16 April 2012

Guest Post: Game Changing Women – Local Champions

The following post is by Jennifer Gottesfeld* and originally appears on her blog.

This blog post is in response to Tom Murphy of A View From The Cave’s A Day Without Dignity 2.0 whose theme this year is “local champions.” In short, A Day Without Dignity was inspired by campaigns like TOMS One Day Without Shoes and the Invisible Children’s Cover The Night Campaign KONY2012 (don’t even get me started on that one). These campaigns tend to celebrate the “white savior” and instead, Tom is looking to use A Day Without Dignity to celebrate people who are helping themselves and their communities, and there are MANY!

This has long been a topic that excites me, especially women taking charge in their communities and doing incredible things. I believe that a significant part of the real change made in communities around the world is organic and comes from within, not without, something I struggle with constantly as someone working in aid abroad. (I will hopefully also write a blog to post onto the A View From the Cave forum where I will discuss that further, and cross-post onto this blog.)

A few years ago I put together a TV series, which I pitched to the Oprah Network, called “Game Changing Women.” The premise of the show was to highlight the incredible women around the world taking things into their own hands. While the show was not picked up (thanks Oprah!), I’d love to use this space to celebrate just a few of these incredible women and share their stories. Each of these women is a local champion and they are changing the world:
  1. Amanda Espinoza realized that in Nicaragua, in order for women to compete in a man’s world, women needed to know how to do a man’s job. She started Mujeres Constructoras to teach poor Nicaraguan women construction skills. The women are taught carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical work and can make everything from furniture to buildings. The program has taught hundreds of women who are now hired for well paying jobs and able to develop financial independence.
  2. Shilpa Merchant worked to prevent the spread of HIV in the sex workers of Mumbai.India. She soon realized that nothing would change for the sex workers unless they had a monetary buffer, which would make them less vulnerable. Since traditional banks in India would not provide sex workers accounts because of their trade, Merchant started the Sangini Women’s Co-operative Bank. The bank provides savings accounts and loans and now has over 2,000 accounts, empowering women to change their lives.
  3. Susan Burton is the founding Executive Director of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, which operates homes and programs in South Los Angeles, for women recently released from prison to enable them to stay sober, get jobs and obtain life skills. Burton herself overcame a personal history of decades of incarceration and struggled with re-entry. After her release, she earned enough money working as a home health aide to purchase a modest home in 1997, which she shared with her first clients. Today ANWOL operates three residences and has helped hundreds of women start new lives.
  4. Selenge Tserendash was tired of the high unemployment and alcohol abuse in her country of Mongolia. Her solution to this problem was to start New Way Life Mongolian Center to help women economically and socially by teaching them quilting. Quilting was a new activity in Mongolia so Tser­endash recruited quilting teachers from the U.S. to come to Mongolia and teach the women. Quilting changed these women’s lives and gives them a steady income where they can work together to make quilts that are sold in their store and online.
  5. When Betty Makoni was a secondary school teacher in Zimbabwe, she discovered that many of her students were victims of sexual abuse. In 1999, Makoni started the Girl Child Network to confront sexual abuse in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. The organization works closely with abused girls and offers them the support needed to keep the girls in school and safe.
  6. When Naima Zitan learned that 60% of Moroccan women are illiterate, she decided to write plays in order to teach them about women’s issues and their rights. Zitan started Théâtre Aquarium an organization that performs these informative plays in rural areas, souks, markets, mosques, prisons, hospitals, factories, orphanages and theatres. She found this medium of communica­tion to be effective in teaching women about the laws of their country and how to use them to protect themselves.
  7. The violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo has made it unsafe for women to commute even short distances. Adeline Nsimire recognized that these dangers prevent women from getting access to critical information and education. She started Radio Bubusa, a community radio station run by rural women in DRC, to ensure that rural women are empowered by access to information, training, and communication in a country that has seen a great deal of violence in the last years. By having a local radio station run by women, women are empowered by hearing important information that they can use to improve their lives.
  8. During the bloody Liberian civil war, Leymah Gibowee, a trauma counselor, realized that if any changes were to be made in her society, they would have to be made by mothers. In 2002, she organized the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which grew to be a political force against the government and violence in the country. Gibowee led women in demonstrations and strikes, including a sex strike against husbands. The actions of the women finally led to the end of the civil war and led to the election of the first fe­male president of Liberia.
  9. Lucky, Dickey and Nickey Chherti, three Nepalese sisters, taught themselves to be trekking guides in the Himalayas. Trekking is typically a man’s profession, but the sisters saw that empowering women to move into this field would improve their lives. They started Empowering Women of Nepal, which trains women to be trekking guides in the Himalayas.
