Development agency hails role of women

By staff writers
March 9, 2007
Celebrating Women

US-based international humanitarian agency Church World Service joined millions of people and agencies celebrating International Women's Day yesterday (8 March 2007) - by heralding the women it works with in countries worldwide.

"In fact, we pay tribute every day of the year - to women who struggle against poverty, violence and injustice, lack of food security and clean water on a daily basis - but who are unstoppable," declared Church World Service Executive Director and CEO, the Rev John L. McCullough.

Rajyashri Waghray, the Director of Education and Advocacy for Church World Service, added: "Women everywhere have many reasons to be lauded. But they have one particularly strong suit: They know how to collaborate, how to organize, and how to build on one another's strengths."

That advantage, she says, "has made it easier for women of poverty and duress who often bear the majority of responsibilities for life and family to be able to step across the threshold and into an increasing role of potency and influence at every level and into building broader strengths in their communities."

In Africa, following the aftermath of three decades of war in Angola, women are learning to read and write in a country of 70% illiteracy. They're joining together for trauma recovery, to gain health education, conflict resolution skills, human rights awareness, and business and livelihood training.

As the Rev Deolinda da Graca Teca of the Angolan Council of Christian Churches' (CICA) Women's Department remarks: "These women have will."

Teca and Josefina Sandemba, also with CICA, direct the council's Literacy for Life programme - a literacy-for-social-change programme designed with and for women. The programme, supported by churches and NGOs, is being conducted in ten different provinces in Angola.

In Mozambique, women are flowing to literacy classes, too, such as the one supported by the Christian Council of Mozambique and is raising the bar with new teaching methods.

In a remote area of Argentina, Ermelinda Villa is now an elected councilwoman for her community. In 2007, that's not news in a country where a woman is the first Speaker of the House of Representatives and a woman is running for president.

But Villa lives in northern Argentina, where it is a big deal, and where it would be easy to be lost - in part of the vast Chacoregion that spans nearly 400,000 square miles of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

As a member of the region's indigenous Wichi people, Villa personally knows how easy it is to be lost - as a woman, and as a people.

But, as an embodiment of the spirit of women in developing regions around the world, Villa is right where she wants to be: organizing in her community for women's participation in political issues.

Villa is developing educational strategies that build recognition of women's rights in the Chaco and help women to exercise those rights.

"Women's community organizing deserves to be respected. We have the right to get organized, to our identity, to exercise freedom of expression, to be acknowledged and appreciated, because we are human beings and God created men and women with the same rights," she says.

Villa participated in a workshop for indigenous women leaders last November along with other women representatives of the Tobas Quom, Wichis, Weenhayek, and Guarani communities. And now more are following the footsteps.

The workshop, the Second Indigenous Women Leaders Workshop, was part of a broad Church World Service education, sustainable development, and human rights initiative in the Gran Chaco.

In Guatemala, women are helping vulnerable women fight injustice and exclusion now, in the face of more than three decades of wars, death squads, kidnappings and disappearances.

There are 50,000 widows in the country, some of whose husbands were assassinated. Many of those widows are left as heads of households.

Guatemala City-based CONAVIGUA, the National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows, is helping women who are broadly discriminated against, exploited, underpaid and not allowed to participate in society - because they are widows, because they are indigenous, because they are illiterate or cannot speak Spanish. (Some 40 percent of Guatemalans speak one of the counties 23 officially recognized Amerindian languages.)

In Nicaragua, where the newly-elected Sandinista government is emphasizing the struggle against poverty, CWS is paying tribute to Leonor Velasquez, aged 43, and other women there who are building their self-sufficiency, food security, and community development muscles through a patio garden training project.

Velasquez, married with four children, lives in Guadalupe, a few miles northeast of the city of Matagalpa. She says the training has changed her outlook and faith in herself and helped her develop leadership skills to assist her community.

In developing countries, particularly not only women but often very young women and girls carry part or all of the responsibility for providing all of their families' water. Girls throughout sub-Saharan Africa are often unable to attend school because they have to walk miles to the nearest water source, and then carry back the heavy containers laden with water.

Since 2001, CWS has supported the Women's Well & Garden Projects in Gambia, a project of the local non-governmental organization Association of Farmers, Educators and Traders (AFET). The programme addresses malnutrition and poverty in rural villages by enabling women to engage in dry season gardening, fruit tree cultivation, and income generating initiatives.

In Gambia, the dry season lasts from November to May, and wells often go dry, bringing vegetable cultivation to a stop. As a result, food deficits are chronic, because most rural families depend on grain crops grown during the rainy season.

But with AFET's improved well-digging technology, wells can remain productive all year. And with women's expanded agricultural knowledge, they're able to grow vegetables and other food sources during the dry months, diversify their families' diets, and generate income by selling part of their produce.

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