Written by Aubrey Racz, PWW intern. Shared with permission
I began interning with Pure Water for the World (PWW) in the fall of 2020 during my second year of the Master of Public Health program at the University at Albany School of Public Health. A mentor at the school knew my interest in global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and put me in touch with a connection at PWW, Deputy Director, Jamin Gelder. With international plans to serve in the Peace Corps upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the perfect way to serve the global community and learn about WASH programs while working towards my own goals and PWW’s (and doing so virtually from my couch!).
After the completion of my MPH degree a few months later and a wonderful internship experience, I learned of the Carolyn Crowley Meub WASH for Women Empowerment Scholarship. After various discussions with Jamin and Carolyn, I relished the opportunity to put my education to good use and was fortunate to get to spend a month learning from and working with the PWW team in Honduras.
From mid-August to mid-September, I lived in Trojes, Honduras, a small town located at the border of Nicaragua. The team was in the middle of a project looking to enhance menstrual health and hygiene education through implementation of a new virtual learning platform. With children still learning mostly virtually due to the pandemic, this platform would be extremely beneficial because it would allow children to learn on tablets without requiring internet access and giving them the opportunity to learn about this taboo subject in a private setting.
When I arrived in Trojes, I joined the team training in formative research which would be used to enhance data collection and capture of the information gathered from focus group conversations. The information obtained through these focus groups would then be used to create learning modules for the platform. Ready with my notebook, pen, and Spanish cap on, we headed to the field! We traveled to five different communities speaking with menstruating girls, girls not yet menstruating, boys, mothers, fathers, and teachers. This experience proved to be educational, enlightening, and exhausting all at the same time and emphasized the importance and necessity of educational programs related to menstrual health targeted towards all populations.
The number of misconceptions that existed regarding menstrual health was shocking. One of the most common examples was assuming that you should not eat or drink certain foods while menstruating. Consumption of food/drink such as avocados, eggs, butter, milk, among others were thought to cause infections or increase blood flow. Another misconception was that physical activity would worsen cramps or other side effects associated with menstruation. These concepts were generally passed down from generation to generation. The best way to combat these misconceptions is through education and open dialogue about menstruation adhering to social and cultural norms.
From this experience, I gained a better understanding of WASH programs in low-income settings. For starters, it is crucial that these programs are led by locals who better understand the community they are serving. The connections PWW has in Honduras were key not only for logistical purposes, but also to get the most out of the focus groups and have a positive impact.
Additionally, I learned about the importance of on the ground, baseline research. Previous research from a different location in Honduras suggested that access to sanitary pads was poor. However, when baseline research was conducted in the communities surrounding Trojes, it was understood that access to pads was not an issue. Many menstruating girls and women were able to get pads at their local store, and it was the acceptance of talking about menstruation and the misconceptions that were the more prominent issues in the area. After speaking with the focus group participants, it was clear that these concepts were crucial to address to make menstrual management more comfortable for everyone, both in terms of the actual experience of menstruation and the conversations surrounding the topic.
In addition to the menstrual health and hygiene project, I also was able to travel with the PWW team and learn about other projects they were working on. Latrine and handwashing stations at schools, community water projects and improving WASH services at local migrant shelters were among the projects I observed. Not only did this make me grateful for the easy access I have to clean and safe water and sanitation, but it was also heartwarming to see the community band together to help very vulnerable populations and further reinforced my passion for working in this field. Especially in terms of the migrant shelters, PWW was supported by locals who donated their time and energy to help make the migration experience better.
Traveling and working amid the pandemic highlighted how fortunate I am to live where I do. I observed first-hand the disparities and inequities surrounding COVID test availability as well as access to vaccination. Free tests were hard to come by and the lines to get vaccinated were extremely long. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the country’s adherence to mask usage and the preventive measures taken such as the frequent use of hand sanitizer as well as temperature checks and hand washing stations to be used before entering a public place.
Overall, my experience in Honduras was awesome. The warmth and kindness of everyone I encountered cannot be underrated. Thank you to the PWW staff in Tegucigalpa, Trojes, and Santa Barbara for sharing your conversations and knowledge with me. Thank you to the focus group participants for allowing me to learn about your menstrual experiences and the young children excited to practice their English with me. Thank you to the hotel staff and guests that always made me feel at home and provided me with numerous laughs. Traveling alone can be lonely but I reflect on fond memories of my time in Honduras often!
Muchísimas gracias, Pure Water for the World, for giving me this opportunity to travel, learn, and grow both personally and professionally. My experience in Honduras is a constant reminder that we do not get to choose where we are born or the situation we are born into, but a smile, a kind heart, and a helping hand can go a long way.
In a recent interview with University of Albany (read), where she received her MPH, Aubrey shared her plans to pursue other global opportunities related to water and sanitation.
“I am most passionate about global health, specifically water, sanitation, and hygiene initiatives. I believe that water is a basic human right and everyone deserves access to clean water and proper sanitation,” said Racz, who previously spent time living in Latin America and was shocked at the price of clean water. “I have since learned the significant effect water and sanitation have on public health and I hope to be a part of the solution!”
The entire PWW team extends our heartfelt gratitude to Aubrey for her enthusiasm, continued engagement, and unwavering commitment, not just to PWW and the people we serve, but toward making the world a healthier, brighter place. Best of luck in as you move forward in your career. You’re sure to move mountains!