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Posts Tagged ‘women’s empowerment’

Harris 1While participating and being actively involved in development work, a bilateral exchange usually occurs whereby the Westerner learns more from the community than aid or help is actually given. During these bilateral experiences, people use clichés such as, “enlightening, life altering and change.”  This idealism, and “do-good spirit,” quickly transforms, when one actually sees the harsh reality facing the developing world. As an African American, I was completely ignorant about Africa before coming to Kenya. My knowledge consisted of a romanticized view of old culture and ancient wisdom. Before arriving, I promised myself to fully throw my being into the culture and the ways of the people in Kenya. I knew I wanted to work in human rights; as a lawyer in the States, rights are coveted, and we are trained to zealously defend people’s rights. Once I arrived at my host family’s home, visions of Africa were streaming into my mind; some of the images were stereotypical but there were also colors, bright ones, with mamas selling sweet breads and fruits. There were men with the arduous task of pushing carts of produce, with the fierce sun blessing their skin, along with graceful Swahili women wearing bui bui and hijabs.  I completely emerged myself into my family life; I gave up my vegetarian diet and I dedicated myself to learning Swahili. For me, Kenya started to change from the stereotypical picture of Africa being a dirty place, corrugated iron roofs, and idle men, into a burgeoning culturally complex country with a lot to offer the world. My volunteer experience truly started at F.I.D.A (Federation of Women Lawyers) office in Mombasa. F.I.D.A is an international well-funded organization that promotes equality and due process of law for women.

Kenya is a country fighting its colonial history and present day social and economic problems.  Many of the economic calamities facing sub-Sahara Africa are rooted in cultural, social, economic and legal upheaval that occurred during the colonial era. Many of the citizens in Kenya believe corruption is rife and that ethnic tensions are thwarting economic and infrastructure development. All of these issues came to head during the 2008 elections with full-scale ethnic violence and the creation of the Grand Coalition Government.

Currently, the citizens are growing weary of the Grand Coalition government. The citizens want more transparency and accountability. Food prices have surged and the local newspapers are inundated with stories alleging corruption by government officials.  Local organizations and NGOs are actively engaging in dialogue and addressing issues pertaining to human rights and good governance. In fact, G10, a prominent women’s group, urged fellow female citizens to boycott sex to pressure the government to act more responsible and accountable to the citizens. Many citizens are discouraged. The resonating theme of doom and self-destruction is all too common as Kenyans discuss their plight. Speculations of extra-judicial killing and assassinations are troubling to the citizens and the human rights activists’ community.

Harris 2Constructive dialogue is the precursor for ideological and paradigm shifts in society. Sustainable development has to be rooted in fostering and creating safe spaces for dialogue, in order for true change to take place. My work with F.I.D.A is inextricably link with empowering the local citizenry, primarily women. Kenya, like some other African societies, is patriarchal. Therefore, certain cultural customs can at times violate Kenyan law and Western perceptions of fundamental rights.  As a western trained lawyer, it is difficult to juggle cultural autonomy and fundamental rights. Many women are solely supported by their husbands, which can place them in a precarious situation if their rights are violated by their spouses. F.I.D.A offers an avenue of legal advocacy and a safe space to foster dialogue to empower women.  It is an awesome experience to actively advocate for women to take ownership of their lives and watch them challenge their spouses in court by exercising their legal rights. A voice, an avenue, a safe space to challenge and debate is essential in equalizing society and addressing the imbalance of power in Kenyan society.

