I started advocating for women’s rights long before I really realized what I was doing, or why. Through my career as a publicist, I’ve worked with philanthropic clients such as The Lady Godiva Program, FEED, Empowered by You, and Visit.org. I usually get involved with organizations that focus on women’s empowerment, the cause nearest and dearest to my heart. I even had the honor of speaking at the 2014 Georgetown University Women in Leadership Summit about the impact of the fashion industry. Through my role at Lividini & Co. I supported Women in Need and worked with my clients to create a closet so that the women will have access to interview appropriate clothing when they were ready to enter the professional world. At Covenant House in New York City, I would conduct creative activities for the young mothers. In New York City I would also visit my neighborhood hospital to make greeting cards with women who suffer from mental disabilities. In Los Angeles, I volunteered at homeless shelters preparing meals. I’d been trying to find ways to give back to my community throughout my entire adult life and did plenty of volunteering as a child too.
Through my many travels, I’ve been exposed to the global epidemic of basic human rights violations for women and girls. I’ve met incredibly strong women who’ve survived unimaginable domestic violence, rape, and inhumane labor. I’ve learned the stories of others who were victim to these gender-based atrocities. Generally, men in the same places don’t face the same issues, their abilities aren’t limited because of their gender.
But before I started traveling full-time it was through my work with Empowered by You that I was exposed to the limitations many women in India face, especially those of the lower caste. For years I had hoped to be able to contribute my skills and marketing expertise to an organization that was making major strides for marginalized women in India. Years later when I suddenly found myself unemployed and without a visa in Italy I finally was in the right place in my life to start researching grassroots organizations that I felt were prioritizing the women’s needs, had clear goals, and strategies to improve their livelihood. It took me about six months to research NGOs that had a need for my skills, I was specifically seeking an opportunity to work with an organization that provided tactical vocational training to women as my career had been in fashion so my experience would be relevant and beneficial.
After endless hours of research, vetting, and candid conversations with the founder I booked flights to Jodhpur, India in Rajasthan to joined forces with Sambhali Trust for 3 months. The grassroots organization is a women’s empowerment program that is recognized by the UN and has been benefiting underserved women and children in Rajasthan, India for 10 years. The Trust focuses on the advancement, development, and empowerment of females in Rajasthan. The female beneficiaries of the Trust are suppressed by India’s patriarchal society which hinders their economic and social opportunities. The charity is committed to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty through social initiatives including empowerment centers, scholarship programs, sewing centers, education classes, self-help groups, and SOS projects. They also run a fair trade boutique where the artisan women they’ve trained can sell their beautiful, handmade goods.
These projects support a paradigm shift of helping women break a vicious cycle of poverty and financial dependence by teaching them valuable skills necessary for them to earn a living. During my time with the nonprofit, I worked full-time pro bono as the Communications Officer and developed communication outreach strategies including marketing, social media, partnerships, business development, branding, retail practice, press outreach, and fundraising. The purpose was to create a blueprint that the local staff at Sambhali Trust could then follow to continue communication efforts after I left the organization. These are all areas I was highly trained and skilled in through my career working in fashion public relations.
Rape culture is still very prominent in India from rural villages to major cities like Delhi. The whole world was in shock after the 2012 Delhi fatal gang rape of a young woman on a moving bus. Just this year the rape of an 8-month-old-baby-girl whose attacker was her cousin made international headlines. This month an eight-year-old Muslim girl was kidnaped, raped, and murdered in India. Every 15-minutes a woman is raped in India. Many who want to shift the conversation state that this isn’t a significant part of the population, but even one rape a year is a reason for outcry and cause for change. As a rape survivor, these atrocities infuriate me. Women remain in these dangerous situations due to their lack of economic independence, rooted in a lack of education. Sambhali Trust is working towards providing women a means to escape danger and be self-sufficient.