  10. After becoming a victim of sexual violence, Sunitha Krishnam decided to devote her life to working with the exploited women in India. She started Prajwala to fight the sex trade in India and assist trafficked women and girls. She is responsible for recuing more than 3,000 girls from sex traffickers. Prajwala has more than 17 centers and provides sex trafficking victims shelter and employment programs in carpentry, welding, printing, masonry and housekeeping so that they can start new lives.
  11. The Women’s Media Centre was founded by 5 Cambodian women, Yim Davy, Ruth Rasy, Chea Sundaneth, Som Khemra, and Tive Sarayeth to en­courage Cambodian women to work in various forms of media at both the national and grassroots levels. It creates public awareness on women’s is­sues and trains women to be effective contributors in their respective media vocations. It also conducts activities to coordinate media networks through workshop, seminars, and the production of video and radio programs, as well as providing support for women journalists.
  12. When Marina Pisklakova discovered that there were no organizations in Russiathat helped victims of domestic violence, she founded Center ANNA, the nation’s first domestic violence hotline and brought about a movement against sexual violence in Russia. She began counseling women over the phone and in person. In spite of death threats, Center ANNA grew and Ma­rina helped women create hotlines across Russia. The organization runs pre­vention programs and prevention campaigns, as well as provides women with psychological counseling and legal assistance. The Center has helped more than 100,000 women escape violent relationships.
  13. Kakenya Ntaija did not want to follow the tradition path for Maasai women in Kenya; she wanted to get an education. She convinced her town that she would use her education to help improve their lives. With the financial support of her town, as well as scholarships, she went to America to study. With the dream of helping a new generation of leaders in her community, she returned to her village and set up a boarding school for underprivileged Maasai girls, which focuses on leadership and community development.
  14. Suraya Pakzad grew up under the oppressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan that denied girls education and treated them as second-class citizens. As a result, Pakzad started Voice of Women (VoW), a covert school in her Kabul apartment for young Afghan girls. In 2001, when the Taliban rule ended, VoW shifted its focus to fighting for the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan. VoW provides refuge to at risk women and girls, and provides education and job skills training. VoW also works with imprisoned women in Afghanistan, often in jail due to abusive marriages.\
  15. At 19, Shahla Akbari, a young Afghan woman, started her own business, defying the role that most women are expected to play in Afghan society. Akbari was tired of buying boring, poor quality shoes imported from China, and began designing and selling fashionable, durable shoes for the women in her community. She decided to start her own business making shoes, one of the few accessories that Muslim women can use to express their personal style from beneath their burkas.
  16. In 1997, Oung Chantol was tired of the violence being perpetrated against women in Cambodia and was horrified to find that there were minimal services avail­able to care for the victims. She started the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Cen­ter (CWCC) to provide shelter, counseling, medical assistance, literacy, life skills and vocational training to women who have been trafficked and abused. Since it opened, the CWCC has helped over 55,600 female victims of violence, rape and trafficking take control of their lives.
  17. Rita Conceicao’s childhood in a Brazilian shantytown inspired her lifelong quest to help the girls of her community have a better life. Together with Margaret Wilson, she founded Bahia Street Center to provide impoverished girls in Bahia with academic courses to supplement their insufficient public education. Girls receive instruction in all basic subjects as well as in health and reproduction, art, and leadership skills. For many girls, the Bahia Street Center represents the only place where they can eat a hot meal, take a show­er, and receive positive encouragement from adult role models.
  18. Angela Gomes succeeded in getting an education despite the stigma of educating women in her community in Bangladesh. In 1981, she started Banch­ete Shekha to improve the quality life for the poor women and children in Bangladesh. Banchte Shekha’s program uses awareness techniques to em­power the girls and women with skills to survive and to access their legal rights. Today the organization offers programs to women in more than 430 Bangladesh villages.
  19. Pabla Milian and many other young women known as the Mayan Auxiliary Nurse-Midwives are working to reduce maternal mortality in their communities in Guatemala. These exceptional leaders are involved in a program developed to place skilled birth attendants in remote Mayan communities, where a lack of acceptance of modern obstetric techniques continues to threaten women’s lives.

*Jennifer Gottesfeld is a Global Health Corps fellow with Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative in Malawi, where she works as a health promotion officer. She was chosen to be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and will receive a Master’s degree in gender-aware economics at Makerere University in Uganda in 2012-2013. In the past, Jennifer created a health center in Kala Refugee Camp in Zambia as project facilitator for the NGO FORGE under the UNHRC, participated in a year of service with AmeriCorps, worked in resource development at International Medical Corps and had a brief stint as an accountant and producer in the movie industry.