F.I.D.A concentrates on women’s right, but women’s rights are not exclusive, nor does the topic operate in a vacuum, but in a civil society, everyone must have equal protection under the law. F.I.D.A , at times, is viewed as an agitator or “un-Africa,” but the dialogue and discussion the organization fosters concerning human rights is vital. Mombasa, Kenya is perfectly blended with various cultures, ethnic groups and religions. Discussions about rights can easily be muddle with discussions about cultural sensitivity and religious freedom.  Well, the issue of human rights is not an easy discussion and answers will not be black or white but with dialogue and constructive debate cultural sustainable answers can be reached to address the legal ills facing Kenyan society. During the historical Obama presidential campaign, I witnessed Kenya come together under the umbrella of pride for the son of a fellow statesman, such zeal and energy was magical. I firmly believe that same energy can be used to transform society. And with organizations such as F.I.D.A , the dialogues about empowering women and women’s rights are opening doors and challenging the status quo. Granted, F.I.D.A’s work is just a small piece, but that little piece will fit in the large piece of creating a society that can adequately provide shelter, clothing, food, health care and sanitation to its citizens, while ensuring that people live with dignity.

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“I just hope it was ok, I know it wasn’t perfect, I hope in the end, we can laugh and say it was all worth it…” – Ani Difranco
motsingerh-1I have now been here 75 days. For those 75 days I have been working with the Centre for Women’s Studies, a small department of a local university that is working to empower women throughout the tribal blocks of Rajasthan surrounding Udaipur. I have now been here 75 days. I have spent 75 days getting up around 7:30 in the morning, having breakfast with my wonderful host mother, and walking out the door by 9 am to ensure that I make it to work by 10 am, the time the Indian work day begins. I walk down the stairs of my apartment complex, wave good morning to the security guard who I’ve become “buddies” with that works at the grocery store in the bottom of my apartment building, and mentally prepare myself for the never-ending beeping of motorcycles, government buses, and auto rickshaws that whiz through the narrow roads of Udaipur. I take a 15-20 minute refreshing morning walk (mornings here are cool, though days are hot) to Court Chariya where I catch the “big rickshaw” or tempo to take me all the way to work in Pratap Nagar for 5 Rupees. I could catch one earlier without the 15-20 minute walk, but have found my sanity in the quiet back streets of early-morning Udaipur.

I squeeze into the jam-packed auto and ride for 20-30 minutes, dependent on how many times my driver wants to stop and try to convince more passengers to climb into his already over-crowded vehicle. I arrive at work, usually around 9:45 or right on time at 10:00, and then actually begin the workday around 11:00 when all of the staff has finally reached the office, and we have finished our first cup of sweet, hot, cardamom infused chai.

The first 75 days have been humbling, infuriating, educational, enjoyable, hysterical, frantic, and hectic, tiring, and the list could go on and on and on. I spent the first two weeks reading research project after research project in hopes of understanding the mission and previous projects of CWS. I spent the next month and a half losing hope that I would make any meaningful contribution to my host organization and the larger community. Numerous project ideas failed, work on existing projects and research with CWS couldn’t be undertaken due to a lack of funding, and communication barriers made the process of expressing our ideas difficult on a good day.

motsingerh-2Finally, upon having every urge to cry and pull my hair out as we were unsuccessful time and again at coming up with a sustainable project (however small), my boss asked me if I would develop a nutritional toolkit. “Nutritional toolkit?”, I said. I inquired about what this meant, and the only response I was given was “you know, like a scale and a thermometer and a few medicines and feminine hygiene projects that we can distribute at future health workshops and trainings.” To me, this sounded like aid, first aid, and not sustainable development. This wasn’t our collective goal. This wasn’t going to assist in the long term betterment of livelihoods for these village women. What to do? What to do?

Then it dawned on me. They were asking me for a nutritional toolkit. They obviously had some concern for the “nutrition” of village women, although our definitions of “nutrition” may be slightly different. I realized that wait a second, the Centre for Women’s Studies has done research on the impact of male migration on women and families and on the prevalence and conception of abuse against women in tribal communities (among others), but the organization had no information regarding the nutritional status of women and children in the surrounding communities.

