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Rotary International’s Girls Empowerment Initiative: Promoting Change for a Brighter Future With Elizabeth Usovicz

This week on the Dads with Daughters podcast I am excited to share that we spoke with Elizabeth Usovicz about Rotary International‘s incredible initiative to empower girls and how it aligns with the journey of raising our daughters to be strong and independent women.

Christopher then introduces the episode’s guest, Elizabeth Usovicz, who is the past Rotary International director, the chair of the Girls Empowerment Global Task Force for Rotary, and a Rotary International Women of Action honoree. The main focus of this episode is Rotary International’s Girls Empowerment Initiative, which has been ongoing for three years. Christopher explains his involvement as a Rotarian and the reason for discussing Rotary’s initiative in the context of empowering girls.

Elizabeth provides an overview of Rotary International, its history, and its mission, which centers on humanitarian service both locally and globally. She emphasizes Rotary’s role in creating positive change in communities and mentions that Rotary has over 1.4 million members worldwide.

The discussion shifts to the Girls Empowerment Initiative. Elizabeth explains how Rotary’s then-President, Shekhar Mehta, initiated this focus three years ago. The goal was to enhance girls’ well-being, education, safety, and economic opportunities worldwide. The initiative’s broad scope allows local Rotary clubs to adapt projects to address specific challenges faced by girls in their communities.

Elizabeth shares examples of successful projects, such as providing gender-specific latrines in schools to improve girls’ access to education. Another project involves donating feminine hygiene products to local food banks to ensure girls have the necessary resources for their menstrual hygiene. These projects highlight how even small-scale efforts can have a significant impact.

Christopher and Elizabeth discuss the initiative’s goals for the current year and its vision for the next five years. They emphasize the importance of expanding partnerships, fostering collaboration, and integrating girls’ empowerment into Rotary’s core activities.

Towards the end of the episode, Elizabeth provides recommendations for individuals who want to support girls’ empowerment. She encourages people to connect with their local Rotary clubs, collaborate with schools, and become mentors or role models for girls. Elizabeth emphasizes the crucial role fathers play in shaping girls’ perceptions of relationships and encourages them to be positive role models.

Christopher expresses his gratitude to Elizabeth for her dedication to empowering girls worldwide and highlights the impact of her work.

The episode concludes with Christopher reminding listeners to check out the Fatherhood Insider, an essential resource for dads seeking guidance on their parenting journey. He encourages fathers of daughters to join the Dads With Daughters Facebook community and looks forward to having more inspiring guests in the future. The episode ends with a call to action for fathers to be the best dads they can be.

TRANSCRIPT

Christopher Lewis [00:00:06]:

Welcome to dads with daughters. In this show, we spotlight Dads resources and more to help you be the best dad you can be. Hey, everyone. This is Chris, and welcome to Dads with Daughters, where we bring you guests to help you be active participants in your daughter’s lives, raising them to be strong, independent women. Really excited to have you back again this week. And as always, every week, you and I are on a journey together. We’re on a journey to raise our daughters and be able to raise them into the strong, independent women that we want them to be. I love being on this journey with you because for you and I, it is a journey.

Christopher Lewis [00:00:45]:

There’s going to be ups. There’s going to be downs. There’s going to be things that happen that we’re like, what the heck? And then there’s going to be times where things are going really smooth, and this is a big but you don’t have to do this alone. And that’s the thing that I keep telling you every week, is that you don’t have to father alone. And that’s important because there are so many resources, but there’s so many people around you that can help you to be a better father. And that’s why every week, I love being able to have you listen in. And I bring you different guests that have different perspectives, different things that they offer to be able to help you be the best dad that you can be. Sometimes it’s other fathers that are fathering in different ways.

Christopher Lewis [00:01:31]:

Sometimes it’s other resources that are out there that are there for you to tap into to help you this week. We got another great guest with us this week. Elizabeth Yusuf is with us. And Elizabeth is the past Rotary International director, as well as the chair of the Girls empowerment global task force for Rotary and a Rotary International women of action honoree. Today we’re going to be talking about Rotary International. If those of you don’t know what Rotary is, we’re going to talk about that, too. I will be very upfront and say I am a Rotarian, proud to be a Rotarian. Been a Rotarian for quite a few years, and I am currently the president of our local Rotary Club.

Christopher Lewis [00:02:16]:

And I love talking about Rotary. Haven’t really talked to you about Rotary before, but the reason that we’re talking about this and that we’ve got Elizabeth Usovicz on today is for the past three years, there has been an initiative within rotary to focus on girls. Empowerment. And that ties in very well to the work that you and I are doing every day. To be able to empower our own daughters and the girls around our daughters, and beyond that, to help them to be successful in life. I’m really excited to have Elizabeth here and to talk about this great initiative. Elizabeth, thanks so much for being here.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:02:57]:

Oh, it is my pleasure, Christopher, to be with you. Thank you for inviting me.

