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Posts Tagged ‘Global Grassroots’

Women Leaning In and Leading from Within at the “G-Level”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead rightly encourages women to engage more intensely in claiming their place at the table on the road to leadership positions in corporate America. Granted, more female leadership at the highest echelons of the private sector would go a long way to transform the institutions that drive our economy. But readers would be amiss to assume from Sandberg’s chosen spotlight that to achieve widespread gender equality the primary driver is for more women to aspire to the C-Suite. In fact, women can and do lead in whatever endeavor they have chosen. Sandberg’s call for women to rise to their potential is applicable far beyond our stereotypical vision of corner office success. There is no better example than that of a disadvantaged woman rebuilding her country after war.

I founded and run a global non-profit, called Global Grassroots, which is focused on identifying change leaders at the grassroots level, shall we say “G-Level”, among the world’s most marginalized women and girls. We operate a social venture incubator in Rwanda and Northern Uganda that provides mindfulness-based leadership practices and social entrepreneurship skills to help these women develop sustainable micro-non-profits to advance their own ideas for social change. Some of the most extraordinary leaders I have ever met, I have found among the ranks of undereducated subsistence farmers, war widows, the rural poor and survivors of horrific violence. There are three reasons why grassroots women’s leadership is crucial for gender equality: First, women have inherent wisdom and insight into what is most needed to evolve society especially with respect to issues that directly impact women and their families. Second, once women have a successful experience leading change, they are likely to continue solving problems especially benefiting the most vulnerable. Finally, true gender-equality will be built on women achieving parity at all levels of society, especially among the most marginalized, because that is where women are most deeply affected by inequality.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In 2007, in a rural and mountainous Rwandan community called Gahanga, a team of 19 women including their leader Seraphine Hacimana, were troubled by the three mile journey women embarked upon each day down a hillside to collect water at a contaminated valley creek just to meet their family’s basic needs. Collecting water at remote access frequently points puts women at risk of sexual assault. Further, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who were elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive were too weak to make this journey. Some would send their daughters to collect water instead of school. Others would hire men to deliver water on a bicycle. But for those too poor to pay for help, many ended up being pressured to exchange sex for water delivery daily, just to provide for their children.

With our training and an initial $2600 seed grant, the team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance to collect and purify rainwater from the roof. Hard Workers launched their operations in August 2007 to serve 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The organization is focused not only on ending sexual exploitation for water, but also ensuring the elimination of water-borne disease and protecting girls’ ability to attend school. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for women and their families. Given women were now freed up from water collection for other economic pursuits, the organization later established a small revolving loan fund for the poorest women to start their own businesses. Today, the venture is operating sustainably, has expanded to three additional sites and now serves close to 9000 people. To save the cost of hiring guards, team members, some even widows in their late 70s, sleep on the ground alongside their tanks in shifts each night to prevent people from stealing their water.

Gender relations have already begun to change. Village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, her husband will take her shift guarding the tanks at night. Women from as far as three hours away have since traveled to visit the team to learn from them. Project leader Seraphine Hacimana has spoken on the radio about water issues, was been invited to Kenya to share their work, and was recently recognized by government officials as an example of women serving other women. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only seven are literate. Founder, Seraphine is a mother of eight children in her 40s with only a first grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader. This is the potential of G-Level leadership to transform individual lives and whole communities.

Hard Workers succeeded because they not only leaned in, but they led from within. They identified what they felt most passionate about, then leveraged their own skills, capabilities and courage to initiate a solution of their own design. Most of all, they were united by a common vision that came not from aspirations defined by dominant culture, but from an inner sense of purpose. Anyone who wants to lean in and lead from within can start by identifying what issue or realm of work you are most passionate about, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what your exclusive insights are from your unique life experience, and then cultivate and contribute these assets in partnership with others who share a common purpose.

Sustainable, systemic change has to be driven by women from all levels of society, especially given women’s inherent wisdom as marginalized care-takers of community. In order to achieve gender equality, it is thus critical that we facilitate leaning in at both a grassroots level and at the top of the economic pyramid for women’s future leadership worldwide.

Change Agent Profile: Perpétue, People of Love

Thursday, March 31, 2011

by Christina Hueschen

On her family plot in Rwanda’s Kamonyi District, Perpétue grows cassava, soy, bananas, beans, sweet potato, and mangos. And papaya – lots of papaya. Each morning she rises, washes her face, checks on her animals, cleans her house, grabs a hoe, and heads out to the fields.

