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Archive for the ‘Women Making Mischief’ Category

When communities get smart, girls don’t drop out

Sunday, May 15, 2011
Almost one year since we finished college and it’s graduation season again.  We attended a graduation party here, back in September (see Christina’s post), for the elite all-girls school Fawe.  Since then, I’ve realized all the factors that conspire against Rwandan girls who want to graduate. According to a group of primary school teachers we are working with in rural Mahembe, a suspicious number of girls disappear around puberty. In Rwanda this ‘coincidence’ isn’t suspicious at all, and it is reported in rural schools around the country. Christine, the president of the team that calls itself “Perseverance,” explained that girls drop out of school for many reasons related to puberty: they want to escape harassment from boys, menstrual periods are hard to manage away from home, and, just like in the US, teenage girls get pregnant. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline noted the inadequate facilities at school for menstruating girls.  There are no sanitation supplies available, unlike in the US where tampons and pads wait neatly next to the sink or in a metal dispenser on the wall.  There is no water for the girls to wash out their rags, clean their stained clothes, or even wash their hands of embarrassing evidence.  There is no place to rest when cramps become unbearable. Most importantly, there is no privacy.  Boys and girls share the same latrines— a mud outhouse with a hole in the ground and a feeble wood-plank door that seems perfectly designed for enterprising boys who spy and squeal while a girl spends extra long in the latrine. The teachers are raising money to build a separate latrine for girls and a private area with a spiket for washing.  They also hope to provide pads every month.* This measure will ensure that girls continue to attend school through menstruation; their goal is to decrease the number of girls who stay home during menstruation to just 40%. But the problem isn’t solved with a few pads and a better bathroom. The teachers know that menstruation isn’t the only reason girls drop out around puberty. Teenage pregnancy is a great concern in this predominantly Christian country.  Rwandan schoolgirls end up pregnant for many of the same reasons as American girls, and for other ones, too. Sometimes they don’t know the link between sex and pregnancy. Other times, they fall prey to “sugar daddies” who offer them candy or spending money in exchange for sex.  In Kigali, sugar daddies are usually well-dressed men with cars. At Mahembe School, they are young boys with bicycle taxis who hang out around the school. These older boys tempt the schoolgirls with coveted fried donuts and rides to and from school. Girls don’t think they can attend school while pregnant, much less with a child, and so after their mistake, they drop out. There were ten such cases last year.

These billboards dot the country, warning against Shuga Dadi. Some girls are lured in by rides or candy, then get pregnant and drop out of school. "Sinigurisha" means "I am not for sale."

Not all who drop out are pregnant. Boys harass girls with mature bodies, and sometimes it’s just easier to stay home. Parents know that this harassment happens, so they take preventative measures. One study of rural schools in Tanzania found that girls’ performance started lagging behind boys’ around puberty because they weren’t allowed outside the home after 6pm and couldn’t participate in group study sessions.** According to the Mahembe teachers, parents don’t see much value in educating girls.  “They think that if she goes to school, she’ll get pregnant and drop out, and then they’ll lose their money [from tuition].” And the loss of money is nothing compared to the loss of family pride. It is not uncommon for a single mother to be beaten by her brothers and kicked out of the house.*** The team’s comprehensive solution includes workshops for girls, taxi-bikers, and parents. They will emphasize to fathers that it is just as important to educate girls as boys, and that their daughter is not guaranteed to “waste” their money by finding a boy and getting pregnant. The pesky taxi-bikers will learn about safe sex, and the girls will be educated on the myriad of issues they face so that they will be better equipped to make good decisions. Christine, Marie-Claudine, and Marcelline are also introducing a reproductive health curriculum for all Mahembe students aged twelve to eighteen. They will partner with the local clinic to hold open public workshops about HIV, promoting condom use. For the girls who have already left school, community social workers are being dispatched to follow their cases and work with the family to re-enroll the daughter. “If people are educated about reproductive health,” a team member told us, “the number of unwanted pregnancies will decrease, and fewer girls will drop out of school.”  Fewer drop-outs means more graduations, more parties, more women in skilled jobs, and one more step towards gender equality. The Stats 73.2%:  US high school completion rate 75%: Rwandan ninth grade completion rate (after 9th grade, education is no longer free) Neither country reported a notable sex difference. I maintain that in Rwanda, there is an inequality in real opportunity for education; more girls would graduate if the system were different and they felt safe at school, were supported by their parents, and understood how to prevent pregnancy. (The US data was taken from the most comprehensive report I could find: High School Drop-out and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007, by the US Department of Education. The Rwandan data was taken from the results of a study by the Ministry of Education, which were published in the government newspaper The New Times on April 22, 2010.)