Christopher Lewis [00:03:01]:

It is my pleasure having you here. I guess, first and foremost, I said that I’m a Rotarian and I could talk about it, but I’m going to let you talk. Why don’t we step back before we talk about this initiative? Talk to me about Rotary. What is Rotary? And then let’s talk about why did Rotary start this initiative, this girls empowerment initiative, three years ago?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:03:23]:

Well, I should start by thanking you for being president of your Rotary Club. That’s a huge honor. And presidents are really the lifeblood of Rotary and Rotary clubs. But many people know about Rotary, perhaps from grandfathers or fathers who might have been members. And we’ve come a long way since that time. Rotary was founded in the early 20th century, and so we’re over 100 years old, and Rotary is a member organization that is organized by clubs. And our primary mission is humanitarian service to other people in our communities and around the world. We are proactive people of action who create positive change in our communities and in the world.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:04:13]:

And in the process of doing that, we are also creating positive change in ourselves. We’re over 1.4 million people around the world who are proudly members of Rotary, and we welcome everyone to join us. So if you don’t know about Rotary, you can go to the Rotary website, you can locate a club in your community, and they will welcome you to attend a meeting to get to know them and maybe become a member if it lines up with what’s important to you. We’d love to have you.

Christopher Lewis [00:04:48]:

So, three years ago, the then Rotary International President and I should step back and say that every year there is a Rotary International President, that Rotary International President sets goals for themselves. And three years ago, one of the Rotary International President’s goals was to focus on girls empowerment. Now, that’s a broad topic. Can you talk to me about why that was an important topic for that International President and what girls empowerment truly means in the global context of Rotary?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:05:26]:

Well, it’s a big topic. It’s a broad topic. And, yes, I’ll start by saying that the President of Rotary is a member, a volunteer, an unpaid member of Rotary who is nominated to serve in that one year term. And it’s very typical for a President to have specific initiatives for one year that are close to their hearts. Three years ago, actually, now almost well, it was in 2020 when we started. He was president elect. Sheikh Meta from India, met with some of his incoming board members and said, I really want to focus on girls empowerment in the coming year, and I’d like to put together a task force, and I’d like you to serve on it. And he did appoint me chair.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:06:22]:

And at that time, Rotary had done any number of projects around the world. We do literally in the Tens of thousands of projects globally every year. And many of those projects had a component that served to provide resources to girls. But we didn’t really focus on it. And he felt very strongly that focusing on girls’empowerment, particularly in terms of education, in terms of health, was a very important priority for him. And it did start, as you’ve mentioned Christopher, as a very broad agenda. His objective was simply to have Rotary clubs and Rotary members around the world to engage in projects that enhanced the health, education, safety, well being and economic opportunities for girls. So it was wide open.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:07:14]:

And because Rotary operates differently in different parts of the world, some of the issues that girls face, let’s say in India or in parts of Africa, are very different from what they experience in Australia or in northern Canada, or in the United States. And so it was very broad so that it could be adapted locally. It was very popular, extremely popular. Rotary members around the world embraced this initiative like nothing I have ever seen before, to the point where it was so popular that last year’s president, our first woman president, Jennifer Jones, decided to continue it. I’m not 100% sure of this, but based on the research I’ve done, this has never happened before in Rotary history. That a presidential initiative from one year carried over into another. And now we are in an unprecedented third year of carryover because the engagement has been so high, it has been so rewarding for Rotary members and their partners, non Rotarians and other not for profit organizations, that it will continue into a fourth year next year. So this has grown in a way very organically because people have seen a need, they have met a need.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:08:40]:

The need has been appreciated in those local communities. It has continued and will continue into a fourth year and beyond as it becomes part of the fabric of what Rotary does around the world.

