At the World Social Forum


Yesterday as part of the Global Fund's delegation in Kenya, I attended a deeply empowering workshop at the World Social Forum on youth, women's rights, and activist democracy. The four hour workshop was led by Salma Maoulidi, Director of the Sahiba Sisters Foundation, a current grantee of the Global Fund.

Over fifty participants gathered to engage in passionate consciousness raising, organizing, and mutual inspiration. Several countries were represented, including Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, with a few of us from the UK, the US, and Canada. The workshop was in Swahili and translated quietly to those of us who needed English.

Salma is a galvanizing leader--able to get us working in small groups on the immense challenges before us, and later, tremendous in engaging the group in feminist, radically democratic discussion. About half of the participants were youth, with a slight majority of young men. One team modeled for us a presentation duo featuring a young woman and a young man working together as equals.

Salma emphasized the importance of youth leadership since by 2015, more than 60 percent of African people will be below 25 years of age. Some of the issues we grappled with were war and peace, human rights, fundamentalism, lack of tolerance for the views of others, HIV/AIDS, and the need for activist, socially just democratic practice, including in religious organizations. She challenged us:  "Do you have democracy in your home, at your family table?  Democracy must take place at all levels."

The feminist message was expressed in Salma's strong leadership, in the voices of several women who belong to the Sahiba Sisters, in their brochure, which was handed out, and in Salma's closing statement:  "If you disrespect a woman, you disrespect your own being."

Sahiba Sisters' mission is "to enhance the leadership and organizational capacity of Muslim women and youth" and to be sisters seeking a common cause, our development, while remaining true to our spiritual values--Islamic values, grounded in the search for social justice.... [according to] the principle of shura'a (mutual consultation)."

During introductions and discussion, the Global Fund for Women was recognized and thanked for providing funds for this work. In the middle, during a break, we danced!


The Sound of Singing

As our van entered the dirt access road to Bridgeway Centre Trust's small office, we heard the sound of singing. Sixty children of all ages were gathered in neat rows outside the door, singing and clapping a welcome song for us! After the presentation of a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our Global Fund for Women group, we were led in by the children and found more than 20 women awaiting our arrival.

Bridgeway Centre's many programs to fight HIV/AIDS are indeed an inspiration. The children they assist, both girls and boys, are orphans whose parents have died from AIDS, and vulnerable children who live in the Kwangware slum or whose parents are HIV+ or sick. The Centre currently works with over 200 children every week.

An inspiring presentation demonstrated the empowerment of women and girls that Bridgeway is accomplishing. There were songs, dances, dramatic poems, and testimonies by children, youth, and adults, all sharing how their lives had been transformed by the compassionate help and training they receive at Bridgeway Centre. Young people demonstrated for us how they have learned to make detergent and soap, as well as to silkscreen and paint by hand beautiful t-shirts for sale. Women presented their knitting, rug hooking, and bead projects that enable them to "keep busy, reduce stress, and earn some money to support themselves."

We drove to Kwangware slum, accompanied by Caroline Muigai Executive Director of the Centre, to see how one young mother has been supported in opening a small business there. Dolly Kigamwa operates out of a tiny "phone booth" constructed of corrugated metal and painted bright green. From her bag comes a green wireless telephone that she activates. For a few shillings, residents of Kwangware can make telephone calls. This is a great community service as well as a way for this young woman to support herself and her family.

I felt very humbled in the face of the wonderful people-staff, volunteers, children, youth, and adults-who work together at Bridgeway Centre. The cobalt blue t-shirt I purchased has their motto:  Turning scars into stars. As we prepared the leave, after enjoying a lunch cooked by the teenagers, the children again broke into song. . . we all joined in and were once again led by the children to the parking area. There all of us gathered for a group photo before we departed.

As a donor/activist with the Global Fund for several years, I can indeed witness that our contributions are being put to powerful use in Africa: lives are being transformed, girls and women are being empowered, people with AIDS are being enabled to live and die with dignity and respect. Let us keep these beautiful songs going . . .

Michal McKenzie has been a donor to Global Fund since 2002.

Hope Blooms in the Desert

At 6 a.m. Karachi is slowly awakening - our taxi speeds through empty roads that are normally crowded with cars, donkey carts, auto rickshaws, and the brightly painted trucks for which Pakistan is so famous.

Shahnawaz, the man who will chaperone my daughter and I on our visit to Rural Women's Welfare Organization, has spent a whole day traveling in order to be with us. Since 1999, the Global Fund for Women has funded this organization serving women in the most remote parts of interior Sindh province, but we have never had a chance to visit the group in its own office or to meet with the hundreds of rural women who see the tanzeem (Urdu for organization) as a beacon of light and hope.

Today, my 13-year-old daughter, Mira and I are en route to Sanghar, the small Sindhi town, where the founders of RWWO live and work. It is two days before the festival of Eid ul-Adha (the celebration of sacrifice), better known in South Asia as Bakri Eid (celebration of Goats). It commemorates the sacrifice the prophet Abraham was willing to make and the miracle that substituted a lamb in place of his son at the moment of death. Today, all over the Islamic world, goats, sheep, cattle, camels, and oxen are slaughtered in a graphic re-enactment of this devotion to God. For over a month, families have been feeding and decorating the animals in their care. Goats are festive with paint, henna and colorful ribbons. It is said that a true sacrifice requires you to part with something that you have truly come to love. As we travel further away from the urban metropolis of Karachi, we notice goats in their finery everywhere - stuffed into the backs of small cars, paraded in small herds along the side of the roads, peering out from the backs of small trucks and lorries.