According to our team, some Rwandan girls don't go to school, even though they want to. They fear harassment from boys, there is no place to wash when they are menstruating, their father believes it is a waste of money, or they have gotten pregnant.

*For a creative, local solution to the exorbitant price of sanitary pads, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is engineering sanitary napkins out of banana fiber. http://www.sheinnovates.com/ourventures.html **From an interesting paper recommended by a friend: Sommer, M. (2010). “Where the education system and women’s bodies collide: The social and health impact of girls’ experiences of menstruation and schooling in Tanzania.Journal of Adolescence, 33, 521-529. ***This is according to another Global Grassroots team, A Friend Indeed, which provides support to unwed mothers and their stigmatized children.

Teaching Basic English to Vulnerable Women

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Fridays we explain independent clauses, but on Mondays and Thursdays we taught (until recently) an entirely different kind of English class.  We traveled to Gisozi, the site of one GG project started by Evariste in 2008.  The Community Vocational Training School teaches tailoring to vulnerable women (widows, orphans, and prostitutes), and in October we attended the graduation of this year’s class of 24 women, many of whom are using this marketable skill to leave prostitution or free themselves from dependence on an abusive husband.  At the reception, we were drinking Fanta and eating bread when some of the women asked Evariste if we could teach them English.

Rwandans celebrate most occassions (at least weddings, graduations, & birthdays in our experience) by sharing Fanta and some bread. On the left is Evariste, who founded CVTS after being trained by GG and receiving seed-funding for the project. On the right is our Country Director Marlene, and the far left is a graduate who no one realized sneaked into the picture :) 

 

A few days later, Christina and I said yes.  Although we receive at least two requests per day for English lessons (taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and teammates are all eager to keep pace after the country’s 2008 shift from French to English), we decided that this class fit with our project because it could improve the graduates’ employability.  If a tailor can speak enough English to take measurements of and negotiate with tourists and ex-pats, she or he will be quite popular.  (Everyone knows Josephine, the go-to English-speaker in our market.)  So, we agreed to a month-long class, thinking that was enough time to teach some occupational English.

Teaching women who have never been to school is not as difficult as I anticipated.  It took a long time for the one or two illiterate girls to copy from the board, letter by letter, and the general pace was pretty slow, but most of them grasped the concepts the first time around.  They are very eager learners.  They took notes on everything, and somehow, between sewing, cooking, and caring for their families, they always found time to do the homework.  No one complained about writing on their laps while perched on wooden stools and chairs that collapse without warning.  For good lighting, they dragged the one-legged blackboard out onto the front porch of the school.  We hadn’t quite figured out yet how to prop it up and on the first day of school, it may or may not have careened forward onto me mid-explanation of ‘I am’.  A blackboard falling from the sky was a first in all my school experience, but some things are apparently international: the know-it-alls sit in front, the shy ones never raise their hands, and there was a class clown, Josiane.  Looking back, I’m impressed she let that blackboard incident slide… by the end all someone has to do was accidentally say “I am a boy,” and she had the female offender collapsed in giggles.  The laughter would die down until someone piped up, “Are you a boy?” and we all deteriorated again.  Our classroom management skills may be lacking, but it’s ok—they’d mastered interrogatives!

We teach an English class twice per week to vulnerable women who learned to sew as a way to a better life. With basic English, they will (hopefully!) get more clients and have a better chance of landing a steady job with a cooperative. Our classroom was outside on the porch of the sewing school, since there is no electricity inside. The blackboard is missing a leg, chairs often collapse, and neighborhood children eavedrop outside. 