As I began researching this topic a bit, it became even more apparent how nutrition can affect so many facets of village livelihood. With an insufficient diet, women often fall victim to iron deficiencies, and pregnant women often give birth to low birth weight babies that struggle to stay alive, only adding to the problem of a high infant mortality rate. Men and women are ineffective in their valuable jobs that ensure at least some sort of financial security and children that suffer from the common cold often end up with an incredibly grim diagnosis as without proper nutrition, immunities are weakened and the body can’t sufficiently fend off illness.

Since presenting the idea to my organization to undertake a research study on the nutritional status of tribal women and families and the nutritional divisions that may exist between men and women, class and caste, I have started spending my everyday in the field with one of my fellow co-workers as my all too valuable translator. The hour and a half haul to Gogunda (the tribal block I am working within) via government bus is absolutely nerve-wracking, but one of those experiences that makes this adventure all the more exciting. We speed through winding, bumping roads and fly off our seats if we are so unlucky as to get stuck in the back of the bus. We clinch our teeth and hold on to our seats for dear life as brakes aren’t used here, only blaring horns that say “get out of the way or we will run you over!” (said jokingly, kind of!) We walk, walk, and walk some more from hamlet to hamlet as transportation through the expansive villages is pretty much non-existent. We eat lunch with locals and as I can’t speak the language, the village women and I smile at one another and laugh at our inability to talk. Somehow through the laughter, we sometimes begin to understand each other, if only just a little. We sometimes receive incredible responses to our survey and feel as if the end result is going to be fantastic, and other days we want to run quickly back to the bus stand as responses are nothing short of vague and unclear. This is just how it goes…

motsingerh-3I have realized through these days in the field and in pouring so much effort into developing a meaningful project in collaboration with my host organization that ultimately, my time spent here isn’t about the project or about implementing “change” throughout the duration of my time here (something that just isn’t going to happen in 4 months). In laughing, in becoming so incredibly annoyed by things I just can’t control, in talking to my co-workers and to my host parents about life in India and my life in the US, in sharing our experiences with one another, and in sharing our frustrations and joys, I have realized that the most beneficial thing I can give and take from this place are the one or two incredible relationships that I have formed with a co-worker, a host mother, and a village grandmother that insists I eat her chapatti and dahi (yogurt) even when I feel as if I can eat nothing else. In these relationships, we begin to understand one another. We begin to develop a sense of the importance that must be placed upon an individual’s history and a specific locale’s history in reaching the sustainable betterment of livelihoods of every individual throughout the world.

I have realized that although I may not finish the surveying of 100 women as I had hoped, my time here still will be a success when it ends on December 18th. If I only finish 50 surveys, write a theoretical research report, but know that I have positively impacted the life of at least one individual while also being given the greatest learning experiences about life, and work, and persistence, and the importance of hope and faith in this world of sustainable development, my time in Udaipur, India will have been worth every single second. This work is hard. This work is challenging and often infuriating. This work makes you laugh and it makes you cry. It makes you want to pull your hair out and run into the middle of a forest just to scream at the top of your lungs for 20 minutes. It makes you so incredibly happy and excited, and it builds your patience like nothing else possibly could. It takes you on the greatest ride of your life. This place. This project. These people I have encountered. My host mother and my host organization. They have been my teachers. They have been those that have enhanced my understanding of myself, of this life, of this world and of this thing we call “sustainable development”. I suppose in the end, we can laugh… cry… scream… and confidently say, “I guess it was all worth it!!!!!”

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I came to Jinja, Uganda with the excitement that I would learn a tremendous amount about subjects such as Uganda history, economics, politics, and social and cultural practices by interacting with my host organization, host family, fellow FSD interns and co-workers, and locals whom I would come across.

I also eagerly anticipated working in an unfamiliar business line (micro-finance and micro-lending), and employment in a full-time capacity that contradicts my New York City rat-race, Wall Street-driven, high-tech software consultant career: Philanthropy.

My assignment is a short one – 2 weeks, including FSD orientation training. “How much can I accomplish?”, and “how effectively can I be utilized?” are questions on my mind, as well as my FSD Project Director, Margaret.