Christopher Lewis [00:08:53]:

So you mentioned that many Rotary clubs have taken up the mantle of this goal and have implemented programs, implemented initiatives. Can you give me some examples of some successful initiatives that have been implemented by Rotary clubs that truly hit this initiative at the heart of the goal itself?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:09:20]:

Yes, absolutely. And as I mentioned, the initiative and the projects that clubs choose to take on vary depending on the part of the world. But I’ll give you a great example from India. It’s also a type of project that 20 years ago I was part of initiating in Malawi, Africa. So the need is continuing. One of those is that in many parts of the world, simple things like sanitation, segregated bathrooms in schools for children are simply not available. And simply on the basis of not being able to have a safe and sanitary place as a restroom for girls can prevent many of them from going to school. And so many of the projects that we have seen over the past three years have been focused on water and sanitation in schools and creating those gender specific latrines or bathroom spaces so that girls have the privacy that they need and can inspect spend a day in school.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:10:32]:

It’s hard to believe that something as simple, a basic need, as simple as a bathroom can be pivotal to education. But in many parts of the world it is, and that has had a huge impact on keeping girls in school at a critical time. I’ll give you another example of a very simple project, because sometimes what I have heard from clubs in North America sometimes is, well, we don’t really have any issues that we can address in our communities. But if you drive by any high school in any community in the United States, about 25% of the girls in that school are missing two to three days of school every month because they do not have access to the products they need to manage their own feminine hygiene. And if you look at those communities, every one of those communities has a local food bank. And I’ve talked to many executive directors of food banks, community food banks, and the one thing that they have all told me is they never receive enough feminine hygiene products as part of the donations that Rotary clubs and other organizations may provide to them. And when they do get those products, they can’t keep them on the shelves. There simply is not enough for demand.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:11:58]:

So what I have seen in many clubs is very simply adding those feminine hygiene products to the donations that they would make on a regular basis anyway to a local food bank. So a project doesn’t have to be enormous to have an enormous impact. And there are just so many challenges that relate or keep girls out of school that addressing those issues can make a huge difference, because really, education is the key. Education and also aspiration in what to study, is also key for girls to become empowered women and to really be well represented across trades, skills, and professions.

Christopher Lewis [00:12:46]:

So being the chair of this global task force, you have people from around the world that are all coming together. You’re talking about a vision for this group as a whole as you look to the future through this year with this international president and beyond. What are your main goals as a task force for this year and what are your goals as you look at the next, let’s say five years?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:13:15]:

Wow, that’s an excellent question. And for something that has grown as spontaneously and organically as this initiative has grown, that is a challenging question to answer. In terms of the task force. First we looked at the data from rotary partner organizations like the World Bank, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation, among others, and so that we were really well informed on what the issues were and then ensured that that awareness of those issues was part of the resources that clubs were able to access as they decided which projects might be appropriate for their part of the world. But having said that, one of the things that the task force did is we created a network of people, Rotary volunteers that we call ambassadors. And I would estimate that there are over 200 ambassadors or assistant ambassadors in parts of the world who are there to create momentum, create that awareness, and build interest in doing projects that are focused on girls empowerment and also providing them with the resources that they need. And so that building that network and keeping that network expanding has been a primary goal of the task force in terms of where do we go from here? Partnerships are very definitely the place that we go from here. We’ve seen trending over the past year a number of clubs and other larger Rotary organizations called a district, a collection of clubs, a geographic collection of clubs who are partnering now both with each other, with other clubs.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:15:08]:

So multi club projects, we’re also seeing those clubs partner with organizations that have specific expertise in dealing with those issues that girls face. Rotary has tremendous hands, hearts, and minds. We are the feet on the ground. And when we partner with those organizations with specific expertise, the impact is incredible. So we hope to continue that. As I said earlier, it’s unprecedented to have what was structured as a one year presidential initiative now continue into a third year and into a fourth year. So the task force objective at this point is to examine and explore all the ways that we can integrate this girls empowerment beyond an initiative, but into the fabric of what Rotary does.

Christopher Lewis [00:16:04]:

We’ve been talking a lot about Rotary specifically, and not every listener is a rotarian. Are there things that people can do to support not only the initiative, but also to support girls empowerment in general that you would recommend?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:16:25]:

Yes, there are. And certainly, as I had mentioned when we began our conversation, that looking up where local clubs meet in your geographic area and connecting with them, whether you join or not, is one way to connect with a club and to initiate a project or join a project in your community that is focused on this important area. Other things that can be done are definitely connecting with the schools in your local communities. The guidance counselors, the principals, the headmasters, those are the people who can best inform on what the needs are within that education sphere. I think that also there’s a great deal that we can do in terms of some of the issues that girls face by focusing on prevention as opposed to rehabilitation. And I’m thinking about human trafficking in particular, where there is a great deal that we can do within our own communities to make citizens aware of what some of those signs are that a girl might be at risk of trafficking and also educating girls on what those signs might be. Because if we can prevent, then obviously then we don’t have to do as much in terms of rehabilitation. And so I think those are very important ways.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:18:03]:

I think it’s also given your organization and given the audience for this podcast, that obviously being a great role model for girls and really being an ally to girls, whether they are girls within your own family, within your own neighborhood, elsewhere in your community, often that micro mentorship, that micro role model. Just that one phrase you might say to a girl who maybe has not had that kind of encouragement in their lives before can make a difference. And I know in Rotary we all have stories about how that has happened. I have numerous times over the course of my career and my service in Rotary heard later from a girl that just that one thing you said to me ten years ago that resonated with me and it gave me hope and it gave me a focus. And I think also anytime that we can introduce a girl to someone who could be a mentor, a role model, that kind of exposure that a girl may not get at home or may get at home, but could be supplemented, having as many good role models as possible is really important. And that’s something that we can all do as individuals, is to just be on the lookout for that and to encourage and support girls in that way.

Christopher Lewis [00:19:38]:

Definitely agree with you. I think that there is so much that we can do in regards to providing mentorship, providing someone for girls to look up to, whether it’s yourself, whether it’s connecting girls in your community with others that can help them to get to where they want to be and let them see a path to the future. That’s so important and definitely something I know that I’ve done with my own daughters, to try and help them and see opportunities that may exist, not to push them, but to guide them, to help them and to let them still make decisions that are right for them. And that’s important. And I think it’s a role of any father to be able to be that guide and to help their child and the children around them, to be able to find that path for themselves in that regard.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:20:39]:

And you know this much better than I as a father. But that role of being a father is so pivotal and so important to children just in general, but for girls as well, so much of their impressions and their perspectives on what to expect from men and in their relationships with men are largely founded on the example that their fathers provide. So it’s incredibly important, what you have just said really resonates.

Christopher Lewis [00:21:11]:

Elizabeth, people want to find out more about this initiative. Where should they go?

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:21:16]:

That is a very good question. And right now, the location of this information on the Rotary website can be found most easily by Googling Rotary presidential initiatives. And on that page for this year, for example, our President Gordon Mcinelli, who is incredibly supportive of this initiative, lists all of his initiatives, including Girls Empowerment, and there are resources that are listed as well on that page. That is one of the places to go. In addition, on the Rotary International Facebook page, which includes a number of the important work and the service opportunities that Rotary offers, there is also information there about the Girls Empowerment initiative. But really, because this is such a localized implementation of this initiative, really the best place is to go to a local Rotary club in your community and to connect with the members who are working on this project in ways that are meaningful in your community.

Christopher Lewis [00:22:30]:

Elizabeth, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for all the work that you’re doing to empower people in the world, not just girls, but empowering people in the world to empower the girls in their communities to be able to find success in all aspects of their life. It is such an important initiative and such an important thing. I say that as a father of two daughters, but I know that there are so many fathers out there that once they know about this, I think they’ll be very happy to hear that there is this work that’s happening. So thank you. Thank you for doing this, and I’ll put some links in the Notes today for where people can find those initiatives, and I wish you all the best.

Elizabeth Usovicz [00:23:14]:

Thank you so much. Christopher it’s really been an honor to be able to talk about this, and I would just say that the work that we do, we all do it together, so it’s always a we proposition. And as you said at the beginning of this conversation, you don’t do parenting alone. You don’t do fathering alone. None of this work is done alone, and I just feel so honored to be a part of it.

Christopher Lewis [00:23:38]:

The Fatherhood Insider is the essential resource for any dad that wants to be the best dad that he can be. We know that no child comes with an instruction manual, and most dads are figuring it out as they go along. And the Fatherhood Insider is full of resources and information that will up your game on fatherhood. Through our extensive course library, interactive forum, step by step, roadmaps, and more, you will engage and learn with experts, but more importantly, dads like you. So check it [email protected]. If you are a father of a daughter and have not yet joined the Dads with Daughters Facebook community, there’s a link in the Notes today. Dads With Daughters is a program of fathering together. We look forward to having you back for another great guest next week.

All geared to helping you raise strong, empowered daughters and be the best dad that you can be. We’re all in the same boat and it’s full of tiny, screaming passengers. We spend the time we give, the lessons, we make the meals we buy them present and bring your A game because those kids are growing fast. The time goes by just like a dynamite glass calling astronauts and firemen carpenters and muscle men get out and be the one to now be the best dad you can be be the best dad you can be.

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Christopher Lewis


Christopher is the co-founder of Fathering Together and the Chief Information Officer. He is the father of 2 daughters that are now in their tweens and teens. He started Dad of Divas, a blog to share his own personal experiences in being a father in 2007 and in 2018 started the Dads With Daughters Facebook Group to allow dads to connect, learn and grow together. He works in Digital Media on a daily basis, but also has over 20 years of experience in higher education administration.

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