Rajasthan has the highest rate of female illiteracy (53%) and child marriages in India (the 2012-13 Annual health Survey produced that 51.2% of women aged 20-25 were married before the age of 18). Chances for rural women in the patriarchy to gain economic independence are slim. They’re often reliant on their husbands and in-laws for financial support. Girls are taken out of school once they begin to menstruate to help with caring for the household and are stripped of the necessary education to develop a fruitful career.
After the Women’s March, I also organized an empowerment workshop which I took around to each empowerment center to spark a tough discussion amongst the beneficiaries about the state of women in India. You can read more about this project here: Lessons from the Women’s March at Sambhali Trust. The resilience and pure determination of the women at Sambhali Trust restored my faith in humanity. I carry their spirit with me on my wrist in a Hindi tattoo I got in Jodhpur that reads नारी शक्ति, or nari shakti, which means woman power. The women would chant this uplifting mantra often echoed by powerful statements of zindaabaad, meaning forever. Women’s strength forever! Simouteanteously I got tattoos of the female Venus symbol, ♀, conveniently located on my inner middle finger, which I now lovingly refer to as my fucking feminist finger that gets released every time I pass a Trump hotel. The Rajasthani tattoo artist graced me with three other designs that afternoon including an equality symbol on my ear and a few others.
Helping women who’ve been mistreated has also provided me the means to heal my own wounds from abuse and discrimination that I’ve faced as a result of my sex. As the beloved Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” My motivation is simple: as a teenager, I was raped. A decade or so later I’ve finally transformed my pain into power and am driven to fight for gender equality.
Thank you, Denise Miller, for this candid shot of me with Didi Deepa Mehta!
During my time at Sambhali Trust, I also had the chance to connect with some fearless women who are using their craft to provide a platform for suppressed Indian women to tell their stories. The incredible gender rights activist and filmmaker Deepa Mehta screened her harrowing film the Anatomy of Violence which investigates the life events of each of the six men who gang-raped and murdered a young woman in New Delhi, India in 2012. Mehta is Canadian-Indian and was able to relate to the women of Sambhali Trust on an intimate level and inspire them to push past false boundaries that the patriarchal society has imposed on their gender. Mehta is best known for her Elemental Trilogy: Earth, Fire, Water. My interview with the humanitarian and Oscar nominee was published on Thrive Global.
Two other filmmakers came to Sambhali Trust during my volunteer period. Denise Miller who founded Change Stream Media shadowed Parveen, one of the female beneficiaries to get a glimpse into the reality of her life as a widow in Jodhpur which you can watch here. At the same time Photographers Without Borders founder, Danielle Khan Da Silva, was in Jodhpur with Anne Gattilia to create a short film showcasing the work of Sambhali Trust which can be viewed here. I sat down with Danielle to learn more about her work helping photographers provide imagery and videos to NGOs around the world for the Sambhali Trust blog. I met many other women throughout my time in Jodhpur including a fellow volunteer who I miss dearly and hope to see again someday, Sophie!
The impact I made at Sambhali Trust can only be measured by the founder, Govind Rathore, who left me these sentiments in a lovely recommendation letter, “She has been an integral part of our volunteer team. In the decade since I debuted the charity only some individuals have stood out for their qualities and ability to be a part of a paradigm shift, Lola is one of these people. She is extremely passionate about global gender equality. Throughout the time I’ve known her, she has proven herself to be a motivated leader with strong potential to lead positive change in humanitarian issues. She has been an asset to the Trust; her expertise in branding, digital strategy, copywriting, social media planning, communications, and marketing has elevated our communication efforts and audience. Her motivation has resulted in more advocates and donors for our grassroots charity and she has performed exceedingly well in creating awareness about our organization.”
If you’d like to make a generous contribution to support the work of Sambhali Trust you may donate here or purchase handmade artisan goods made by the Sambhali Trust craftswomen. If you’re considering volunteering overseas come back to Miss Filatelista on May 1st when a new Responsible Travel Challenge will be released dedicated to how to find an ethical skills-based volunteer opportunity.
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