Student Spotlight: Kaitlin Rizk: Working on Women’s Empowerment Issues
ISyE junior Kaitlin Rizk has pursued helping with issues related to women’s empowerment – particularly sanitation – with a single-minded focus in her extracurricular activities at Georgia Tech. In addition to her work with Days for Girls, which she discusses extensively in this interview, Rizk’s collegiate activities have included:
Why did you choose Georgia Tech for college, and ISyE for your major?
I chose Georgia Tech as my college because I wanted to study industrial engineering, and Georgia Tech is No. 1 in this area. I want to do IE because my dream job is to consult with NGOs working on women’s issues, and IE will provide me with the perfect problem-solving skill set to do this.
Who is your biggest role model, and why?
My biggest role models are my parents, both extremely intelligent, hardworking people. My dad is always there to help me with any engineering problem, and my mom introduced me to working on women’s empowerment. She specifically encouraged me to start a club in high school to support girls’ education in the developing world.
You have participated in projects related to women’s empowerment – from STEM to sanitation – since high school. What was initially motivating to you about this group of issues?
As women, we can be so powerful and induce so much change in the world. I feel empowered as a female engineer; I feel like I can control anything in my life. I think all women should have these opportunities.
Unfortunately, all over the world women are restrained, put down, and held back. I first noticed this when I learned that girls drop out of school to take care of their families and homes. This isn’t fair to them, so I began researching why this happens to them. I want to work to change anything that holds girls and women back.
You’ve been an undergraduate researcher with the Center for Health & Humanitarian Systems, which is where you became involved with Days for Girls (DFG). What drew you to this project?
Girls in developing countries frequently don’t attend school when they are on their period. They lack access to basic information about their body’s biological functions, as well not having access to pads during their periods.
DFG supports women and girls having access to reusable pads and reproductive health education. With pads and education about their bodies, we hope girls feel comfortable attending school while on their period. After distributing pads to girls, the percentage of girls staying in school increases.
So much of your extracurricular activities at Georgia Tech have involved working with women around sanitation and menstrual issues in developing countries. Why have you chosen to focus your time attention here?
Why is a normal biological function something that affects a woman’s life in so many negative ways? Talking about menstruation should not be taboo. I work on this issue so that people will realize that having a period is a normal part of life. Women and girls should not have to feel ashamed about it.
Tell readers something about the issue(s) of women’s empowerment that they may not already know.
People often do not realize that menstrual hygiene management (MHM) affects so many issues in women’s lives. Girls do not have to feel shame and embarrassment about having their period if boys and girls are educated about MHM and understand that it is a natural thing. With access to pads, girls stay in school the entire month and do not fall behind what the boys are learning.
DFG came across a case where a girl was forced to have sex with her male teachers in exchange for pads. Once she learned how to make her own DFG pads, she was empowered to free herself and help her friends avoid a similar situation. The power of having menstrual pads is unbelievable.
You spent the summer in Uganda as part of a humanitarian project. Describe what you did in Uganda, and why it was important for you to be involved in this project.
In Uganda I worked for DFG. A center here makes reusable pads and distributes them to local communities in two different ways.
First, DFG conducts trainings for girls all over Uganda where they teach the girls reproductive health and how to sew the DFG kit. The kit contains reusable pads, and it comes in a pretty bag that girls can carry around like a backpack for their pads. Second, DFG distributes kits by selling them in the local community. Women can start a micro-enterprise selling kits and homemade soap. This empowers women to improve their lives and help their communities while making a profit to sustain themselves.
My role at DFG was to develop both an inventory and an ordering system that improves kit production. The inventory system helped us find optimal ordering quantities of our fabrics and manage our production. The ordering system is a way to manage the large volume of orders we have for kits at the center. Both of these systems have involved significant collaboration and patience of the DFG staff to help me understand the processes already in place and develop the best options for them.
Can you share an anecdote that illustrates the importance of the work you’re doing?
During my time in Uganda, I traveled to Karamoja, one of the most impoverished and neglected regions of Uganda. We taught reproductive health and trained over 250 girls on how to make the DFG kit. Each day, we taught 30 girls at a time in a classroom. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life because I saw firsthand all of the issues I had read about related to women’s empowerment.
Some of the girls were 14 and already had babies that they brought to the training. During lunch I talked with many of the girls and told them of my hope to stay in school and not get married until I am 30. They thought I was strange.
However, I did meet girls who were young, unmarried, and still in school. I spoke to them about how well they could do if they continued in school. With their new DFG kit, these girls will not have to miss three to five days of school each month. They now have knowledge about hygiene and how their bodies work. Additionally, they know how to protect themselves against rape from men in their communities, as self-defense against sexual assault is part of the curriculum we teach in the trainings.
Each day when I worked on the DFG inventory system, I thought of how many more kits we can make. More girls can have access to the training that gives them good resources and empowers them to change their situations.
How do you plan to continue your work for women’s empowerment now that you've returned to the U.S.?
I plan to continue to work for DFG by analyzing the data I collected from the tracking system set in place for inventory. I will stay engaged with the workers in Uganda and continue to improve the production of the center there. I also will continue to make period kits with my friends in Atlanta.
What are your post-graduation plans?
When I graduate, I plan to do consulting for an NGO that works on MHM or women’s empowerment. I want to learn as much as I can at Georgia Tech, so that I can help these organizations improve on their business side.
Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering