Precursors to Femicide: Guatemalan Women in a Vortex of Violence”  Latin American Research Review Vol. 45, No. 3 2010

Carlsen, Laura. “From Survivors to Defenders: Women Confronting Violence in Mexico, Honduras & Guatemala” Novel Women’s Initiative and JASS (Just Associates) 2012