Happy International Women’s Day! The 100th Anniversary

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In 1910, the First International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen created International Women’s Day, which wasn’t designated as March 8th until 1977 by the UN. (Ok, so the ‘100th Anniversary’ claim is suspect, and was possibly used last year as well, but everyone here is still excited.) My waiter at breakfast wished me a Happy Women’s Day, and a motorcycle driver shouted well wishes after me as I walked down the street in Kampala. Unfortunately, the sentiment was probably the same as when motos SSss at me every other day of the year, which our Rwandan male friends claim are all for men. “I don’t know why you need a special day for you, unless you’re admitting that the other 364 are for us,” Marlene’s husband told us.

Nonetheless, Women’s Day is a big holiday in Rwanda and Uganda (and an official public holiday in Afghanistan and China among others, according to Wikipedia). Some businesses are closed, organizations host special events, and articles about female empowerment run in the government paper.  The Director of the Center for Gender and Cultural Development is hosting a celebratory breakfast at her home this morning, and we are speaking at a conference on gender research and activism this weekend.

In a country where we spend our days hearing stories of discrimination, gender-based violence, and inequality in educating daughters vs sons, formal support for women is encouraging, but according to our teams, not yet enough- that’s why they keep calling us! In the meantime, I’ll continue arguing with Marlene’s husband, laughing along with Elvis at the supermarket because I insist on carrying my own jug of water to the register, and wearing long skirts to frisbee before changing into shorts and running alongside teammates who inform me they’re going to marry three wives. …And then I intercept his pass and all is right in the world.

Women who are widows, orphans and former commercial sex workers lining up for the group picture at the 2010 graduation ceremony for the Community Vocational Training School, a social venture that receives GG seed funding and training. CVTS teaches the women how to sew so they can support themselves.

A Saddening Statistic

Monday, February 14, 2011

Is domestic violence legal in Rwanda? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, in this case the law is more progressive than customary practice.

The team “Build a Family” witnessed overwhelming amounts of gender-based violence in their community, both between couples and between patriarchs and female domestic help.* Global Grassroots is currently helping them implement their envisioned solution. Community members will change their traditional mindsets through workshops on laws and ethics of abuse. “Build a Family” will also form an association for domestic workers to advocate to their employers. By creating a sewing cooperative, domestic workers and wives will gain the confidence or economic power that often ends the violence. (A husband is less likely to beat his wife if she contributes to the family’s income.)

*Many Rwandans support the economy by providing employment to young men and women as housekeepers, guards and nannies. The worker is expected to live at the house and is rarely permitted time off to see friends or family. Typical salary is 8000 RFW ($13.34) per month for a nanny or housekeeper.

As part of our goal to increase the efficacy and sustainability of Global Grassroots projects, we helped “Build a Family” create a survey to evaluate the current state of gender-based violence in their community. Their planned trainings will emphasize the most relevant topics as identified by the survey.

Sixty-five percent of wives reported that their husbands had recently beaten them. 100% of wives felt that women are undervalued in their community. Ninety-five percent of domestic workers feared being raped by their employers, and 79% reported suffering from daily verbal or emotional abuse. The team surveyed local authorities, who reported that it is common for domestic workers and wives to be thrown out of the house one evening, without a place to stay, after offending their boss/husband. If life is bad in a house with one dominant male and small bit of his salary, imagine life on the street with many single males and no money.

We explained how to tally results and gave a crash course on calculating percentages. The numbers made me cringe. For me, a woman from a liberal environment who never doubted that men and I deserve the same respect, the worst result was the opinion of the Rwandan women.

  • Does a husband have the right to beat his wife: Yes- 0% No- 100%

But our now survey-savvy team followed up:

  • In what circumstances do you think your husband has a right to beat you? (You may mark more than one answer.)
    • 10% When you do not respect his orders
    • 0% When you come home late
    • 0% When you have wasted money or property
    • 90% When you cheat your husband

Eighteen out of the twenty women surveyed said that their husband had a right to beat them if they were unfaithful. How deep those patriarchal roots run.

