An Open Letter to Volunteers Who Want to Work with Women Abroad

by Megan Lee

Dear volunteers who have a desire to volunteer with women abroad,

Thank you for your service. Thank you for your willingness to enter foreign communities and fight for what you believe is right. Thank you for not allowing another day to pass where women are treated differently than men. Thank you for your efforts to teach others about the systematic biases against our sisters and ongoing marginalization of our mothers. Thank you for considering volunteering with women abroad.

Society will tell you that your efforts to help alleviate the struggles of these women is noble. It will tell you that your social media updates with a toothless Bibi are virtuous. It will reiterate that your work in gender equality makes a difference.

But does it?

Women’s rights are not a new issue. And yet, even after years of advocacy and protesting, a host of problems for women remain. While you may come from a country where women are battling the glass ceiling, “make me a sandwich” cracks, and the ability to decide what’s right for their own bodies, women in other countries aren’t so lucky.

Can short term international volunteers actually make a difference?

Take a moment to sit down and think critically about your role in the elimination of worldwide prejudice towards women. Consider how you can empower women to escape poverty and end traditional, misogynistic societies. Ruminate the fact that women perform just over 60 percent of the world’s work while only earning about 10 percent of the income. Ponder that 75 percent of the world’s illiterate adults are female.

Though women play a major role in ensuring food security and the development of rural areas especially, they often lack the rights to land ownership, education, healthcare, and employment. Their contributions to society are undervalued and often unnoticed.

How can volunteering abroad make a measurable impact toward eradicating the discrimination of women?

You don’t need to offer solutions or have all of the answers. Just listen. While volunteering abroad with women, offer a listening ear to the women and commiserate their struggles. It does take some time to connect to strangers and have a personal impact, don’t waste a minute while volunteering abroad.

Educate yourself as best as you can. Sit in silence in their company. Make it a point to strike up a conversation whenever you have free time. Take notes, observe attentively, and process your experience as you go. I know it’s hard, but push yourself to consciously maximize your interactions with the local women. Don’t retreat into only spending your social time with other volunteers.

Armed with your newfound knowledge and experience, the real work begins after you leave.

Return home with a fire in your belly. Get involved in other advocacy projects for the equality of women, and honor the women you met while volunteering abroad by sharing their true stories with your family and friends. Don’t just recount your tales from before or after your volunteer stint. Don’t gloss over the details of the horrors of their situations. Don’t paint broad brushstrokes or proliferate misinformed stereotypes of developing countries.

Actively teach others about the injustices. Tell them about Mila, who was forced into early marriage and faced domestic violence. Tell them about Fanny, who was raped by her uncle’s friend and then shunned from her village. Tell them about the dowry deaths, the sex trafficking, the lack of hygiene products, the underappreciation of female children. (Of course protect each woman’s identity during this process too).

Don’t let your decision to volunteer abroad be motivated solely by a desire to “find yourself” à la Eat, Pray, Love.

You are going to work with real women, facing real struggles. Do more than take photos and soak up the praise for your compassion.

Perhaps you set off volunteering abroad with an image of saving the world and making a lasting impact; these notions aren’t entirely naive. It is possible to accomplish these goals and more, it just takes a stronger commitment than you may have originally anticipated.

Volunteering abroad isn’t a short-term game, and it isn’t about individual achievement. It’s about a combined, sustained, community-driven effort to free the world of old-school thinking and unjust practices.

Thank you again for opening your heart and following the call to volunteer abroad with women

Here’s to a brighter, more equal tomorrow.