Perpétue’s days are jam-packed with farming and domestic work. “When I have a little free time,” she adds, “I practice the consciousness practices that I learned from Global Grassroots’ training, and I help my grandchildren with those practices. They like most to lie down and practice breathing, but their second favorite is stretching their arms as part of yoga.”

Perpétue lost her husband years ago, but she has seven children, many of whom have families of their own. She looks the part of a grandmother: the smile creases around her eyes and the dusting of moles across her cheeks are clues to her cheerful warmth. Her most important piece of advice for a child or grandchild: “To be honest – using truth in anything, in whatever she does.”

Perpétue has thick, powerful hands, which she crosses in her lap – left clasped over right wrist – whenever seated. She believes in hard work. Unless she is upset about something in particular, she enjoys her daily labors. “[As long as] there is nothing hurting my heart and making me feel bad, I just feel good about any task.”

Last year, Perpétue took on a big, new task. As one of the team leaders of People of Love, Perpétue is working to bring a clean water access point to her community in Kamonyi. Water access – supplemented by the team’s educational campaigns on gender-based violence law, gender equality, and nutrition – will reduce domestic violence, keep more girls in school, promote gender-equal families, and increase female participation in community affairs and development.

Giving up her usual daily tasks to work with People of Love has been tougher than Perpétue anticipated. When the team gathers to work on the project, they are neglecting their responsibilities at home and in the fields. “We are going back home without any income… Nothing replaces our time.” But the sacrifice is worth it to Perpétue. She explains that she and her team are looking forward. “We believe in many changes in the future. That’s why we are still motivated. Also we’ve learned a lot from Global Grassroots.” Perpétue smiles. “We want to use those skills to change the future.”

Her fellow community members share her hopeful vision: irrigated green vegetables growing on the mountainside, not just in the valley, and even in the dry season; no more malnutrition; enough produce to sell some extra at the market. Everyone is happy about the water project, and that fills Perpétue with joy. Even the kids are talking about it; they will no longer have to miss mornings at school to trek down into the valley to collect water.

“We realized that if we have water, the children can attend school on time,” Perpétue says. “And we realized that the biggest problem in our community that women face is not having access to clean water.” She explains that currently, water scarcity is a trigger for gender-based violence in her community, where women spend a huge portion of their time and labor fetching water. “Women face domestic violence because they didn’t accomplish their responsibilities, their tasks, at home. Women are staying behind in development. They don’t have opportunity to participate… in whatever things are happening in their society or their umudugudu or their community. They feel like they have to spend all their time on water – they are late in anything – because of the scarcity of water.”

A clean water access point will change Perpétue’s own life in many ways. She will be able to improve her hygiene by washing her body and clothes regularly. Her cows will get water more than once a week. She will grow crops in the dry season. “I will be able to do things quickly,” she explains, “because water is the main trouble point for everything happening in farming.”

But mostly, Perpétue talks about the impact of water access on the collective “we” – the women of her community. ‘We’ will have the opportunity to participate in local assembly meetings. ‘We’ will no longer suffer from miscarriages during the uphill struggle from valley wells or streams. “Everything I mentioned – the struggles women face that I mentioned above – will be changed in the future.”

Perpétue is a change agent with a resolute belief in her theory for social progress: “if we have water, we can remove many obstacles that stand in the way of women and allow us to move forward to where we want to be.”

Water A Key Lever for Advancing Women’s Rights

Monday, February 28, 2011

On March 8th, the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, celebrations are taking place worldwide to highlight both the progress made for women’s rights and the distance we have yet to go. We must also not forget another day that will take place later this month honoring an issue of grave importance to women. March 22 is World Water Day. Unfortunately, the explicit and critical link between women’s wellbeing and their access to clean water often goes unnoticed.

Globally, women make up more than half of the 884 million people who have no access to safe water. They also represent those most often tasked with daily collection. According to UNWomen, on average women travel 10-15 kilometers or 6-9 miles every day, spending eight hours or more collecting water then hand carrying it to their home. Most women can only carry one large jerrycan, each of which holds 5 gallons or 20 liters. This water must then serve an average of 8 to 10 people in a household daily for drinking, cooking, washing clothes and dishes, bathing and cleaning their home. Compare this ½ – 1 gallon usage per person per day, to the 69. 5 gallons per capita use of water in America, including 11.6 gallons for a shower, 15 gallons for clothes washing, 18.5 gallons for flushing toilets, 9.5 gallons lost through leaks, and 14.7 gallons for all other uses per day.