Goats are actually much more visible than women in Pakistan, especially here in rural and extremely conservative Sindh. Women are the backbone of the rural economy, performing over two-thirds of the agricultural labour, yet their contributions are neither included in assessments of gross national product nor a guarantee of their physical safety. RWWO works in a region with one of the highest rates of female illiteracy and violence against women in all of Pakistan. In the reports that fill our files in the Global Fund office, we know how hard RWWO has had to work to raise awareness and challenge traditional practices that reduce women to the status of private property. Karo Kari, Urdu for honor killings, are routine in the province of Sindh - last year alone some estimated 100 women were victims of murder perpetuated by male relatives. Women are murdered in retaliation for feuds between families, they are murdered because they are "presumed to be unchaste," they are murdered because they dared to marry someone of their own choice, they are murdered because they are the victims of rape and then considered to have brought shame on the family, they are murdered because they are vulnerable and no-one speaks out on their behalf.

No one that is, except RWWO. It is not until you actually visit the intensely provincial and conservative town of Sanghar, that you realize how incredibly brave and idealistic the founder of RWWO, Imam Zadi, must have had to be to embark on the path she has chosen to blaze here in her own small town, not in a big city. A soft-spoken woman in her sixties, Imam Zadi has eyes that shine with a passion for women's rights. She has an unshakeable conviction that her work on behalf of women's emancipation is no less an expression of her faith than those who have formal titles of mullah or priest. Her husband is a remarkable partner to this firebrand for justice. A graduate of Karachi University's philosophy program, he is the first man I meet in Pakistan to introduce himself as follows, "Greetings, I am a lifelong feminist."  This is followed by a tour of his remarkable collection of classic Hindi, English and Hollywood films.

Although we have just negotiated street vendors selling bangles, donkeys on the street, and loud arguments in Sindhi on the busy main street that is just outside their door, as you walk up the narrow stairs to the RWWO office and the home of the Zadi family, you can distinctly hear strains of Verdi - its one of his 300 vinyl records of Western Classical music that he has lovingly preserved. Surrounded by his grandchildren, whom he insists must learn English, he pulls out an extraordinary compilation of newspaper cuttings on crimes of violence against women.

"This is what is wrong with our world, this is what we have to change. This is why RWWO is so critical in our lives," he says as we look at photographs of brutally mutilated bodies.

Between them, Shah and Imam Zadi are a couple who have launched a small revolution. Products of a lower middle class, landed family, their marriage stands out as an example of true partnership and equality. He recounts how the jirga or local town council wanted to censure Imam for "promiscuity unfitting to a woman of her class" because she was "consorting with people of poor reputations, unmarried women, Hindus, tribals, and low caste villages."

He went to the Jirga and demanded to know what they had done during their tenure to improve the lives of those who most needed their help - the poor, the dispossessed, the Hindu minority of Sindh.

"My wife and the organization she has started have dug wells, provided clinics, built schools, and improved the lives of hundreds of people in Sindh. Until you show me that you have done a tenth of what she has, I refuse to accept your condemnation as anything but talk."

The council was silent and RWWO continued its work among the women of the neighboring villages of Sanghar.

As we walked into our meeting in the RWWO office on the third floor terrace of the Zadi home, it was clear how many boundaries RWWO has dared to cross. A diverse range of Pakistani women were present to greet us as we entered - Hindu Bhil women with brightly coloured Rajashtani veils and bangles all the way up their arms; an older Muslim woman who has dared take on the priest in her local mosque; younger unmarried Muslim women who work as teachers and activists and leaders of their local women's associations; women ranging from 72 to 14 years of age with a shared passion: transformation of their shared oppression and opening doors to a better future for all the women in their communities.

Hindu and Christian women are rarely included in organizations in Pakistan - they are a small minority in most parts of the country, except here in Sindh, where Hindus comprise about 10 percent of the population and Christians another two or three percent. We were greeted with colorful floral garlands and songs. The Bhil women were delighted to learn Mira's name, because they revere Mirabai the 16th century Rajasthani princess who turned her back on her comfortable life and abandoned her husband to become a mystic.  We were promptly regaled with Mira bhajans (hymns in praise of Mira!)  Other women shared with us their own stories of empowerment, the roles they played as members of the board of RWWO and the changes that they have been able to implement with the help of funds from the Global Fund for Women and other grantmakers.

Visiting Project Baobob

By Jan Stoner

There are two kinds of people in our world. The folks who have been to Africa and those who have not. As I've prepared for this trip, I've observed how the people who have been there take the whole thing in stride. And those of us who haven't are filled with questions, concerns and free-floating images. So here I am, a first timer in Africa, meeting a Global Fund grantee organization in action. I couldn't have imagined a better experience.

