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Posts Tagged ‘Rwanda’

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.”

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. 

What’s an Indefinite Article, again?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Part of our project involves teaching English to the Global Grassroots staff.  Every Friday morning from 9-11:30, we convert our living room into a makeshift classroom where we explain the finer points of English to Marlene, Daphne, and Daniel.  Or try to.  I’ve been speaking this lovely language of ours for 23 years, but I have no idea why I say, “I will raft the Nile.” but not, “Last weekend I swam in the Lake Muhazi.”  I live by Lake Erie, Christina lives by the Pacific Ocean, on the planet Earth. Whyyyyy?

“Sustainability” was the first word of our fellowship proposal titles, and we’re teaching these classes to make Global Grassroots’ work sustainable.  Ideally, someday in the future, the Rwandan staff will write their own grant proposals to international foundations (or even future Rwandan foundations!).  Better yet, they will fundraise from Rwandans themselves, just like right now we fundraise from Americans.  Gretchen, the founder, talks about our ‘exit strategy’ because Rwandans should build Rwanda.  As a Rwandan friend put it, they just need help right now from America, the UK, etc. to jump-start their development.  And part of that help includes teaching English, the language of global communication, according to Rwandans.

So, we continue editing translations, clarifying the difference between effect and impact, and explaining why we use semi-colons.  They ask questions like “When do you say ‘think of’ versus ‘think about’?” and I admit I have no idea.  Christina and I have no formal ESL training and do not pretend for a second that we are qualified to teach.  It doesn’t seem to matter to our staff.  They show up every Friday and pour over exercises we’ve designed based on a few textbooks and ESL websites.  They wait patiently while Christina and I debate whether you ALWAYS need a comma before which… I feel like I should know this stuff. While they are eagerly perfecting their third language (Kinyarwanda, French & English), we’re slowing learning about our first.

Every Friday from 9-11, the GG Country Director and two interns (one was missing this week) come to our house to refine their English.

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.

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.

Coal for Christmas

Sunday, January 30, 2011

As an American child, I was told that if I wasn’t good, Santa would leave coal in my stocking. And sure enough, one year after a particularly terrible period of fighting with my brother Will, I got coal. Black licorice candy coal, but I was horrified.

(Will and I have since made up, and I find him to be quite the gentleman and very considerate nowadays.)

In Rwanda, Santa isn’t quite as ubiquitous as in the States.  Rwandan parents threaten an alternative punishment for bad behavior. “If you misbehave,” children are told, “the White Man will eat you during the night.”

No wonder some kids are afraid to come near me. If they don’t think I look like a ghost, they think I’m going to eat them.

The good news? Ex-pats are always plentiful around Kigali, so the threat works year-round.

A view of the two of the five volcanoes in the north. The white flowers are used to make Deet, which isn’t as necessary as we thought because there aren’t many mosquitoes at higher altitudes.

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.


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