According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation, girls under 15 years of age are twice as likely as boys the same age to be given the responsibility to collect water. Girls who are tasked with the collection of water in place of their mothers miss part of their school day. Overtime, they can fall behind and eventually drop out. Women who manage this task for their family, give up hours of productivity that might have been spent in other ways to enhance a family’s economic wellbeing. Water collection thus continues to perpetuate the vulnerability of women, undermining the economic and educational opportunities that may exist to advance their wellbeing.

Even more unfortunate is the violence inherent in the process of collection. Because it takes so many hours to reach and return with water, many women leave before dawn and travel in the dark to get to a water access point early. Some water access points serve thousands of surrounding villagers. Arriving early means women can avoid the crowds that often break into violence as individuals compete for access. It also means that they are more likely to collect clear water from shallow creeks or hand-dug wells before it gets muddied with dozens of others coming for collection. However, traveling alone through the dark also leaves women more susceptible to sexual assault. On the other hand, returning later than expected from collecting water is often a trigger for domestic violence as husbands await their morning tea or bath. Pregnant women carrying heavy water jugs are more likely to suffer a miscarriage. Women who are blind, elderly, disabled or too sick to carry water on their own are often forced to trade sex for men to deliver it for them when they cannot afford to pay for the service.

Not only is the collection process racked with violence and exploitation, but the water itself is a source of harm, spreading dangerous water-borne diseases. Globally, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under five. And it is the lack of clean drinking water and proper hygiene and sanitation that are the primary causes of diarrhea. Safe water is also essential for reducing maternal mortality and infant mortality rates.

While women remain those most deeply impacted by the lack of access to clean water, unfortunately, women are least likely to control or manage water infrastructure. Yet, women represent the most critical stakeholders with a vested interest in resolving this issue. No country can deny the statistics that when economic opportunity is given to women, development soars. In a speech given by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2003, he stated, “Study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier and better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is also true of communities and, in the long run, of whole countries.”

How is it not recognized then how much economic development is hindered if women spend 4-8 hours each day collecting water? Further, water ventures can provide women with a viable and sustainable income, and an opportunity to serve as a change agent within her community serving the marginalized. The World Health Organization estimates that depending upon the region, for every $1 invested in water and sanitation it yields an economic return of between $3 and $34. Ensuring women’s participation and opportunity to design and manage water ventures allows them to ensure their own protection and livelihood.

Take Global Grassroots venture “Hard Workers” for instance. In a rural community called Gahanga on the outskirts of mountainous Kigali, a team of 19 women led by Seraphine Hacimana have been particularly troubled by the long journey they must embark upon each day to collect water. Rwanda is a spectacular, mountainous country. And in Gahanga, like many parts of Rwanda, women rarely have a water source near the home, so they must walk 3-4 miles down a hillside to collect water at a dirty valley creek. In addition to the disease and poor hygiene associated with poor water access, many of those who were left physically disabled by the war and those who are elderly, blind, pregnant or HIV positive are too weak to make this journey. In this area, a service has sprung up where local men agree to deliver water on bicycles for a fee. But if you cannot pay, as one woman told us: “Your children are coming home from school for lunch and you have no water to cook them rice and beans. And so, you do what you have to do.” Many women end up having to exchange sex water delivery, just to feed their children.

With our social entrepreneurship training and an initial $2600 grant, Seraphine and her team designed their own non-profit water solution. They installed a water tank next to a church within close walking distance of this remote community to collect and purify rainwater from the roof during the rainy season. In the dry season, they pay for clean water to be delivered by truck from the city. Hard Workers supplies 100 households (totaling between 800 – 1000 people) with fresh clean water daily. The revenue generated from those who can afford to pay, ensures the most vulnerable always have water for free. Further, the team uses any profits to pay orphan school fees and provide annual health insurance for vulnerable women and their families. Three years later, the project is operating sustainably and preparing to expand to three additional sites to serve another 3000 people, protecting even more women from sexual exploitation. The team members, some even widows in their 70s, sleep side-by-side in shifts each night to protect their tanks from people stealing their water. The venture has become so valuable to the community that even some of the village men have asked to join the project, and occasionally when a woman is sick, their husbands will take their shift guarding the tanks at night.