I’m fascinated by current world events, and alert to recent rebel skirmishes in eastern DRC just west of Uganda, violent political incidents in Kenya to the east, the incessant carnage and tragedy in Sudan to the north, the recent historical genocide during the ‘90s in Rwanda to the south-west, and Uganda’s own chronicle of tyrannous rulers and vicious turmoil of the 70’s and 80’s. And with all of these conflicts come human displacement, rampant disease, and suffering.

Fortunately, it seems the political and economic landscapes have stabilized in Uganda over the last decade, allowing the micro-finance industry – an overwhelmingly successful tool for empowering disadvantaged women around the world – to take root.

To get started, I received a number of FSD preparatory materials, including the final report of a previous intern whose project on the above subject I was targeted to continue, in advance of the trip for my absorption.

The project is a straight-forward concept: Carry on the work of preparing, through basic business skills training, a local, economically disadvantaged women’s group, the Walukuba Maama Development Association, to receive micro-financing loans to fund their own businesses, and make a website used to solicit external donations more visible and effective for raising capital for these members.

This is accomplished by working with my host organization, Jinja Cooperative Savings and Credit Society (SACCO), who oversee the loan management and business preparedness of these women’s groups, along with paying visits to the Maama Groups to get their input on current needs and challenges.

Meeting these women was inspiring, to say the least. When greeted with a chorus of “You are most welcome!” and bestowed the title of “honored guest”, I could only respond with how humbled I was to be introduced to them. I was moved by the way they supported each other, worked as a team, and shared their personal experiences and struggles.

And to speak of the wonderful and unique craftsmanship in their handmade products – I explained that in the U.S., their work would be highly valued, especially considering how bland and uninspired today’s mass-produced goods are, and as compared to the brilliant colors, artistry, and precision they diligently put into their personalized crafts.

It is this point exactly which prompted appeals from many of the women to get assistance with expanding the marketing and advertising of their products. They had been trained in these business concepts, but could not reconcile how to formulate a strategy, nor develop partnerships with others who could assist them in a sustainable way.

As my time in Jinja is brief (and quickly coming to a close), I’ve focused on developing action plans and initiatives, along with documenting solution methods of my own into project proposals, so that the goals and objectives can be easily handed over to future FSD interns to follow through with.

I made a return visit to the Walukuba Maama group which produces beads and baskets and brainstormed the ideas I had developed, to get their feedback. They enthusiastically took to several suggestions, and were even more thrilled when I bought many strands of beads to take back to NYC and perform, what I called, an “experiment” – see what the price point and sales potential is for their product in that overseas market.

I promised to follow up with them in the near future to let them know how my experiment goes, provide further guidance on their marketing and advertising initiatives, and work on raising the traffic on the current website seeking donations for their businesses.

I extended my proposal writing to concentrate on the operations of Jinja SACCO as well, and developed some inventiveness around how they could scale their business to serve more underprivileged members of their community.

That they, like most businesses in the area, lack internet access and skills stands out to me as an opportunity to differentiate their team and accelerate on this advantage in developing new partnerships with large organizations for further philanthropic work. Once implemented (although not a simple task to get adopted, and one that comes with a considerable price), the internet will serve to expedite any research they perform, enable easier and more widely distributed communication amongst its partners and clients, and give them access to online tools for small businesses in order to replace a number of paper systems they currently use.

In other words, it will have a radical, positive impact on them, and the community they serve, in a sustainable way.

Volunteer work aside, another major highlight of my stay here in Jinja is the chance to live with my remarkable and welcoming host family, the Kintus.

To my delight, my host dad shares the same spirit as I do in understanding the world, seeking the truth, and challenging leadership and authority when their principles and values appear to be lost. We’ve had hours (maybe days’ worth!) of conversations and I’ve gained tremendous knowledge from him about a range of subjects that only an encyclopedia could encompass.

