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Posts Tagged ‘social change’

An Inspiring Start to My Visit with Global Grassroots’ Teams

Monday, April 25, 2016

Working for Global Grassroots this last year has been an extraordinary experience – and one that has just been ‘kicked up a few notches.’ I am incredibly fortunate to now be in East Africa, getting to better know our dedicated local staff and visiting many of our women’s teams. Most of these meetings with teams have taken place in iconic Africa settings, mats spread under large shade trees amidst thatched roof huts with mothers wearing skirts and head scarves of brightly patterned kitenge (fabric) and nursing their babies. My colleague Francis Kumakech and I began my Gulu, Uganda visits with a group named Cing Ma Wabu (Initiators).

Monday, 11 April 2016
It rained heavily for most of last night and, since the rainy season also means the planting season, everyone in the group was scattered throughout the area surrounding the village planting their crops. It took some time to retrieve some of the team from their fields so our 11.00am meeting got started just around 11.45 with five team members: Helen (Chair of Cing Ma Yabu), Katherine, Grace, Polline, and Pasca.
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Pasca, Polline, Katherine, Helen, and Grace

Cing Ma Yabu works on helping couples strengthen their relationship in an effort to reduce the divorce rate. They use drama and role playing to educate couples about such issues as sharing household responsibilities, women’s rights, and conflict resolution. Not long ago, a woman came to the team looking for help. She said her husband was not sharing in the household tasks nor was he taking care of the things ‘a man is supposed to do.’ The wife had been asking her husband to construct a door to their home; they had been living with a blanket hanging over the opening for quite a long time. In addition, he was prone to spending their money on alcohol and there was not enough left to pay school fees, so their children were not attending school.

Four team members went with the woman to her home to meet her husband, do some role playing, and mediate while the couple discussed their issues. The husband began to understand his part in managing the household and, after a few sessions with the group, there was real harmony in that home. The husband has since built a wooden door for their home and the children are back in school. The husband has been much less likely to go off drinking every day – a change that the group sees with men throughout the village since they began their work. In the last year, Cing Ma Yabu has worked successfully with 15 couples who otherwise were heading for divorce.

When they first completed their training through Global Grassroots’ Academy for Conscious Change, there were 20 members. Their success in improving life throughout their village enticed others to join, particularly some of the men and women whose marriages they helped save. They now number 40 and have set that as a cap for membership. Helen, the team’s chair, acknowledges that a team larger than that will be too difficult to manage.

Cing Ma Yabu faces two distinct challenges in their work. The first is transportation. There are few cars where they live which is approximately 20 kilometers outside Gulu along rutted unpaved roads and plenty of dirt track through the brush. Some of the couples seeking help live five or more kilometers away that the group must walk. There are those who live further out in the sub-county that the group is unable to get to.
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The second challenge the team faces can be more dangerous: when they show up at a household to mediate, the husband can be “wild,” often because he is drunk. The team knows they must tread carefully, working very hard to calm him down. Grace commented that, when that happens, “it is not fun” and sometimes all they can do is return when he is sober and able to listen and learn.

Cing Ma Yabu sustains their project by cultivating gardens for those who are either physically unable to do so or have jobs that take them away from home each day. They have managed their funds well and now have a savings account through a nationwide savings and loan association. Through this account, members can both save money and borrow funds should a need arise. Helen remarked that, in addition to seeing the impact their work is having on their community, the savings scheme is a great benefit that helps keep the team together.

A group of grassroots women with little to no education have built a strong, committed team that is bringing domestic harmony to their community, reducing the divorce rate, increasing the number of children who attend school, and improving the economic status of its members. To say I left their village both inspired and humbled is an understatement.

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.

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.

Breathing in Byimana

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I should pause and describe the scene of our Academy program in the village of Byimana.  I sometimes forget to do so, as much of what I experience, which would be so exotic for another, is something that I have come to find so comfortingly familiar here in Rwanda:  The women in their beautiful multicolored wrapped skirts; a sweet child sitting on the floor of our classroom while his mother takes notes; ten children and men peering through the bars in the windows of our classroom wondering what we are doing; giggles from small children as they ask to have our empty water bottles.  We are teaching in a small building used by Byimana local government.  It is a single room with plastered walls and a cement floor.  Narrow benches form our seating, and though the women are more comfortable setting up the room for me as if I am preaching to their congregation, we rearrange the benches in a circle so we can all address each other.  They watch me with curiosity, but they are open-minded and willing to participate in whatever I initiate for our class.

I’m feeling more grounded.  I’m grateful for all the visitors with me – they’re challenging me and bringing really valuable ideas to the table. And the tension that marked our first gathering – a combination of nerves, anticipation, uncertainty about how my offering would be experienced – has left me now.

On our second day, we went in depth into the personal transformation portion of our work.  We started out by exploring our own desires and aversion to change and the emotional reactivity that sometimes causes us to create harm inadvertently.  We considered how perspective and preference can cause angst and how trusting the intuitive sense can help us access inner wisdom.  And then we breathed.

I’m utilizing a technique called Coherent Breathing and a program called Breath~Body~Mind which was developed by Dr. Richard P. Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg to relieve stress and trauma. This program includes Coherent Breathing (influenced by Stephen Elliot) and Qigong movements from Master Robert Peng.  Coherent Breathing sets the optimal pace of breathing necessary to enable your body to rebalance the autonomic nervous system resulting in greater calmness, energy, and resilience.  Our women have taken an assessment to measure their level of post-traumatic stress, but through simple observation, I can see the stress melt from their shoulders, feel the energy shift in the room, and hear their comments afterwards that they feel deeply rested.  One rather heavy-set, beautiful, enthusiastic woman even exclaimed that she felt so light she must have lost several pounds!  The woman have already asked how they can teach the technique to others, including children in their communities. I am encouraged.