From left: Team Leaders Rahema, Jeanine, & Vienny, fellows Caitlin & Christina, GG intern Josiane. Meeting to create a survey to assess domestic violence in a Rwandan community.
Team leaders Jeanine and Vienny take notes at a training on legislation about domestic violence, equal inheritance, and polygamy among other misunderstood laws. Five team members were trained, and they will now train 20 couples and 20 female domestic helpers in their community.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

One afternoon I was walking to the bus with Christina and our co-worker Marlene.  A man with what was probably schizophrenia approached Marlene and started talking in a garbled way, asking for money. Marlene, who in her words “loves to talk to the people,” chatted with him for a while, probing his story, before we gave him a coin. He ran away with a giddy hitch in his step. The villagers around us laughed at his departing image and bombarded Marlene with questions that basically all asked, “Why did you talk to that fool?”

One of our newest Global Grassroots teams is a group of mothers who started a boarding school for children with disabilities– to our knowledge, the only institution of its kind in the country. As a budding psychologist I was excited to see the Rwandan equivalent of special education.

Packed-mud rooms contain bunks for the children, who have ample space to play outside on the cement and grass.  Uphill, a cooking hut leaks charcoal smoke, and adjacent sits a wooden structure where children and teachers eat beans and rice. As I approached the school, an adorable deaf girl in her blue uniform dress spotted me.  Grabbing my hand, she pulled me on a tour of her own bunk room, small and bare classroom, and squat toilet, where she crinkled and held her nose, yanking me quickly past.  She dropped me at the well-decorated and electrified office of the director.  During our meeting, an older girl with mental retardation opened the door, plopped down on the couch and struck up conversation with our translator for a few minutes before she was gone, as abruptly as she’d come.

On our way out, the director scooped up a crying infant with a deformed face and a mass the size of a baseball over one temple.  A child with withered legs was propped in a wheelchair, his head leaning listlessly to one side, his eyes not recognizing our smiles.  My original tour guide introduced me to her friend, a girl who motioned towards her lips that she couldn’t speak, while a boy with an adult-looking face and a giant smile streaked by me in energetic laps around the lawn.  They are all classmates.  Diagnoses would be difficult to translate into English, but our co-worker Marlene was spared: we’ve been told there are only seven psychologists in the country, so most of these rural children have never been labeled.

Even if clinical services were available, I am doubtful that parents would willingly take their children. A mother who bears a child with a disability is usually ostracized or even rejected by her family. They might say that she is possessed by evil spirits and blame her for giving birth to a child who will consume the family’s resources and never contribute. She may be forced to work a full-time job and simultaneously care for her child, without help.  The directors of the school– all mothers of at least one child with special needs– applied to be Global Grassroots social change agents because they want to help other women in their position. They hope to do educational outreach to families to teach them how to care for their child with special needs, and maybe even love him/her as their other children.  They plan to teach sign language to mothers of deaf children, and their community awareness campaign will work to dispel the myths.

Last, to combat the notion that these children and their mothers only drain family resources, the team will set up a small grocery store. Mothers who face severe maltreatment from their families will collectively manage the store and market their home-grown produce there. Through the store they will generate income, which the team hopes will raise their familial status and put an end to the ostracizing. It even solves the problem of childcare while at work: Their children will socialize at the store, and those who are able will restock shelves, thereby dispelling the myth that they are unproductive members of an unsympathetic society.

Leonice, president of the school for children with special needs, and a young child with a tumor over his temple.
The girl on the left gave me a tour of the dorms, classrooms, and bathrooms, and then introduced me to her friend on the right, who is also deaf.

Water is NOT all around

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Love is “urukundo” in Kinyarwanda.  Kamonyi district’s “Team of Love” consists of a beautiful young woman named Christine, two elderly, wrinkled ladies, one of the ladies’ son, and a local government official.  The inspiration for their name comes from the group’s love for their village community, despite its myriad problems.  They seek to alleviate malnutrition, domestic violence, miscarriages, lack of female personal development, school truancy among children, inequality in education levels between boys and girls, and a gender disparity in local government…  If these goals seem overly ambitious, the solution seems frighteningly simple.