My host mom is the embodiment of poise and warmth, and graciously offers to help make me feel at home at all times. She is a fabulous cook, and keeps me VERY well fed with the local cuisine, sometimes trying to sneak even more food onto my plate! I’m not sure how I’ll wean myself off the delicious carbohydrate-overload I’ve enjoyed here, but I can guarantee you’ll see me in my local gym working out upon my return home.

The house also buzzes with their adult children and grandchildren coming and going, which is always a source of entertainment. They offer me a chance to practice my limited Luganda (the local language), which I think provides a source of amusement for them!

Living with the Kintus has been a sheer pleasure, and I feel as though I have a second family that I’ve connected closely with, despite coming from worlds apart.

Lastly, forging new relationships with the FSD staff and my fellow interns has been rewarding and important in that we’re sharing the same momentous journey and fulfilling an adventure that will provide a lifetime of memories. This experience impacts not only us, but people we’re here to work with and for, who are as hopeful about living a happy, meaningful life as any person with passion and dreams would want.

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Casey Lord is interning with Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur, India, an NGO whose mission is to empower Harijan (“untouchable”) women by providing them with an environment free from discrimination and home duties where they can learn new skills in sewing, embroidery and basic English. Casey is particularly involved with the sewing initiative of the trust and is hoping to use her time In Jodhpur to strengthen the trust’s sustainability by improving the market prospects for Sambhali’s handicrafts.

Some participants of the Sambhali TrustFighting the mounting summer temperatures of the Thar desert, I carefully wrapped, pleated and pinned my new cotton sari into position this morning in preparation for another meeting with Jodhpur bureaucracy. Saraswati has checked my tucks and folds and given me a red bindi – I look the part and I’m ready to go. Today I am going to the police station on behalf of a local Harijan woman whose life has been turned upside-down by her betraying, polygamist husband and in-laws. Pinkie’s husband has married and had a child with a fourteen-year old girl, bringing his ‘new family’ into the home where Pinkie and her children already live. The in-laws, also sharing the house, are favoring the ‘new family’ and are abusing Pinkie in an attempt to expel her. Pinkie has nowhere to go and has no control over the situation. I will stand with six other (also Harijan) women and protest for her basic right to a life without threat or violence.

Sewing classThis is not exactly an average day of my internship, but it’s certainly not unusual. There are forty-five participants who meet daily at Sambhali Trust but the outreach of the project is somewhat larger. Govind, the trust’s founder, is an incredibly dedicated and passionate man who is entirely committed to the welfare of these girls. His efforts overflow the trust’s permeable boundaries and touch the lives of the girls’ families and other needy members living in the community. The girls at the trust are encouraged to stand up for themselves, act on their own initiative and ultimately build a sense of worth and solidarity so deeply rooted that it will stay with them when they leave the project and bear fruit to a life more successful than that of their parents. Thus, when Pinkie approached Govind in dire straights she met not only a man who would refuse to turn her away but an army of forty-five young girls all ready to fight for her cause.

The girls practicing yogaI am almost halfway through my nine-week internship and have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about working with a grassroots organization and have become fully immersed in the local culture. I’m reaching a transitional stage of applying what I have learnt about the needs of the trust and its participants into a personal project, a project that coheres with the trust’s mission and serves to increase its sustainability. Quality control and rigorous management are recurrent problems that NGOs with a sewing program face everyday, and I hope that my Western background can bring an alternative light into the organization. By researching successfully established organizations in the region Sambhali can develop a model on which to base its growth, and as the organization evolves into a self-sustainable project it can endeavor to support its participants even once they have left.

Govind has great dreams about the future of Sambhali and its sister organizations and I feel very excited to be a part of the realization of these dreams. I am grateful to FSD for providing me with the opportunity to work with such a special organization, to form a mutual relationship of new knowledge and experience, and for allowing me to join forces with a very unique army of empowered women.

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