An unexpected family planning educator: An apparel factory

The Double Bottom Line: Why Reproductive Health Matters to the Apparel Industry in Haiti

An Interview with Cynthia Petterson, Cofounder and CEO of Share Hope


Cynthia Petterson is the cofounder and CEO of Share Hope, a unique, two-pronged entity that is one part 501C3 non-profit organization and one part for-profit subsidiary corporation that obtains contracts to produce apparel in factories in Haiti. But what truly makes Cynthia a trailblazer in the corporate world is her passion for the health and wellbeing of the workers and the innovative health education program Share Hope provides.

In partnership with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), Share Hope has implemented the HERhealth program, a collection of one-hour trainings on topics ranging from nutrition, to sanitation, to STI prevention and reproductive health.  BSR develops a basic curriculum, and partners on the ground like Share Hope, adjust it to match local needs and train peer educators to teach the courses to small groups of women during their lunch breaks.

In a country like Haiti where a woman has a 1 in 80 chance of dying from a pregnancy or childbirth-related cause, diarrhea continues to be a leading cause of death among babies under five, and only  31 percent of women of reproductive age use modern contraceptives (compared to 84 percent in the U.K.), access to basic health care information can make a huge difference in the lives of Haitians working in the garment industry.

The Universal Access Project at the United Nations Foundation recently traveled to Haiti to meet Cynthia and some of the women working in the factories who participate in the healthcare trainings that Share Hope implements.  Here is what they had to say.


UAP: What inspired you to start Share Hope?

Clothing manufacturing is my background; my family had a factory in the Bronx for 30 years. For us, people and product, they come together. You can’t do one absent of the other.

I got off the plane in Haiti in the fall of 2008, and in the journey from the airport here to the SONAPI Industrial Parc literally my life was changed. I looked at the poverty and it was just staggering for me. There wasn’t a lot of energy and exchange of goods. I crossed the gate into the industrial park and I saw something different. I saw people hurrying, walking with purpose trying to get to work. I saw the difference that a job makes.

I realized: Oh my goodness, these are just people who need jobs, and this is an industry that can employ thousands of people in a short period of time, and provide them with what should be good and decent work.

UAP: Why become a non-profit in addition to a for-profit?

We believe that the wages aren’t high enough, not for people to really be able to aspire to a life that each one of us would like to aspire to. So we incorporated in this unusual structure of a 501c3 that fully owns the commercial entity. Everything that the commercial entity does belongs to the foundation. And the foundation is committed to take that profit and reinvest it into identified needs of the community.

UAP: How does improving worker health improve your bottom line?

From a business perspective, I would really like to see business owners shift their focus to what makes the workers happy in addition to earning more money. What makes workers happy is going to make for a more productive environment, and the business runs on productivity. It also allows the business to make a real contribution to sustainable development. Share Hope wants to be strong promoter of the Sustainable Development Goals.

UAP: How did you decide to implement the HERhealth program?

In 2013, we did a rather extensive garment worker quality of life survey and found out that much needs to be done to improve the livelihoods of workers, especially in health and education .

When Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) along with Levi Strauss decided that they wanted to launch Herhealth in Haiti, we wound up being the implementers.


UAP: How does the HERhealth program work?

The way the HERhealth project works is that there are suggested curricula, and each NGO that is working in a country is charged with modifying or designing the topical curricula to suit the needs of every country’s context. So much so, that there is a need to do a health needs assessment in every factory that you work in. So, a health needs assessment was done in the North, and we did one here [at the SONAPI Industrial Park].

Nathalie Gass, our HERhealth Coordinator and curriculum developer has worked in developing countries for years and is really keenly aware of what many of the needs are. She trains the master trainers, who are then tasked to train the peer educators.

UAP: Have you seen changes in the workers since you started the HERhealth program?

Yes. We did water-borne diseases as the first module. Diarrhea is a problem in this country, but many of them assume it is just part of living. We did a series of focus groups, and one woman said that one of the things that is more significant for her is that now she washes all of her fruits and vegetables and disinfects them with Clorox. The question afterwards is: What’s the experience with diarrhea? Across the table, everyone says: We have less.

There is a manager who said that in 29 years of working in this industry he has never seen something that has impacted workers as much as this HERhealth curriculum.

I think it shows workers that they can be active participants in their well-being. That makes their work life better. If they’re not struggling about the issues of the baby having diarrhea. People are just happier.

UAP: Do you feel HERhealth helped correct any health misconceptions, if so, which ones?

The most shocking anecdote that came up was, “Oh yeah, you can go get oral contraceptives from the clinics.” We were really encouraged by that. But then [the women] said, “If they have them, they’ll give you one or two.” That’s when we knew they didn’t know how to take [birth control], and the nurses weren’t telling them how to take them. You have a pill pack with 21 and placebos, but someone is giving you one or two, or three or four, and you take that, and you think that that’s going to do. There were lots of anecdotes about home remedies. There’s one where you take a cigarette and you boil it in beer and if you drink it hot right after sex then the sperm comes out.

That was during the health needs assessment, so we knew that we had to go the whole gamut. Women didn’t know what they looked like on the inside. They had no idea. Some of them had heard that there’s a “tube.” They didn’t know that they had eggs and that eggs were released. There was no knowledge.

We’re doing family planning in two sessions now. That’s the first time we are doing a module in two sessions, because it’s so chock full of stuff that we said, we really need them to understand. It’s double the cost for us but we don’t really care.

UAP: Have you seen any other changes from the family planning sessions?

It’s very interesting how [the employees] feel empowered that they know. They’re talking about talking to their adult children. One of the women has a 21 year old son, and she said, “Before, I would have been really upset, ‘How can they come encourage my son to be promiscuous?’ But now I realize that I need to share this information with my son and all his friends, even if the other parents get mad at me.” So it’s exciting to see these changes.


UAP: Why do you think the HERhealth model is so effective?

The peer educator model is an excellent model, and hats off to BSR for having developed it. We have access to 10,000 people minimum that these messages have touched. So imagine if you have 33,000 people presently employed in this industry. Out of that, 22,000-24,000 are women. Just that number of people on a regular basis, getting access to good information and empowering them to share that, it’s phenomenal. It really is.

When you sit with 25 people, and you talk to them, you give them something to take home so you can refresh their memory. And then you also empower them to go and talk to the people in their family. They have someone back in their work environment they can go to during the day. You can go to them and say, “Did they say seven drops of Clorox for the gallon, or did they say 40 drops?” It’s just very effective.


Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


I got off the plane in Haiti in the fall of 2008, and in the journey from the airport here to the SONAPI Industrial Parc literally my life was changed.