Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud has led a bold effort to support Saudi women’s entrance into the workforce, and now the CEO of Saudi Arabian luxury retailer Alfa Intl. is taking on critical national issues in women’s health. At a keynote conversation with Fast Company editor-in-chief Robert Safian at SXSW Interactive today, Princess Reema introduced 10KSA (for 10,000 in Saudi Arabia), a far-reaching breast cancer and health awareness campaign that will culminate in an all-day, all-women event on October 24 in Riyadh. Among many other activities and programs, the event will gather an estimated 10,000 women to form the world’s largest pink humanitarian ribbon on record. Funds raised from the event will go to support the Zahra Breast Cancer Association, of which Princess Reema is a founding board member.
In the U.S., breast cancer awareness campaigns are well established, but even so, there’s a long way to go with prevention and treatment. In Saudi Arabia, where breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for women ages 20-59, social structures and stigmas significantly limit education and necessary action. While Saudi women in major cities are generally aware of the need for self-examination and mammograms, there is a need to constantly encourage and support these steps–and there is extensive work to be done for women in rural areas.
“We take this dialogue to the rural areas and villages, where it is completely different, because we need kick up breast cancer as a mainstream dialogue, where there is no shame in discussing that part of the body,” she tells Fast Company. “We face a lot of societal issues where a woman doesn’t want to admit illness because she doesn’t want to be discarded and replaced by another women. A lot of times these women will have illnesses that are not just breast cancer, but many others, and they just keep persevering and not admitting pain, or admitting suffering.”
Princess Reema says that there are additional challenges in a faith-based nation like Saudi Arabia, particularly outside the main cities. “The faith and belief that God will cure all is a absolutely wonderful and phenomenal belief, but you actually have to go to the doctor,” she says. “It’s really trying to get people to accept the fact that their health has to be something that’s a priority on their own personal checklist.”
As a result, 10KSA will use the event as an opportunity to educate and organize around a variety of health issues in addition to breast cancer. “With the help of the Ministry of Health, we’re inviting all of the organizations of standards that address emotional, mental, physical, and environmental health, to come and be a part of what we’re calling The Circle of Awareness,” says Princess Reema. “From diabetes, to obesity, and anti-smoking campaigns, organ donation, because we feel that if that many people are coming out we need to have a maximum positive impact.”
The organization is also working with local hospitals to conduct a variety of infectious disease and mental health screenings for anyone on-site who opts in, as well as DNA testing for genetic predisposition to breast cancer and other diseases.
To maximize the event’s visibility, the 10,000-strong pink ribbon will aim to break the record that Saudi Arabia first set in 2010 with 4,000 women, which has since been surpassed by India. “Breaking the world record is really just to symbolize a moment in time,” says Princess Reema. “The actual activity that we want to happen from this is that those 10,000 women become ambassadors for health awareness, who will go out into their communities and spread the message of total health.”
While some of these initiatives would be valuable to all Saudi Arabians, Princess Reema says it’s very important that 10KSA be a women-only event. “I want to make sure that the women that are coming are as comfortable as possible to enjoy themselves, and to engage, and to learn,” she says, “not to have any kind of awkwardness, or discomfort.”
The money raised both at the event and through its digital and social media extensions will be used by the Zahra Association for two main purposes. “Number one is for the endowment to make sure that the organization is a long-term sustainable organization,” says Princess Reema. “There is nothing that kills charities faster than having to every month, and every day, and every year, consider where’s our financing coming from. The second is to make investments in the extended support for breast cancer patients in the regional areas. In the three main cities you have the larger hospitals; when you go out to the more rural areas they have to filter into their primary care, then they filter into secondary, and then they filter into the larger hospitals in the city. What we’d like to do is shorten that journey and be able to create mobile clinics or support clinics in the various cities.”
The 10KSA campaign has also created a short film, debuted during Princess Reema’s SXSW keynote, that features breast cancer survivors and their doctors and loved ones to further encourage the conversation in Saudi culture.
“The film is really made up of people who care about the cause and have been working tirelessly to make sure that breast cancer is a mainstream conversation here,” says Princess Reema. “We chose them because we wanted to make sure that we tell multiple stories, and multiple voices, and show multiple faces.
“I’m going to be intrigued by how people react to some of the ladies that you’ll see there, because I wanted to make sure that I showed a full spectrum of the Saudi society. So yes, some people cover their faces and some people don’t. Some people are wearing lab coats, other people are wearing their abayas. It was really important for me to show the full spectrum of my community.”