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Activist Kyla Korvne Discusses the Effects on Women's Rights During a Pandemic

Explorer and Fulbright scholar Kyla Korvne has contributed extensively to women’s rights worldwide.

Introducing Kyla Korvne

 She has spearheaded many important projects, from research on gender roles in Rwanda to program management for women’s empowerment in rural Indian villages. Here, she discusses her feminist viewpoint and the effects of a pandemic on women’s rights worldwide.

Korvne began her career while still in college. She originally wanted to work with the Peace Corps as her grandparents did, but she found her calling in research. She discovered an interest in learning languages on her first trip to Senegal. She decided to focus on experiential learning and alleviating world inequalities.

“I love to travel,” she says, “But more than traveling, I like to live abroad. To be in a place and stay there for a while and learn the language, culture, and customs.”

As a white American woman, she focuses on using her privilege responsibly. Local people lead the human rights movements in the places she works, and she aligns her research around their points of view. She notes the problems with voluntourism, which fetishizes “foreignness” and ignores specific cultural contexts.

Korvne takes a feminist viewpoint on her work, interested in building equitable, informed connections between people of different genders. She attributes her earliest feminist ideas to her activist mother. Traveling, she says, has informed them even more.

The experience of being a woman in the world colors the diverse experiences she has had. “Looking at everything through a gendered lens,” she says, “Just makes everything make a lot more sense.” Awareness of gender and social categories like race and class illuminates the roots of many problems and helps her solve them.

Korvne’s research builds on personal connections, a passion for learning, and a feminist viewpoint throughout her life.

Gender Role Shifts in Rwanda

Korvne conducted her first major research project in Rwanda. She looked into the shift of gender roles that occurred after the Rwandan genocide. Post-genocide, approximately 75% of Rwandan men were dead or imprisoned. Women had to take over essential jobs and political positions, and it caused a shift in mindset that contributed to gender equality.

The genocide, Korvne says, has left a “heavy presence” that hangs over Rwanda. However, she says, “People were open to talking about it.” Through interviews and interactions, she learned more about the issue’s complexity and how it affects individuals. She learned about the gendered mindset shift.

Although she doesn’t see Rwanda as a “feminist utopia,” she commends its progress since the beginning of reconstruction in 2001. She notes the Rwandan people's pride; their capital, Kigali, is exceptionally organized and cosmopolitan. Their Parliament has a higher percentage of female deputies than any other in the world.

Women’s Empowerment in India

After Rwanda, Korvne went to India to work with local women. She sought a locally run endeavor and ended up helping an ASHA worker in a rural village. ASHA, or accredited social health activists, provide prenatal care, child delivery services, and sex education.

Korvne and the ASHA worker ran two "Girls Clubs." One was an extracurricular space for young girls; the other provided information on feminine care to older girls and women. After a month and a half, Korvne became the manager of the village health center. She helped the Indian government immensely by bringing pertinent information to rural women.

Ultimately, leadership wouldn't let her bring men into women-empowering initiatives. When they refused to let her conduct education programs on condoms, she decided to move on.

Leadership Research in Senegal

On a Fulbright scholarship, Korvne progressed to Senegal. She worked with Tostan, a prevalent NGO that conducts three-year Community Empowerment programs in West African villages. Tostan teaches literacy, numeracy, and communication skills. Korvne appreciates that Tostan doesn't tell communities what to do; it provides them with pertinent information, letting local leaders act upon it.

"Once there's some trust built up," she says, "They address female genital cutting." As a prevalent and harmful practice across West Africa, this is Tostan's primary concern. Tostan teams explain the deadly medical risks of the practice instead of merely scolding locals for it. Thus, it creates inter-community groups that stop practicing it and encourage others to do the same. Since the 90s, Tostan's work has eliminated the harmful practice in over 8,000 communities.

Korvne researched communities that had participated in Tostan's programs. Many have seen a marked increase in female leadership, and she investigated why.

"In the center of Senegal," she says, "Some had noticed that a crazy amount of the women who had participated in their program had run for local office and been elected." Many women had even been nominated to office by male and female peers. Central Senegal's conservative views on female leadership have receded with Tostan's help.

Korvne interviewed dozens of women in leadership, their husbands and local male leaders. The most significant empowerment factor, she says, was "communication." Men and women in Senegalese culture tend not to socialize, but Tostan teaches communication skills. These lead to higher understanding and mutual appreciation, which allows for a holistic analysis of community members independent of gender.

Korvne says, "It just completely changed the dynamic in the relationship between men and women in the community."

Pandemic Effects on Women Worldwide

The pandemic, Korvne says, has the potential to impact women worldwide. She says, "The pandemic is forcing everyone to be at home. And that's extra work for women who already are the homemakers and supporting everything."

As an example, she notes a Senegalese friend. This woman generally stays home to do housework, as with many women in rural Senegal. Amidst the pandemic, however, her husband is home without work and hasn't helped her do it.

"I think in many ways," Korvne says, "It might bring about more realizations on the part of these women that this isn't a very egalitarian way of doing things." She speculates that, like past disasters, the pandemic could shift gender roles. It might be possible to harness such a shift for good.

However, Korvne worries that the pandemic exacerbates global inequity. In the United States and Europe, economic decline affects disadvantaged communities. Its impact is far more catastrophic in some of the other countries she has visited.

"It pales in comparison," she says, "to how it affects a place like Guatemala or Malawi, where most people already don't have official, formal jobs. They work in the informal economy, and they live hour to hour. Those people are just dying."

A friend of a taxi driver in Guatemala has provided her with specific examples. The pandemic hit Guatemala just before its Easter celebration, an elaborate festival that draws thousands of tourists. The event was canceled this year, and local businesses failed to benefit from foreign buyers.

Based on her extensive research, Korvne notes that women bear the brunt of disasters the hardest. However, she hopes it could prompt greater gender equality in the future.

Work Going Forward

Currently, Korvne works for BuildOn, an American-owned organization that builds schools in and outside the U.S. She teaches and builds with the locally run office in Guatemala. When pandemic-based restrictions ease, she will return to this position and continue her work with the connection.

She encourages those who want to make a difference and travel to follow their dreams. "My first advice," she says, "Is: don't hesitate. Get out there. If you have the opportunity or can create the opportunity to travel, do it."

Written by Olivia Cipperman.


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