We visited a combination boarding school and church where girls who had no chance of receiving any education at all, I mean none, were plucked from the slums and given a home. Home is a tidy dirt floor room where the girls sleep two to a single bed, 24 to a room. The kitchen consists of two big pots set over a wood fire. The beans and corn lunch smelled as good as the vegetarian dishes I cook back home.

Global Fund grantee, Project Baobab, teaches 25 of these teenagers who are interested in starting a business the entrepreneurial and life skills they will need to succeed. At first, we didn't know exactly what to say to one another. And then it came out that I had run a business for 20 years and the ball started to roll. They wanted to know how to deal with employers or customers who had a better education than they, how to develop a bio-fuel business, how to come up with a business concept that had the best chance for success, and what were the key strategies that made a business grow.

They shared concerns that older folks might not appreciate their level of confidence and skills, and might not support their business.  

When I told them that owning a business is hard work and long hours, I saw that I was reinforcing their teacher's lessons. When I said that paying your taxes will make you a better business in the end, I could tell the teacher had taught the same thing. And when I said, "don't spend all your newfound money on goodies," but rather reinvest it into your business, they had already made up their minds to do so.

When they complete their program, they will enter their business plans into a competition sponsored by Project Baobab, and some will win $100 grants - seed money to start a business. Past successful businesses include cattle feed, milk production, bull raising and tea shops. After our visit to the school, we drove to another neighborhood to meet a young woman who'd started a successful business with her sister, using the $100 she'd won from Project Baobab. Her market research, a skill learned through Project Baobab, had shown her that hat the area needed a tailor shop. So now she makes African-style clothing for leisure and holiday wear. A new outfit takes just two days to make. She travels to Uganda to get fabric at the lowest price. It was clear that she a fine saleswoman and one spunky gal.

How's that for a great initiation to Africa? When I used to read about dirt floors and 24 kids to a room, my heart would break. Now that I see the whole picture, I don't get stuck on just the heart tugging facts. I can feel a sense of hope and inspiration, because there are local folks who are doing something about it, and I can assist by supporting the Global Fund for Women.

Jan Stoner is a retired chiropractor who lives in California. She has been a donor to the Global Fund since 1995.


Tumaini Shines in the New Year

Here is the latest inspiring update we've received from Jane Vulimu, the general secretary of grantee group, Tumaini Self Help Group in Kenya.

Happy New Year 2007!

In our community Christmas and New Year celebrations have just ended and many people are now taking their children to school. The hardest question facing the majority, especially the poor parents, is how to find the money for school fees. This is a time where one can easily measure the love that parents have to their children. It is a time when gender discrimination openly emerges, putting girls at great risk of being treated as objects that can be sold for cash to raise tuition fees for the boys. For those who dearly love their children, it is a time for sleepless nights.

While this is happening, the week greeted Tumaini Self Help Group with very bad news that measured our strength and performance.  We proved to the community that we are an unshakable pillar built of hard stones to protect women's and children's rights.

Tension gripped the community on Saturday after an 11-year-old pupil was married off by her parents to a 65-year-old man. Imagine, this man paid a dowry of twenty cows to the father to marry the girl, Grace Nakhanu. Ten men were hired from the community to whisk her away to the old man's room in a fenced manyatta where he was enjoying local beer and anxiously waiting for the girl.

When this news reached Tumaini office, a quick meeting for all members was called by the chairlady and we agreed to work like bees to ensure the young girl's rescue from the hands of the beast.  We took two hours to mobilize over 200 women and 500 pupils from the girl's school and staged a formidable demonstration protesting this marriage. The headmistress of the school, Mrs. Lusaka, told us that over six girls from her school between ages nine and twelve had been secretly married off to prominent old man during the Christmas and New Year celebrations. She said that most parents were doing this to acquire fees for their male children. This statement hurt us very much and made us angry.

We marched 40 kilometers singing against this beast-like behavior to the office of District Commissioner. Upon seeing us, the DC was shocked and very cooperative. After explaining to him what had happened, he ordered for the immediate arrest of the man, the girl's parents and the hired men who had whisked the girl to the manyatta. He praised the women for their cooperation, especially the Tumaini Self Help Group and offered two lorries to take us back home. We refused the offer, and demanded to see that the girl had been rescued and to ensure that the law has taken its course before going home. Realizing our seriousness, the DC accompanied the police to the manyatta where the man was hiding the young girl and enjoying several rapes. Within one hour, the DC came back with the girl, she had been seriously raped and looked helpless. She was rushed to hospital for treatment.

The girl, Grace, is now recovering in a local hospital under the care of the Tumaini Self Help Group. We are ready to stay with her and ensure that she enjoys education to any level that she desires.

We danced and sang in praise of the DC, the police and the Global Fund for Women. We told the DC about the wonderful work that the Global Fund is doing around the world and he was very impressed.

Due to this event, the name of Tumaini has spread everywhere within a short period. In every meeting, positive-minded leaders are now encouraging women to join our movement. As we said, "we shall never shy off even at gun point." It is only with strong women's movements that women can realize their rights. By empowering women, the world can become a very peaceful place.

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