Why Women Who Volunteer Abroad are Our Heroes

Elaina Giolando
Elaina Giolando
Topic Expert

A former management consultant turned nomad, Elaina writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel on topics including internships abroad and gap years.

Woman volunteering abroad

While volunteering abroad is commendable regardless of the gender of the volunteer, women have an especially critical role when it comes to promoting gender equality around the world: they lead by example. International Women's Day, a day which celebrates the economic, political, and social achievements of women around the world, is right around the corner. As such, we at Go Overseas are honoring some of our biggest heroes: women who volunteer abroad.

According to the World Bank, "Putting resources into poor women’s hands while promoting gender equality in the household and in society results in large development payoffs. Expanding women’s opportunities in public works, agriculture, finance, and other sectors accelerates economic growth, helping to mitigate the effects of current and future financial crises."

It is empowering to see women making a difference by sharing their valuable skills abroad.

That's right, women have an internationally-recognized role to play in international economic development. And what better way to promote gender equality than to get women themselves into the most critical markets for growth and transformation to help lead other women into a better future for their countries and the world?

By human nature, people are more empowered by role models we can relate to, so it becomes even more important to use international volunteerism as a platform to give more women around the world leaders they can empathize with -- as well as people with whom they can share skill sets, craft new ideas, employ innovative solutions, and set positive examples for their communities.

So in honor of 2015 International Women's Day's theme "Make it Happen", Go Overseas asked a group of women, aged 21 to 26, with an impressive array of experiences volunteering abroad: "Why are women who volunteer abroad our heroes?" Here's what they said:

1. They're Opening Eyes to Gender Equality

Wendy Song

"It is empowering to see women making a difference by sharing their valuable skills abroad.

In many instances, women who are volunteering abroad in under-privileged areas are entering into a patriarchal society, one that is not used to seeing women who have power and self-efficacy.

It opens the locals' eyes -- both men and women alike -- to the possibility of gender equality and allows a glimpse of the impressive prowess that females can possess (given the right opportunities)."

-- Wendy Song, volunteered with Project HOPE in Peru and Young Scholars International in China

2. They Travel for Hope

Kristen Chen

"I think women volunteering overseas is so vital because it is symbolic of women becoming and being recognized as explorers, challengers and dreamers, equal to our male counterparts.

Traveling, not to mention traveling alone, is only a very recent luxury for women. Then, the fact that so many women choose to volunteer as their purpose of travel is that much more encouraging -- it's like we travel for hope."

-- Kirsten Chen, volunteered with Learning Enterprises in China 2009

3. They're Sending the Right Message about Safety

Emily DeBeer

"Women are often discouraged from traveling for safety reasons, but in my opinion, one of the worst things you can do is tell a woman to be afraid.

If we keep denying self-sufficiency and agency from capable women, we cut our chances to make real progress in half or maybe more.

"It's not just about the volunteer work they do, but also about being proactive enough to go out into the world and stare the issues in the face. That takes real courage."

-- Emily deBeer, volunteered in Cameroon and Indonesia

4. They Spread Ideas about Female Autonomy

Raina Kahanu

"In American Samoa it's normal for women to marry in early 20s. One volunteer in particular experienced her students asking her why she wasn't married when she was already 24. She told them, 'Because I choose not to be.'

"For some of her female students, that was the first time they realized they didn't HAVE to be married young and that they could make their own choices."

-- Raina Kahanu, volunteered with World Teach in American Samoa

5. They're Starting New Businesses for Development


"The recent flux of women volunteers abroad has offered a new perspective on business models to aid locals in emerging market arenas with the knowledge gained from engaging in activities with a local population firsthand.

"A few examples of such businesses grown by previous women volunteers are Acumen and Endeavor. Such business models would not have been formed had these women not worked or volunteered abroad."

-- Kamayani Gupta, volunteered with Fulbright ETA in Malaysia

6. They Exercise Female Strengths to Create Change

"Women volunteering abroad are our heroes because women can demonstrate inspiring confidence and independence while exercising feminine strengths of compassion and connection to engage others to lead sustainable, positive change in their lives and communities."

-- Marika Meertens of Visionaria Peru

7. They Own the Element of Surprise


"The first thing that comes to mind when I think of women volunteers is the surprise factor. I started traveling and volunteering abroad at 16. Everyone thought I was crazy. They were concerned with my safety and thought I was a little 'off.'

"Now, looking back, I cannot imagine life without those experiences. At the end of the day, I think volunteering abroad always impacts the participant more than it does the community or people she works with. But for the experiences I've had, I wouldn't change it for the world."

-- Grace Farson, volunteered with BAPATLA Children's Home in India and ECCA in Nepal

8. They're Identifying Their Passions

Hannah Spring

"Women who volunteer abroad are our heroes because they’ve identified something that they’re passionate about enough to sacrifice other aspects of their life for (money, proximity to friends, first world conveniences, etc). Putting passion first gives them a sense of satisfaction that withstands the ebbs and flows of the day-to-day."

"Women who volunteer abroad apply the same drive - identifying what they’re passionate about and pursuing it - to other aspects of their life. Also, they’ve spent time doing something that puts the trivial nature of many of our every day worries into perspective."

-- Hannah Spring, volunteered abroad in Kenya

9. They're Bringing it Home

Salt Lake City

"Women who volunteer abroad not only improve conditions in whatever field of work they choose, they are also improving themselves through global awareness and cultural sensitivity. They often bring these qualities home with them and the impact of this is immeasurable."

-- Emily deBeer, volunteered in Cameroon and Indonesia

How Will You Celebrate the Women in Your Life?

Need we say more? Women are recognized by every major international development organization as the key players for promoting job creation, alleviating poverty, educating the next generation, and ensuring economic stability in countries around the world.

Therefore, it must be said that the female volunteers who travel thousands of miles around the world to help tackle these issues - and their counterparts from those countries -- are our heroes.

Without both sides working together, along with important international policy measures driving change in a long-term perspective, the world will continue to suffer from deeply-entrenched poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Happy (almost) International Women's Day!

Photo Credits: Our lovely interviewees and Anna Langer.