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On the Radio and Social Media — Middle Eastern Women are Changing the Landscape of Gender Roles and Relations

Every year, YPO recognizes a handful of its most inspiring members with a Social Enterprise Network (SEN) Sustainability Award — an honor given to those fostering positive social change on both local and global levels.

Yann Borgstedt, Founder The Womanity Foundation © Meinrad Schade / Anzenberger

This year’s winner of the SEN Sustainability Award for Equality is the Founder and Board President of The Womanity Foundation, Yann Borgstedt. For more than a decade, Borgstedt has been giving women in the Middle East a voice through disruptive media and collaborations across sectors.

Following the successful sale of his first venture in 2002, Borgstedt found that acquiring wealth for the sake of it was neither a sufficient nor fulfilling end.

After rigorous research, he realized investing in girls’ education, as well as vocational training and employment for women, had positive ripple effects on societies across the globe. Soon thereafter, The Womanity Foundation opened its doors and began changing the lives of women in communities throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Brazil and India.

“I would define what we do as an entrepreneurial approach to social issues,” says Borgstedt. “We’re pushing the boundaries to foster change, creating a future in which women and men enjoy equal and full social, economic and political rights.”

Offering a diverse mix of educational curriculum, vocational training and innovative media programs, the foundation is focused on changing the landscape of relationships between men and women. These impactful programs are made sustainable through unique collaborations between the social sector, business world, social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial organizations. “We’re a mix between a venture capital fund and an entrepreneur,” Borgstedt explains. “We believe in finding, developing or backing innovative solutions led by the right people, all working together to enact change.”

On the radio

A major focus at Womanity is using media to empower women. The organization’s Nisaa FM radio station produces a wide variety of shows, including radio plays, call-in shows and broadcasts that feature both women and and men discussing women’s rights.

“Nissa was the first commercial women’s radio station and website in the Middle East to put the power directly into the hands of those who have traditionally suffered from not having a voice,” Borgstedt says. “The station offers a unique outlet for Arab women to speak their minds and hear stories of other women.”

By entering homes via the radio and putting women’s and societal issues on the table, the broadcasts stimulate debate and provide information and knowledge. The station’s fictional radio program — Worth 100 Men or Be 100 Ragl in Arabic — is a serial that features story lines portraying circumstances close to real-life scenarios, with characters experiencing the same concerns and pressures of the listeners. Nissa is broadcast in all Palestinian territories, tuned into by more than 600,000 people. According to Womanity’s Outcome Framework, which aggregates through 52 indicators the changes generated in the program’s beneficiaries, 30 percent of women and men listeners improved their perception on the role of women after listening to episodes.

“Media has an amazing power,” Borgstedt says. “When we launched Worth 100 Men, it aired in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and Bahrain. We hired Mona Zaki to star and Nancy Ajram — a famous singer in the Middle East — to sing the title song. When people like that are involved, a large radio station will distribute your show and with that scale audience, you begin to foster change.”

Borgstedt’s latest venture is the launch of several digital channels that broadcast on social media with the aim of challenging gender stereotypes in the region.

In the classroom and beyond

Womanity’s educational programming follows the same structural collaboration between sectors, all with the aim of transforming the prevailing harmful preconceptions of femininity and masculinity. These include Girls Can Code (GCC) and School in a Box. GCC teaches girls coding and web development to better prepare them for the domestic labor market, while School in a Box focuses on vocational training that enhances leadership. Both programs train thousands of students in remote locations and are subsidized through a combination of crowdsourcing and partnerships with organizations like The Ministry of Education of AfghanistanRoshan Telecommunications and ART Consulting. To date, 67,354 girls were either enrolled for the first time or brought back to school after dropping out through these programs.

This same framework of partnerships is what makes Womanity’s WomenChangeMakers so successful. By curating an ecosystem where businesses and donors can identify social entrepreneurs and their organizations, WomenChangeMakers is able to provide flexible core and organizational support as well as mentoring expertise, helping social entrepreneurs grow their institutions and scale-up their impact.

“Our engagement with the private sector helps promote employment of women in non-traditional fields,” Borgstedt explains.  “The success of these entrepreneurs raises awareness about gender-responsive and gender-sensitive business practices and changes attitudes concerning the role and status of women, including the importance of women’s participation in public life.”

Innovative outlets to change the narrative

With its wide-ranging and innovative programming, Womanity is doing everything in its power to eradicate inequalities perpetuated by a lack of education and the narrow of certain media outlets.

“Our goal is to transform prevailing inequitable views about men’s and women’s roles,” says Borgstedt. “These include providing innovative outlets for changing the narrative and altering the perception of the traditional roles men and women are expected to play.”

Truly, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what Borgstedt has been doing with Womanity. The fight to eliminate the systematic discrimination that keeps women and girls in the developing world at a permanent disadvantage has found a leader in the greatest sense of the word in Borgstedt — someone for whom leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts, but about one life influencing another.

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