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Women who lead: Stories from the third sector

In Conversation with Dr Christine Burnett. A woman helping young women discover their worth across the world.

In our final blog featuring the stories of women from the third sector, things have taken an international turn! We met with Dr Christine Burnett, CEO of SAPHARA, mother, and grandmother to Reuben Oísín.

Christine explains, “SAPHARA means journey in Hindi and I have been on a transformational journey over the past 25 years since I first went to India. My vision started with a desire to take young people on a journey, a physical, emotional, spiritual, multifaceted journey. That sums up what SAPHARA is about, giving young people the opportunity for transformational encounters with others that will inspire them to be the change in the world.”

A Belfast girl looking outwards

Before exploring her work with SAPHARA we discuss how her upbringing inspired the direction her life would ultimately take. A child of the troubles in 1970s Belfast, Christine, like so many of the other women we have featured describes how family values have had a massive formative impact:

“I grew up in Belfast during the troubles; the really great thing about my family and particularly my dad, he really made me feel that being a girl was no barrier to anything. And that in the 1970s was not necessarily typical.”

Christine describes her father’s active and vibrant faith as a key influence, “my dad very much saw his Christian faith outworked in involvement in the charity sector. He set up the first Victim Support network focusing on the victims of the troubles. And he was the chair of Age Concern and set up Meals on Wheels from his insurance office.”

However, this progressive and supportive environment was not generally a feature of 1970s Belfast. Christine reflects on her experiences while studying medicine at university when she found herself excluded from a postgraduate course because of her gender. The Dean explained how they thought girls should get their degree over with because they would probably want to get married and have children!

Turning the negative into a positive, this experience and others fuelled Christine’s life-long passion for gender equality, especially with the adolescent girls she works with in impoverished communities in India.

Journey to SAPHARA via Methody!

While working as a biology teacher at Methody, in 1998, Christine got the opportunity to go to India for the first time. Describing the lifechanging impact of this experience, she explains:

“Meeting women who were illiterate was a complete revelation. When you're living in utter poverty and marginalisation, being seen as very much inferior, you have no space for self-reflection because nobody's ever asked you how do you feel about this? What do you think about this? But the one thing that they knew was that they wanted to get their children educated. That was the number one thing that they were passionate about. That was transformational for me and made me want to support their dreams.”

The cycle of support

In 2008 Christine gave up her teaching career to establish SAPHARA offering sixth-form students across the religious divide the opportunity to experience transformational encounters with Indian young people in schools in marginalised communities. Fundraising by the students supported these NGO-run schools, ensuring that the most impoverished children were able to access education. Yet it soon became clear whatever support was given, girls faced much greater barriers than the boys. Out of this realisation was developed the Saphara Girl Champions programme, an emotional resilience and menstrual health programme created with grassroots Indian partners.

Christine explains that the key is to support the female teachers who deliver the programme by providing them with extensive training. “These women have grown up with the same community attitudes as the girls and so our first task is to help them discover their own value and worth. So twice a year, we bring them away to stay in a hotel where we learn and live together for four days. It’s astonishing to see the transformation, with the women bringing that learning back into their schools and to the girls they teach. What they learn serves to have a transformational impact on their communities as they pass these values of emotional resilience and self-worth to the girls they teach.”

Silences can be broken

SAPHARA is passionate about breaking down the shame and stigma around menstruation. Shockingly, around 70% of girls and women in these impoverished communities do not have access to sanitary pads. Christine explains, “we have organic washable sanitary pads that are made in India by local village women, who get the income, and we work with a local partner to distribute these. So, they have a positive environmental impact and give dignity to the girls.”

Across all their projects SAPHARA is on a mission to transform the lives of women and girls through a cycle of support which challenges long held societal taboos.

“When we take the girls and women on a journey where they discover their unique value and worth it is within the community setting. In the West, we tend to be very self-focused but our work is much more centred within the community. These communities of support, these safe spaces are where they can support each other and share their own journey.”

Christine explains that creating such safe spaces is a vital part of helping girls who are vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and trafficking. “These silences can be broken. A big part of what we do is teaching girls to speak up.” SAPHARA now sees girls coming to their teachers and talking about abuse they are experiencing. Finding their voice is foundational to dealing with these issues. Because until women and girls, understand their value and worth and find their voice, change cannot happen.

Faith in action

Christine has followed in her father’s footsteps when it comes to a socially active faith.

“Jesus chose very deliberately to spend time with the most marginalised people; those who had leprosy, prostitutes, beggars, people with all sorts of disabilities and women who were very much second-class citizens – people who were complete outsiders. For me that is really at the heart of my Christian faith. Jesus wasn’t about power and control. He was about emptying himself and showing the utterly selfless love that really is at the heart of Christian faith. In SAPHARA we provide safe and welcoming spaces where we allow each other to talk about what we believe and hold closest to our hearts.”

Speaking to Christine, we were moved by her strength and determination to improve outcomes for girls and young women, providing them with the tools they need to recognise their worth. We were touched by her faith, which is both authentic and relevant and which continues to inform her transformational work on the other side of the world.

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