Tomorrow we explore power.

Principle TWO: Shadows and Fears

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 3 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle TWO: Proactively Attend to Shadows, Fears and Distortions
As we begin to go deeper in our own self-awareness, we may find there are things we dislike in others or that we feel discomfort with in ourselves.  These are often one and the same, called shadows.

Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abram’s book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature propose that “The shadow acts like a psychic immune system, defining what is self and what is not-self.” Poet Robert Bly offers an analogy:  When we were young and as we grew up, we had people around us telling us not to be a certain way.  Perhaps our parents said we should be responsible, so we carried this invisible bag behind us and put in the bag the side of us that wanted to be spontaneous and irresponsible.  Then our community said girls are supposed to be a certain way and boys are supposed to be a different way, and so we put those parts that were not appropriate into a bag. Then friends told us that we had to act a certain way and we put more things that we felt uncomfortable with in the bag.  By the time we got older, the bag was very big and heavy. And it still holds the parts of us that we dislike. When we come in contact with those aspects in another person, we will experience an emotional charge, including aversion, judgment, defensiveness, distaste or disgust, because we are still not willing to recognize the same in ourselves.  Unexamined, intense dislike that arises from our shadow selves may unconsciously lead us to create separation, act with prejudice and even resort to violence.

From abortion clinic bombers to torture in the name of national security, from eco-terrorism to the outbreak of violent riots at peaceful marches, the line between non-violence and violence or oppression is easily crossed in pursuit of justice or morality, and very often driven by our unconscious shadows. Admittedly, the roots of activist protests begin with a fundamental sense of injustice and a vision for a better world. However, if advocacy campaigns lack avenues for leaders, if not all participants, to stay grounded in self-awareness, movements can easily move to demonize their opposition with an “us” versus “them” mentality that reinforces a hierarchy of inequality and claims of moral superiority. As frustration grows with the slow process of shifting dominant culture, anger at injustice is replaced by anger for the perceived enemy, and in many cases evolves into violence.   

Cultivating consciousness is essential for advancing social justice so that we do not recreate hierarchies of power, but defuse the fear-based prejudice and abuse of privilege that underlies oppression. A consciousness-based approach to social change fosters understanding of and compassion for the roots of suffering in ourselves and those who oppose us.  It embraces self-reflection to examine our fears, insecurities and the rejected parts of ourselves, so that we can more easily accept or at least understand others.  As Claudia Horwitz, community organizer and founder of stone circles, a non-profit and retreat center for activists, remarks, “If we engage in the collective without some practice of individual consciousness, we’re more likely to get caught up in group think and only use a fraction of our human capacity. Without consciousness, there is no choice.” 

Supporting Practice TWO: Transforming Reaction into Response
Conscious change invites us to look more deeply at the wounding that causes us to react to our emotions in unconscious and often harmful ways. We can repeat conditioned or learned behaviors if we are not conscious of them.  But even in milder ways those who think they are doing good may create harm from unconscious reactivity. A wonderful book called  The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, by Donald Rothberg provided the following perspective: Often we “pass on the pain” when we are angry, annoyed, disappointed – we feel terrible so we lash out or otherwise take it out on another.  Our pattern of action looks like this:

FEEL   ———> IMMEDIATELY REACT (unconscious)

Conscious change starts with a state of mind, and then affects our speech and actions. The key to transforming our unconscious reactivity is simply to lengthen the space between our feelings and our response:

 FEEL ———–> STOP, LISTEN, BE WITH WHAT IS ————->RESPOND (conscious)

The first step is to recognize when we feel an emotional “charge”.  This can be a rush of fear, anger, contempt, embarrassment, defensiveness, etc.  If we can stop ourselves from immediately reacting, then we can take a moment to pause.  A simple suggestion is to take three deep breaths. During this time, we can conduct a brief internal inquiry:  Allow yourself to explore what emotion is arising. Try to see clearly and understand from where they are originating.  Is this an unhealed place in your self? Are you noticing a part of yourself that you do not accept, so you find it distasteful in another? Is there a fear, aversion or attachment present?  What truth is arising for you?  Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and gratitude for your underlying instinct to protect yourself. Then ask yourself what response is needed to transform suffering for yourself and the other in this situation.  Respond and act with consciousness and with wisdom. 

A Story
This practice was shared with a group of women change agents participating in Global Grassroots’ Conscious Change Academy.   After a few days of participants experimenting with this practice in their own communities, they were asked to provide feedback on the impact it was having in their lives.  One woman raised her hand to share.  Having returned from class one day, she found that her children had completely messed up her home. She was furious because she had worked diligently before leaving for class to clean and straighten everything.  “Usually I just beat my children,” she explained without emotion. “But today, I closed my eyes and took three breaths.”  She then explained to her children why she wanted the house neat and asked that they return everything to its original condition before she again opened her eyes.  “And they did.  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.” 

This woman had been selected to take part in our course because of her commitment to ending domestic violence.  The discussion allowed for a broader dialogue about how we embody violence in our own lives and where we find it acceptable and not acceptable. As a result of this simple practice, this woman has completely changed the way in which she approaches violence in raising her children and engaging other couples in addressing violence within the family.

Change begins with our own ability to be present with suffering as well as unconscious patterns of action within ourselves.  It allows us to explore that which needs attending to, so that we are less likely to react and create harm.  It then enables us to cultivate a greater level of compassion in our social justice work because we know that other people who are causing harm are likely suffering inside.

Water for Women

Sunday, September 27, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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


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