These women have become established leaders in their community and have begun to make a major difference in a critical issue facing vulnerable women. Women from as far as three hours away have walked to visit the team to see how they were able to initiate their project alone. Project leader Seraphine has spoken on the radio about water issues, has been invited to Kenya to share their solution and is now seen as the first to bring development to their remote community. But what is most remarkable about this team is that of its 19 members, only 7 are actually literate. And Seraphine is a 39 year old mother of 7 children with only a 1st grade education. Once living on the edge of survival, Seraphine is now a community change leader.

Though it may take longer to combat the patriarchal, cultural institution that essentially holds women in servitude to the process of collecting water, the act itself may prove an opportunity for intervention on other issues. Water access points where women gather make assembling and sensitizing large groups remarkably easy. Take “Have a Good Life” for example, another Global Grassroots water venture located within a hillside community of Kigali. Similar to the issues faced by Hard Workers, vulnerable women in Have a Good Life’s community have been exploited in exchange for water delivery adding to the prevalence of HIV. Further, contaminated water sources have contributed to high incidences of cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. A baseline issue study among a sample of the population revealed: 95 percent said they had suffered from diseases related to unclean water, 81.4 percent had traded sex for water, 100 percent knew someone infected by HIV while trading sex for water, yet only 25 percent had taken HIV tests. Have a Good Life extended a municipal pipeline from a more populated area and constructed a water access point to bring water into their hillside community. Not only do they now serve 200 families (1600 – 2000 people) with clean water, they use their water access point as a location where they can speak to women about proper hygiene as well as HIV/AIDS testing.

When wells are dug near clinics, health care providers can gain access more easily to women and children when they come to collect water, allowing for more regular check-ups. In South Africa and Malawi, Roundabout Water Solutions is constructing wells with water pumps fueled by merry-go-rounds at schools. These PlayPumps ensure girls to remain in schools and use the power of play to fill a tank for use by the school and community. Painted billboards are hung on the overhead tank containing awareness messages, allowing the water access site to become educational as well.

Water is simply a key lever for advancing women’s rights and opportunity. Any group eager to eliminate violence against women ought to consider advocating for women’s access to clean water. Women consistently face a risk of violence in the process of collecting water from sexual violence, sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Further, a lack of access to clean water has long been a driver of poverty as well. Not only does water collection rob women of a half day of productivity, but girls who participate on behalf of their family also fall behind in school and are at higher risk of dropping out all together. In contrast, women who manage their own clean water access not only ensure the most vulnerable women and girls are no longer subjected to such violence, but the ability of women to lead and control water ventures provides women with greater confidence, agency, leadership and engagement in community as change agents. Our experience has shown that one successful experience as a change agent is quickly followed by expansion and/or an iterative problem-solving process where women take on other challenges facing women in their communities. Women not only will have more courage, but they will also have greater access to resources to do so. Women-managed clean water access ensures girls’ access to education will be protected and the next generation will have even greater opportunities.

The link between women and water is clear. In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015, women must be engaged in all aspects of planning, design, implementation and management of water infrastructure. Water innovation should focus not just on large scale municipal and commercial water infrastructure, but as equally on individual and single-household usage tools that are immediately applicable, affordable and accessible to women in a developing country context. While other MDGs commit to advancing the rights and wellbeing of women, it can serve to make explicit the critical link between women’s rights, wellbeing and opportunity and their access to water. Further, UNWomen in its commitment to advancing women’s wellbeing must consider women’s access to clean water a critical human right that can serve as a potent lever for advancing women’s well-being on many other levels. Finally, global NGOs and environmental agencies committed to protecting clean water must not ignore the vested interests of women, and the knowledge base they represent in terms of the location, quality and reliability of water sources. Engaging women in the design, management and innovation around access, movement, utilization, conservation and treatment of water is essential.

Women want and deserve safe, easy, affordable access to clean water without violence, exploitation or a trade-off with other forms of economic or educational pursuits. More funding, training, and opportunity is needed to ensure locally-initiated water ventures can be advanced by grassroots women.

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.

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.

No Woman Should Ever Have to Trade Sex for Water

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007.  Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child.  When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well.  As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them.  Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity.  Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault.  For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.

