Have you ever read a headline on the news about the plight of women in another country and felt a mix of hopelessness and helplessness? Or read one of Nicholas Kristof’s illuminating op-ed pages in the New York Times and wonder what on earth you can do to ease the suffering of people so far away? Well, if so, have I got a book for you!
My friend and fellow author Betsy Teutsch has just published an inspiring and empowering book, 100 Under $100: One Hundred Tools for Empowering Global Women. I am so excited by Betsy’s achievement that I want to share her and her book with you in this revealing interview.
How did you come to write this book? Have you written a book before?
I coauthored a book, The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, twenty years ago, which is a whole different subject matter than my new book 100 under $100. I knew I wanted more control over the publication process, a hallmark of my new publisher, She Writes Press.
Like many baby boomer women, I went through many transitions in my fifties—my children left the nest, giving me added time and flexibility. I was working part time at my Judaica art business, and around the same time, I fell in love with blogging. In time, I landed a part-time gig that magically combined two of my interests: eco-smart technology and microfinance. I loved immersing myself in learning and writing about poverty alleviation via solar panels or improved cookstoves. I quickly learned that although women were users of much of the tech, they were missing from its design or dissemination. Women’s empowerment leaders focus on improving health care, expanding girls’ education, and female financial inclusion but aren’t demanding labor-saving devices to lessen girls’ and women’s daily drudgery—how will women be empowered when they literally have no electrical power? This is the area I decided to focus on—the intersection of affordable tech and women’s empowerment.
I jumped in by looking for images of women working in what is called “humanitarian tech”; it turned out there are lots of them. I experimented with creating Pinterest boards to display images of women engaged in all manner of activity: water testing, solar energy, maternal health, integrating cellphones with mapping female harassment—amazing stories. After a few weeks of treasure hunting, I looked at all these amazing images and stories and realized: wow, these women are a book! A book that shares visuals of women creating and distributing affordable solutions to the poverty traps that hold women back. It took three years, but now it is indeed the book 100 Under $100.
How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
I developed the criteria during the two-year research process. There is a lot of “solution-hype” out there, claiming a breakthrough that solves an old problem, but despite a huge buzz, it doesn’t actually work. So, I didn’t include a solution unless there was second-party verification of its legitimacy. The exception is promising pilots, but I am always careful to say pilots are unproven.
The tools needed to be understandable and accessible to lay readers and used by households in daily life, so for example, an app for clinics to diagnose diseases via cellphones is not included. The tools also needed to be replicable and not overly specific to unique circumstances, like a padded donkey saddle for laboring women designed by an Afghani man, which just didn’t make the cut.
Lastly, the tools needed to engage women.
Does your book include tools for empowering women in the United States as well?
My focus is on low-resource regions lacking electrical, fuel, water/sanitation, and digital infrastructures. However, there are several initiatives mentioned in the book that are applicable to America’s low-income citizens. Here are some examples:
- Many low-income Americans are unbanked, meaning they pay much higher fees for financial transactions than wealthier people do. Mobile banking is far less robust here than, say, in Kenya, whose model we could adopt.
- Cheap information and communication technology (ICT) tools, like video, are used to invite women to directly capture their stories and experiences, a process called participatory video. This technique is used very powerfully by Drexel University’s Witness to Hunger initiative.
- People are shocked to learn many American Navajo citizens are without grid electricity. Solar lights are marketed there by Elephant Energy, featured in the book.
The cover of your book is beautiful—can you tell me a bit about it? Has the woman who is on the cover seen the book?
Vijaylaxmi Sharma resisted a forced marriage at thirteen. She and her family were ostracized, but she stayed in school and excelled, becoming a teacher. Now an activist for eradicating forced girls’ marriage, she is sought after by village mothers who are considering postponing their daughters’ marriage ages. This photo is from PhotoShare, a Johns Hopkins University humanitarian data base. She does not know she is on the cover and becoming an icon for women’s empowerment! Through social media, I have tried to locate her. I hope to send her a copy one day.
What was your biggest surprise in doing this research?
I was shocked and outraged to learn two crucial facts about abortion around the world. The first fact is that in the first nine weeks, all it takes is two pills from the pharmacy to end a pregnancy. Misoprostol/Mifepristone together costs very little, is safe, and if there are complications, women can seek medical help similar to following a miscarriage. Making it difficult to access the medications adds hassle, trauma, and expense. This is true in the United States as well, by the way.
The second outrageous fact is that when abortions are restricted, like in many Catholic countries, or just generally unavailable due to fragile health structures in corrupt/impoverished nations, the death rate from unsafe abortions (from infections or internal injuries) is 350 times what it is in America! Mostly for lack of two pills. This is a supreme injustice. And many of those women are aborting because they have too many children already, and now those kids are motherless.
How do you think writing this book has changed you, and what has the writing process taught you about yourself?
It has shown me that it is possible to connect with people all around the world to help improve women’s lives. Someone from India just tweeted me a question. Amazing, really. Also, it showed me how much I could accomplish if I worked hard and focused my energy, instead of using it in little dribs and drabs for a multitude of projects. But this summer, I do intend to go to the beach!
Do you have a specific goal in mind for publishing this book, for instance are you trying to raise a certain amount of money or increase involvement?
My goal is impact—to provide resources for the initiatives highlighted in the book, to educate readers of all ages about the problems, the solutions, and how they might get involved. The book is available on Amazon, but some of the highlighted initiatives are book partners; I am fulfilling orders directly and contributing 30 percent to the organization. I consider that a terrific win-win!
What/who sustained you through the writing process?
The material was so compelling and interesting that really, I couldn’t wait to jump in every day. I loved the images, stories, and increasingly, the design/science issues, and how engineers overcome challenges of both materials and human quirks!
What wish, or wishes, do you have for your book?
I’d like to see it in the hands of every student who heads to the developing world for a service project. I’d like small foundations to use it for finding great initiatives they can fund or invest in. I’d like people to pick issues that are the most compelling to them and jump in as advocates.
What do you do when you’re not writing and promoting your book?
I am a huge walker and enjoy yoga and Nia dance. I have a new little granddaughter, Shulamit, who is thoroughly engaging. And truth be told, I love Facebook.
Thank you, Betsy. You are as inspiring to me as the people you profile in your book.
So dear ones, please tell me:
Whether at home or abroad, how will you make a difference today?
Photo Credit: Paul Pruitt