You’ve heard about ‘water in Africa’ a thousand times, and maybe you’ve even donated to dig a well or two. But did you ever imagine in what deep and varied ways that dollar improved individual lives? Here is a snapshot of the ripple effect of water scarcity in one community: the mountaintop village of Kamonyi, Rwanda.

Team of Love told us that women must walk an hour or more down the mountainside to fetch water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.  Walking two to three strenuous hours for water leaves less time to complete other household chores, and if a husband comes home to a dirty house or dinner just getting started, he often beats his wife.  (A team from Nyamirambo, a community closer to Kigali, told different stories of husbands leaving their wives for other, more hygienic women because their own wives couldn’t usually sacrifice the family’s water for their personal baths.)

In addition to serving as a trigger for domestic abuse, the arduous trek down the mountain and back up is a health risk for many women.  Carrying jerry cans stacked on their heads for hours causes severe migraines for some. Elderly, sick, and even pregnant women all make the journey, and a few expectant mothers have suffered miscarriages.

The scarcity of water also causes malnutrition. Crops die without sufficient irrigation, leaving less food, less variety in food, and less income to buy diverse food.  The kitchen gardens where women grow fresh vegetables wither in the dry season.  Others foods are cut out of families’ diets because their preparation requires water.  Children lack those vitamins and eat many French fries (called ‘chips’).  Potatoes require little water to grow and can easily be fried instead of boiled.  Cooking with oil instead conserves water but is less healthy. (Another team is educating their community about nutrition and encouraging members to grow vitamin-rich foods like spinach. Rwandan children used to munching crispy French fries are in for a rough change!)

The Team of Love explained why their children often miss school. Kids must bring water to school on “cleaning days” (since there is no running water at the school to clean the building). If a child arrives empty-handed because her family could not spare water that week, she is sent home. She is also sent home if she fails the bi-weekly checks of bodily cleanliness and a thoroughly washed uniform. (The hygiene checks help to prevent the spread of disease.)

Some children frequently miss the morning part of school because their mothers ask them to come help fetch water.  It’s usually the girls who are absent from morning lessons, “because,” the team told us, “girls are more obedient than boys.” (They said it, not us!) The girls fall behind in their lessons, are eventually held back a grade, and ultimately become the oldest or biggest in the class.  Embarrassed, they finally stop attending altogether.  The water problem leads to a profound gender disparity in education level.  After leaving school, girls grow up to inherit the same claims on, and expectations for, their time and efforts.  Women struggle up a mountainside with jerry cans of water strapped to their back and balanced on their heads while a community meeting or business association gathering takes place back in town, attended only by men.  Now, in addition to being less educated, a wife is more ignorant than her husband about life beyond the hill and kitchen. She depends on him for information, and her ignorance triggers verbal berating that accompanies the physical abuse, leaving her battered and belittled— his superiority reaffirmed yet again.  Women will reclaim their time, their dignity, and their leadership potential when the Team of Love builds a water access point in the center of town.

A person who suffers abuse is more likely to solve problems with violence, herself.  The team ended the meeting by telling us that one woman was imprisoned because her child misbehaved and she responded with corporal punishment (all too prevalent in Rwanda).  This time, the beating was too severe, and sadly, the child died.  Along with the rest of the community, the team would mourn his death at the funeral the following week.  With all the tragedy in Kamonyi, their dedication to a new water access point is bringing much needed hope. But, as they pointed out, a water supply will solve problems, not change minds.  Violence in families is still widely accepted, and the moment a pipe breaks the beatings will resume. So, they’ve developed a plan to host community workshops on the ethics and legality of domestic violence.  Their goals are numerous and ambitious because they recognize the complexity of their community’s problem, as only they can. These women may not be experts in water chemistry, but they are experts in their own experiences, and making use of that knowledge to develop a comprehensive solution may be the solution in itself.