But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible.  The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices:  if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle.  Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school.  And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay.  One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.”  Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.

HardWorkers

Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution.  Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education.   With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots),  Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village.  The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season.  They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women.  Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community.  With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence.  The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water.  The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.

Their influence is gaining.  Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture.  Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues.  This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture.   These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.

I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives.  They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas.  The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.

I share this story for three reasons.  First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits.  As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution.  Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context.  Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs.  Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized.  I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.

Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict.  In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them.  Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict.   Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community.  Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer.  “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.

Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world.  Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise.  Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.

Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement.  Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.

To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/globalgrassroot#p/a/u/2/gwh5WNOUEAY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9aCDCC9nFI

http://www.globalgrassroots.org/abanyamurava.htm

Abundance

Friday, June 25, 2010

At the conclusion of our training the teams surprised me with the most amazing gifts.  Leoncie, the project leader of HRD, stepped forward with a team member from each of the other 6 teams to present me with a work of traditional Rwandan art.  A rural scene composed entirely of banana leaves depicts a woman filling a large gourd with milk, a symbol of prosperity.  Leoncie explained that I was represented by the mother wishing them prosperity and success.   Another team working with teenage mothers brought me a work of art made by the women in their program.  It was a large log-cabin style house made of the stalks of a plant.  Then Aloys, one of our three male participants stepped forward with a gift containing a wood carving.  The carving is of two warrior figurines in a hut, once with a bow and the other with a shield.  He had included a note written in English that he asked me to read aloud:

If someone ask me to say a single word about Gretchen Wallace I would say: “Gretchen is the Hero Woman I have never seen before. She is the woman keeping ever still by holding an arc to fight poverty, ignorance, etc. and a shield to protect violence (gender based violence) and other nightmare for Grassroots Community in Rwanda.

Personally I am very grateful.

God bless you.

I almost cried. I didn’t know how much this program and teachings meant to them.

To be true, I am always astonished, almost uncomfortable, when a team presents me with a gift.  Sometimes they will offer me a single papaya from their gardens.  It will be presented dressed formally in a clean paper bag.  Knowing these particular teams are subsistence farmers – even while operating their social venture – this means a great deal.  Still, I struggle with my own awkwardness in accepting a gift when I feel like I already have too much.  I grapple with the inherent inequality or injustice I somehow feel in these exchanges.  The flow of gifts should surely go the other way.  And yet, I’m slowly, humbly learning from these women to focus on what lies beneath – the gift of their intentions and their honor.  From such a place, intentions are all equal.  And my discomfort with who has more can transform into a higher consideration.  Above all, the greatest gift they can give me is the work they are doing to support other women and girls. And the chance to be their partner.

An Apprenticeship in Stretching the Heart

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The last few days have flown by as we have completed our Academy for Conscious Change intensive training course.  Today our teams made final presentations.  The work they are embarking upon is not easy, and they challenge me to think about how I might go about advancing my own rights in the face of opposition or threat of violence.

One team, “Handicap Rwanda, Reintegration, Rehabilitation & Development “ (HRD) is working on violence against women who have handicapped children.  Apparently, the stigma is so great against children with disabilities (including the blind, deaf, mentally disabled and physically handicapped) that they are often kept home from school, as they are considered to be without value to society.  HRD is providing education to parents about how to care for their children, and they will be creating an association for the mothers so that they can earn income to contribute to the needs of their family.  Through this association, they will have access to a support group with whom to share their challenges so that they will not feel isolated from the rest of society that discriminates against them.  The venture will also travel to raise awareness about the rights of children and the needs of  handicapped children.

Another team, titled “A Friend Indeed”, is combating the issue of violence against single mothers.  They are working with 80 single mothers, with a total 120 children, in learning how to parent.  They visit the mothers every two weeks to provide support in child care.  They are also providing education to young girls about reproductive health.  Finally, they will utilize theater to fight the stigma against single mothers and young women who seek access to contraception.  Their vision is that no child will be born who is not planned or wanted, and they hope to expand their program nation-wide.

In the next phase of the Academy, the teams develop a comprehensive venture plan over the next 3-6 months with our advisory support.  I cannot help feeling like a committed coach rooting for their success.  And yet, who am I to coach them?  Each of them is living in the midst of hardship unimaginable to most Americans, and yet they are fearlessly committed to working with those even more vulnerable than they to advance equality, opportunity, justice, and human rights.

