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Disrupting With Dignity: The Immeasurable Impact Of The Desai Foundation

Culture

If you have skipped a rock on a placid pond, you’ll know the ripple effect is longer lasting than the initial splash. From one singular spot of disturbance, the ripples reverberate across the surrounding water, with each ripple adding to the original disruption.


The basic concept of the ripple effect is what drives The Desai Foundation; a nonprofit organization which empowers women and children through community programs to elevate health and livelihood in the U.S. and India. “Consistency is what has the most impact,” says Megha Desai, President of The Desai Foundation. “A lot of organizations go out and do programming once, then leave, but we are consistent so that we inject these ideas into everyday life.”

Megha Desai. Photo Courtesy of Ross Asdourian

For the past 20 years, The Desai Foundation has focused on improving livelihood through children’s health camps, sanitary napkin programs, and health seminars, as well as vocational training programs, like sewing and computer classes. In their most recent partnership, The Desai Foundation teamed up with Indian designer, Payal Singhal to amplify this consistency and extend beyond the stigma of a public organization’s one-off donation.

"I was looking for a platform that allowed me to get involved beyond mere monetary support,” says fashion designer Payal Singhal, who launched her namesake brand Payal Singhal in 1999, and whose partnership brings the Foundation’s efforts full circle by engaging women who have completed vocational programs in India to provide them with a next step.

After a fateful meeting in Bombay, Singhal asked Desai how she could get involved with the Foundation. Although Desai came back with a modest suggestion of donating 10 percent of proceeds from designated pop-up stores, Singhal insisted she come back with a more extensive offer.

"I went back to the drawing board and came up with all these insane ideas and she said yes to everything,” said Desai. This included donating two of her iconic patterns to The Desai Foundation, so that the foundation receives a portion of anything sold from these patterns, as well as the second-tier partnership, which both Desai and Singhal value as the highlight of their collaboration.

Singhal and Desai

“We’re working with the women we’ve taught to sew on a line of handbags,” says Desai, explaining that through Singhal, they were able to launch a collection of signature tote bags and vanity kits, which will be sold on the international market.

“Two signature Payal Singhal prints--the Anaar Aur Mor print, and the Chidiya print have been dedicated to this collaboration,” explains Singhal about the designs, which also happen to feature a lotus; The Desai Foundation’s logo. “The highlight for me was to visit the foundation’s sewing vocational program in Valsad, Gujarat. It’s one thing to be associated with a cause, and another to interact with the people who are going to be impacted by your work.”

It is this first-degree impact which ties back to The Desai Foundation’s macro-motivation to improve women’s quality of life while simultaneously improving self-worth. “When women have dignity it really elevates the entire community,” shares Desai, who was able to make this connection within the first year as President.

It was on one of her placement visits to Gujarat, India where Desai initially recognized the unquantifiable effects of the foundation. In villages such as Talangpur, Kharel, and Untdi, the Foundation had encouraged women to take factory jobs after completing three months of vocational training, even prior to the partnership with Singhal.

Yet, after one training session in Untdi, none of the women took the jobs lined up for them—ones with pre-negotiated salaries and commissions, as well as comfortable atmospheres—“We were a little concerned that we had done something wrong,” confesses Desai.

So, Desai sat down to understand what happened, only to learn that the majority of these women had used the vocational sewing program as a reprise to get out of the house, to meet friends beyond their extended family, to learn a new skill, or, to instill a sense of dignity. “One of the women said she sews for all the women on her block—it wasn’t about the money— she now feels like she has an expertise and she carries that with so much pride.”

Upon leaving the village, Desai checked in with the local school, only to find out one of the little girls, who had previously skipped classes for days at a time, had reached her 90-day attendance mark. “Her teacher pointed out that her mom now walks her to and from school everyday,” says Desai, further explaining that her mother was the woman now sewing for the women on her block. “Just the act of her mother walking her to school shows that her mom invested in herself, and, now, she’s trying to instill that dignity in her daughter."

Although The Desai Foundation quotes 331,000 lives impacted by these practical programs in both India and the U.S., Desai acknowledges the thousands of lives, similar to the Untdi family in India, that cannot be statistically recorded.

It is this immeasurable impact which emphasizes the Foundation’s mission to make a long-term investment in the lives of one woman, knowing it will impact not just her family, but her whole community.

Culture

A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.


Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.