Children from Kamonyi. Blue and khaki are the school uniforms. (The requirement of a school uniform keeps kids in school for 6 months longer, on average.)
This is a water access point like the one Team of Love hopes to build. This spiket was constructed by Have a Good Life, a Global Grassroots team in Nyamirambo.
One of the leaders of Team of Love with her three grandaughters. She is working so that they will stay in school and not bear her burden of carrying water for miles up the mountain.

TEDWomen – When and how do women act?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.

I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.

I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.

I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?

And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.

During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.

I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.

As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.

After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.

As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.

One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.

So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?

The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.

I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.

What Would She Do?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I was recently asked by a friend to participate in an exciting experiment.  The instructions?

You are responsible for creating an organization in which people offer their greatest gifts. Describe it.

The purpose?

The instigators of this experiment propose: “Women will revolutionize how we think about work and have clear ideas for change.  Women have the most to gain from a new organizational model, so it is up to us to take responsibility for creating it… An organization intent on leveraging people’s “greatest gifts” will, in fact, be more effective, efficient, profitable and fulfilling to all stakeholders.”  Over the course of 365 days, they will be posting the viewpoints of 365 women and then working to explore and distill the patterns that arise.

Check this out as it unfolds: http://www.whatwouldshedo.blogspot.com/

And here is my contribution:

My dream organization has its center in a simple office in a natural setting, where the wall-length doors slide open during warm weather and where large windows allow a constant connection with the earth and sky. A shared kitchen with an eclectic mix of chairs, pottery and produce, harvested from a common garden supports individual wellness. Members of this circle connect virtually or in person to collaborate, create, innovate and engage around work that is aligned by a common purpose and has a broad social impact on a global level.

The organization measures its success in terms of its capacity to create systemic transformation leading to a more conscious society. It is inner-driven and outer-focused: individuals engage in their own work towards deeper self-knowledge, while striving collectively to advance positive change for the common good. The organization’s structure, operations, services and outputs are all designed to maximize social value creation, while ensuring environmental and economic sustainability. There is a code to do no harm. The circle does not seek simple consensus, but invites a diversity of perspective and debate for innovation. It engages stakeholders and beneficiaries in ongoing dialogue and evaluation. As a tribe, it recognizes it is a member of a universal, living ecosystem, and thus is open to its own evolution and even its own dissolution if that is the highest need.

Individuals invited and drawn to this collective are given time to explore, identify, nurture and apply their greatest gifts, passions, and talents. Then they commit to making their unique contribution towards the organization’s vision. Though there is a leadership structure that guides the tribe, there is participation at all levels in setting strategy, goals and objectives. Teams are formed primarily on a project basis for a specific scope of work, while ongoing operational and administrative needs are handled through shared responsibility with a spirit of service.

The organization insists on an equitable investment in both inner growth and outer work. It encourages daily practice for personal growth, and provides for structure and coaching along a path for professional development. When its members need solitude for renewal, reflection or creative processes, they can easily access the adjacent healing/yoga/ meditation rooms, organic garden, library, walking trails, and a musical/artistic white space – or not come in at all.

Core operational values include: integrity, open communication, human understanding, shared knowledge, active learning, and experimentation. Time schedules honor an individual’s circadian and creative rhythms, and so the space may have occupants at odd hours of the day and sometimes no one at all. People are compensated based on their social value creation, which may change with each project depending upon roles. Performance is assessed by the whole community, and trust allows colleagues to challenge and support each other in pushing beyond their individual growth edges. Collectively, the tribe is both a microcosm of and an advocate for a whole, just and compassionate society.

Twitter for Social Entrepreneurs

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I am so excited to have been included in Social Edge’s “Twitter for Social Entrepreneurship: The Top 100 Tweeps to Follow”, especially within their list of 20 eclectic social entrepreneurs.  A huge honor.  And an exciting opportunity.  I feel I’m just getting my Twitter voice.   But the possibilities are endless – especially for social change. 

Twitter for me is not only a way of keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the parts of the world that I care about most, but also a way of tapping into some of the most innovative activity taking place in circles you might never come across through mainstream news.  Which in turn gets my own gears turning.   Just imagine the gears turning when you have millions following millions in this space. 

