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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Ugandan roadtrip

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Over Valentine’s week, Heidi and I took nearly a week-long road trip across Uganda to visit girls in our program in a partnership between Cornerstone and Global Grassroots. Eleven of our girls who are in their gap year between secondary school and university are part of a program with Global Grassroots to train them in “conscious social change.” In January, the girls attended a 3-week training where they each identified issues that concern them in their communities and developed ideas on how to confront these issues. They have now been back in their villages for a few weeks to study their issue in more depth, so we visited each of them, went over their proposals, and gave them a small amount of money to implement their venture ideas.

It was an incredible joy to see where each girl comes from and I swelled with pride at the difference they are already making in their villages. The power of seeing our girls gain the confidence to lead in their communities and work with others to find local solutions to local problems nearly brought me to tears with each visit.

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.”

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.

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

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

In Search of Obama in Rwanda

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Each day we drive in a rented minibus to the rural village of Byimana about 1.5 hours outside of Kigali.  The scenery is stunning.  The road meanders around tall, terraced hills.  Women and children walk along mountain paths with yellow jerry cans on their heads.   Toddlers who catch our eye wave from the roadside.  The hills are an alternating fabric of banana trees and slanted, emerald farmland.

Today we passed by a local market on market day.  Usually we see the empty skeleton of the market and can only imagine what fills the area below the crooked grass roofs marking each stall. But today, the grass field was awash with women perched between mounds of tomatoes, bananas, oranges, potatoes, avocados, mangoes.  Serpentine walls of colored fabric separated the produce from the clothing sections. Higher on the hill, men and women attended grass mats filled with household goods.

But I was in search of Obama.

Now I must take a step back and try to describe the extraordinary fabric that Rwandan women typically wear wrapped around their waist. VERITABLE REAL WAX is stamped along the edges.  Prints of flowers, images and swirls of color – orange, blue, yellow, burgundy, green – make each one a work of art.  I’ve also seen prints with images as odd as New York City skylines.  A friend is coveting fabric made with the faces of African leaders – Mandela, Kagame, Mugabe.  She’s making a quilt.  But nothing is as amazing to me as the Obama fabric – round images of Obama’s likeness plastered across an African print background.   I am determined to find some.

Every stall we went to, Gyslaine asked if they had Obama.  Some had seen some on Tuesday, others said I could find him in the center of Kigali.  A few had him last week, but he was already gone.   So my search for Obama will continue this weekend.  I know he’s here in Rwanda.  It’s only a matter of time before I find him.


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