Exclusive Interview: Barbara Margolies founder of IOWD

Driven by the desire to change lives, Barbara Margolies retired from her life as a Brooklyn elementary school teacher and founded the International Organization for Women and Development (IOWD). IOWD was founded to treat women in Africa suffering with obstetric fistula, a condition which affects 100,000 women a year.

We had a chance to talk with Barbara about starting IOWD, her biggest rewards and her future plans for the organization. Read more for a full Q&A and visit additional posts on the IOWD trips attended by Lida Orzeck, CEO of Hanky Panky and member of IOWD’s Board of Directors.

This is a photo of Barbara and a lovely, gracious woman who spent 18 years being incontinent, was raped during the Genocide and her husband and 2 of her 4 children were killed. She bore the child of the rape, and raised him with her remaining children. Thanks to the IOWD team, she is dry now and a very happy, grateful woman.

Hanky Panky: Did you know your calling was working with women? How hard is it to not spread yourself too thin and try to help everyone in need?

Barbara Margolies: I had no idea that my life would take me down this path. I was teaching in Niger for the State Department and learned of women with fistula, living in the courtyard of the National Hospital, some, for 20 years!!!!  Who knew what fistula was?  After an explicit description, I knew then that I HAD to do something and I formed International Organization for Women & Development (IOWD). I have continued on this path with great passion, dedication and without a moment of hesitation.  We are committed to working in only one country at a time, it is really the only way to not spread yourself thin at least for our doctors and nurses.  Returning to one country, one city and the same hospitals is the way to build a strong relationship with our hosts and to build trust.  They know we are not a “one shot deal” and will return again and again to build programs and friendships. We cannot change the world, we cannot even change a whole country! We are aware of our limitations as a small, completely voluntary organization but that’s okay! We can change so many lives and have done just that through surgical procedures and through teaching of our colleagues in Niger, and particularly in Rwanda where our programs have expanded to include many medical specialties.

Dr. Liz and Dr. Sharon with Rwandan nurses.

Hanky Panky: What has been the biggest reward starting the IOWD foundation? I’m sure there are a ton!

BM: I’m not sure I can answer this fairly but I can tell you this: helping women, and children, who would not have had the opportunity to be helped, has been an incredible experience. Watching Rwandan doctors, medical students and nurses share in the knowledge of our medical staffs and then seeing them perform surgeries themselves is amazing! They treat their patients with the utmost of care and compassion and when we receive their written and verbal gratitude for all that we have shared with them, this had been fabulous.  As an educator, I am seeing knowledge transferred to others, a gift that will stay with the Rwandans forever!  And lastly, although far from insignificant is the fact that as a woman and one without any medical background, I have created a program that has truly affected the lives of others. Of course, I could not have done this without the support of my family and all the fabulous doctors and nurses who come with us 3 times a year to Rwanda. Doors opened – I walked through and never looked back!  Life can be very rewarding if one takes a chance and walks through those doors!

Here Barbara is welcoming a dry patient who has returned for a follow-up exam. The Rwandan medical students call the old IOWD patients and ask them to return for a follow-up as we do here in the States. Barbara says, “They are so happy to return to see us and get the care they deserve!”

Hanky Panky: What do you feel is your biggest challenge with the work you do in Rwanda, Niger and Vietnam?

BM: Well, we only work in Rwanda now and although, since the Genocide, the country is working extraordinarily  hard to provide medical help for women and children, they have a limited amount of trained doctors and properly equipped hospitals. Our challenges are to train as many young doctors as possible and see them train their colleagues.  We also need money (or in-kind donations) to purchase anesthesia machines for the operating theaters; proper stirrups for the examining tables; good, strong lights in the operating rooms, some new ultrasound machines, which we desperately need for the Obstetrical patients. It’s all just basic equipment, nothing fancy but we need it so that we and the Rwandans can provide proper care for the patients. They deserve it!

David Dirito and a patient’s baby.

Rwandan and IOWD Anesthesia Nurses.

Hanky Panky: The work IOWD has done in Rwanda is amazing! Do you think you will expand the organization to work in different cities or countries?

BM: We will stay in Rwanda for as long as they need us. There are many hospitals in Kigali, the capital city, and they are happy to have us work with them. There’s lots of teaching to be done, lots of friendships to be made. As Americans, we are proud and honored to work with the Rwandan people. We are doing our best to help as the Rwandans rebuild their country as one nation, one people.

Janet with many of IOWD’s patients.

Hanky Panky: When is your next trip?

BM: October 12…want to come? If you are interested in volunteering on a trip with IOWD contact info@nigerfistula.org.

**If you can’t join IOWD on a trip to Rwanda but still would like to be involved—you can! From August 15th – 21st, 5% of net proceeds from purchases on www.hankypanky.com will be donated to the International Organization for Women and Development, Inc.
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About Hanky Panky

In 1977, designer Gale Epstein created a hand-made lingerie set for her friend, Lida Orzeck, crafted out of embroidered handkerchiefs. The original designs were the inspiration for the company name, Hanky Panky. Blending traditional with modern glam looks, Hanky Panky is a fashion favorite of countless celebrities.
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