One morning last week  I sat down to peak at my Twitter feed in between various tasks, trying not to get sucked in.  I saw an alarming tweet about riots happening live in Kampala, Uganda.  Two clicks and I was looking at a live map of the city, posting SMS text reports of where the riots were breaking out at that moment.  Memories of the Kenya election riots that involved widespread rape, and the horrific violence against women in Guinea last week inspired a new idea for use of such technology as an early warning system for women.  What if that live map could turn into active texts to women’s cell phones of when the riots were nearing their location, so that they would have time to bundle up their kids and get to some other form of safety?  Who could make that happen? A Grameen phone + crisis hotline + FrontlineSMS…

I think in the next few weeks I’ll start throwing out onto Twitter some of the random ideas that are filling up notebooks and going unused.  I’ll see how I can invite others to do the same.  Ideablob is one place where ideas flow freely.  Would love to start a little experiment and see if there is some way to track what gets adopted and how quickly.  But how do we reach the world’s most vulnerable who could benefit from such innovation, but who have the least access to technology?  Where are new technologies being leveraged for social change beyond economic progress?  What traditional networks exist on which we can overlay or integrate into social media networks?  For example, can women in parts of rural Africa be accessed at a local well for participation?  How do we include the illiterate?  I think one of the most critical questions facing change agents interested in advancing a liveable society globally is still how best to bridge the digital divide.  But that question is no longer about hardware – shipping computers to the developing world.  It’s about innovating for network expansion and inclusion.

Water for Women

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I have seen first-hand the horrifying and debilitating impact on women and girls of the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.

I work primarily in Rwanda, where women and girls rise every morning to begin the treacherous 3 to 4 hour round-trip journey down and back up steep hills to collect water from dirty creeks in the valleys. Not only does this mean young girls are missing out on a critical opportunity for education, as the author identified, but imagine the productivity gain if millions of women suddenly had an extra four hours every morning to attend to the myriad of other needs they and their family face.

In addition to the extensive health implications of drinking contaminated water, violence is often a more immediate risk facing women during this daily chore.  Throughout rural areas of Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Uganda and other regions of Africa, women risk sexual assault as they travel to remote water access points.  And competition for resources further exacerbates this risk, by causing women to leave their homes in the middle of the night – sometimes at 2am or 3am – just to ensure they reach the water source first and do not have to spend subsequent hours waiting or fighting for the limited supply.

Even more horrifying is the alternative to this difficult journey.  Some of the women we are working with in Rwanda, who are elderly, physically disabled or sick with HIV and too weak to make this daily journey must turn to buying water from delivery men who bring them water on bicycles. However, their inability to pay leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation to meet the basic needs of their family.  As one woman told us: when your children are about to return from school for their primary meal of the day, and you have no water to cook rice – well, you do what you have to do to feed your children.  Further, the inability to cook meals on time due to the water collection process is often a trigger of domestic violence within families where women are seen as not meeting the needs of their husbands in carrying out their primary duties. 

The lack of proper sanitation facilities also often leads to violence, especially in primary and secondary schools where unisex latrines become a prime location for sexual violence against school children.  Furthermore, when girls reach the age of menstruation, they often leave school permanently so as to avoid the embarrassment of utilizing unisex latrines, which also do not provide them with adequate sanitation facilities to take care of themselves.

What is remarkable is that these same women are initiating their own solutions to create safe alternatives for women and girls.  Throughout Rwanda, groups of women are designing social-purpose water projects that allow them to provide water at no charge to vulnerable women, sustained by the sales of water to the remainder of the community.  Other projects are educating villages about girls’ reproductive health and then working collaboratively to build girls’ latrines at schools.  Global Grassroots has found that with less than $3000, a well-designed socially entrepreneurial venture can serve between 500 – 2500 members of its community.  When you think about the large-scale development aid that has yet to successfully address this global issue, I propose we redirect even a small portion of this aid to support smaller-scale entrepreneurial endeavors that can begin to protect vulnerable communities immediately.  These socially entrepreneurial projects – with the right training and advisory support – are demonstrating the opportunity for fostering systemic change from the grassroots level up.


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