Take “Justine” for example.  She has four children, including a teenage daughter born of another man.  Her current husband is HIV+ and sounds as if he is battling severe depression as a result of his circumstances.  Luckily, neither Justine nor her children are HIV+.  However, she carries the full weight of her husband’s anxieties, as he contends the support she provides for his step-daughter to go to school results in less care and attention for his own needs.  He frequently demands the daughter be sent away to live with her grandparents.  Justine is caught between a dying husband and an isolated daughter, both of whom need her care.  Even still, Justine is working to fight unplanned pregnancies through reproductive health education within her community.  Apparently there have already been three pregnancies of young girls aged 12 -14 in their village this year.

These women’s hearts stretch to what appears to be a limitless capacity to take on the needs of others.  I think I could stand to do an apprenticeship with each one of them.

Day 5: Women’s Outer Wisdom

Friday, June 18, 2010

I do believe that in many cases, wisdom and intuition may be all we need to guide us.  And time and time again, the Rwandan women we partner with demonstrate just that.

Today we conducted another exercise to diagnose the priority issues facing women in their communities.  The women shared about the myriad of underlying challenges to educating girls:  One root cause was that girls frequently drop out of school when they start menstruating.  Without affordable access to sanitary products or bathing facilities, girls often stain themselves.  Ridiculed by boys, girls simply stop coming to school during menstruation.  Others face spying or even assault in shared latrines.  Further is the difficulty faced by the children of prostitutes.  When their mothers see clients in their tiny houses, the children can’t study and have to leave.  Teachers in their community have coming together privately to provide these children with safe spaces to study for their exams. Additionally, young girls are often targeted by older men, who find them easy to manipulate with small gifts and nice clothes.  A myth that sleeping with a virgin will cure HIV further exacerbates the issue.  And most of these predators believe that if the girls are young enough there is no risk of pregnancy.  Yet in one small village, three 12-14 year-olds had recently fallen pregnant.  When girls get pregnant, they are sometimes rejected by their families and end up dropping out of school for good.  While contraception is free with health insurance, young girls are too afraid to try to access it in public clinics in small villages where it would be generally unacceptable to be sexually active at that age and out of marriage.

With a very sophisticated and in-depth knowledge of the complexities of these social issues, the Rwandan women change agents we support are embarking upon the courageous process of initiating their own solutions.  Why any international NGO would think they have more knowledge about what priority issues face these communities and what is needed, I don’t know.  As many challenges as may exist in these rural communities, there are as many remarkable women leaders willing to dedicate themselves to their eradication.  I fully trust these women’s wisdom, and I invite all to watch over the next year as they set about solving these issues themselves from the grassroots level up.  It is truly an honor to partner with them in this work.

Day 4 Women’s Inner Wisdom

Friday, June 18, 2010

The last two days of our Academy for Conscious Change have been full of tiny miracles and awe-inspiring moments. Thursday we began a journey with our women that started with yoga, continued with a short session of deep breathing and then a short meditation.  Out of the meditation, our participants responded to a simple invitation:  What is one thing you know to be true?  I was deeply moved by their wisdom. Here are a few of their responses:

  • There is no difference between love and compassion
  • Everyone thinks that animals are ignorant, but when you take care of them every day, you realize that they can recognize you outside and know when you are inside your house
  • Love is more powerful than war.  Forgiveness is more powerful than punishment
  • You can be rich without security and peace of mind, but the poor can be free without stress
  • Life is short. Don’t pay attention to the problems you can’t control
  • Bananas take five months to grow from the flower
  • You can’t succeed when you feel afraid
  • Families of alcoholics can’t progress
  • Reflecting before reacting is better and can help you to have a better relationship
  • There are no wild animals that will eat you if you go outside at night
  • Women taking care of children alone are overworked
  • Even if you are rich and can buy nice clothes, that doesn’t mean you look good

I’m working on a few of my own truths:

  • Each moment is always new
  • Breathing can heal
  • Anyone who enters your life (whether they love you or challenge you) is there to teach you something
  • Real outer change is inner-directed
  • Animals generally don’t want to be eaten
  • The things that really need to be done don’t need to be on a list
  • Food tastes better when you grow it yourself
  • I feel more grounded when I’m barefoot
  • At our very smallest components, all things are the same
  • The only thing that exists is now

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