In honor of International Women’s Day, on March 8, we lift our voices in thanks for the courageous women around the world who work, sometimes against great odds, to improve their livelihood and communities, support their families and open doors to a brighter future. More than 75 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion smallholder farmers, farmers working modest plots of land, are women. In Kenya, these women are working together to build terraces in preparation for the construction of a sand dam, which helps capture and store water.
Even in situations of pain, women such as Angelina Atyam, of Lira, Uganda, work courageously for justice. In 1996, Atyam’s daughter was among a group of young teenage girls abducted from St. Mary's Aboke boarding school in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Atyam and other family members, spurred by their grief, came together to form the Concerned Parents Association, an MCC partner that has documented more than 24,000 child abductions in northern Uganda. Once, an LRA commander offered to release Atyam's daughter if she would cease her efforts. “I told him one daughter is not enough, because all the girls are my daughters,” says Atyam, whose daughter later escaped from the LRA.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, bitter armed conflict in the 1990s divided communities along ethnic and religious lines. Today Ermina Boskovic carves out time from a busy schedule of raising teenage children and helping in the family’s bicycle repair shop to work at helping students overcome the prejudice and divisions left over from the years of war. “We are never perfect. Nobody is without prejudices. But if we are aware of it, then we can dismantle it,” says Boskovic, who teaches a course developed by MCC partner, the Center for Peacebuilding.
Every minute, a woman dies of complications from pregnancy or childbirth – a total of some 500,000 women a year. Many more suffer pregnancy or childbirth-related injuries or disabilities. In areas as diverse as Southeast Asia and rural Africa, MCC supports projects to help provide additional training and education to birth attendants, ideally making birth conditions safer and improving the chances for healthy births.
At Pak Thon Village Clinic and Dispensary, Boon Tun, a traditional birth attendant, performs a prenatal examination on Wun. Trainings supported by MCC focus on helping birth attendants spot early warning signs of a problem pregnancy, improve hygiene and safety during deliveries at home and help attendants identify problems they can handle safely and those that go beyond their expertise and should be referred to a hospital.
As the General Reference Hospital of Mukedi in western Democratic Republic of the Congo faces a funding quandary that mirrors the economic decline of the nation, nurses earn about $6 to $10 a month. Widespread poverty in the Mukedi area, where most people are subsistence farmers, has made it impossible for the hospital to charge its patients enough money to make repairs or pay its staff a living wage. “If we keep on working, it's because we care for people,” Anne-Marie Ngangula, a nurse in the hospital pharmacy and the wife of the medical director, said in 2008. Today, an MCC campaign to help revitalize Mennonite hospitals has led to some modest pay increases. Click here to read more about the Congo effort mcc.org/congo/mennosante.
In Haiti, Jean Baliui, a single mother who cares for four children and a 1-year-old grandson, talks of how she hopes to restart her business, even before the temporary shelter where she will live is finished. Here, Baliui, who lives in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, works with Ewiyde Michel to set posts for a shelter, which will be constructed with an MCC-purchased tarp. Before the earthquake, she rented out extra rooms to pay her children’s school fees and sold clothing and shoes in market. Afterward, even without enough food or money, she spoke of how she had always run her business with her own money and never used credit. If she can restart this business, she says, she’ll be able to feed her family.
Across the globe, women are involved in helping to organize how MCC supplies, such as school kits, relief kits, blankets and other items, are distributed. Here Namam Salih, a former program director for an MCC partner organization, REACH, distributes school kits to students including Ghareeba Haman in Mahkmur, Iraq.
When Tuka Regmi’s husband, who had worked as a driver in India, was ill with HIV, she remembers how people in her rural Nepali community looked down on her. For nine years, she never told anyone she was HIV positive. Through an MCC partner organization, Sakriya Sewa Samaj, Regmi was linked with medical care and began a journey to speak out about the disease. Sakriya helped her form a support group, which started with five women. It has grown to include 110 women, men and children from three districts. Regmi also now speaks about HIV to school groups, family members and people in parks and tea shops. At one World AIDS Day gathering, she spoke to more than 1,000 people. “Now that I tell people I have HIV, I feel like I have put down a heavy load. I continue to speak about AIDS because I am concerned for my children and society. While I am living, I will do something about AIDS,” she says.
The careful pull of a needle through fabric is an act of hope for many women who have quit sex work. Through an eight-month MCC Bangladesh program, former sex workers are given $1.50 per day, a caring environment, handicraft training and teaching about health and hygiene, mental health, human rights, peace and literacy. The program’s name, Pobitra, means “holiness, sanctity, the fresh cleanliness of a newborn.” To become part of the program, the women make a public commitment to stop sex work and to embrace the new opportunities. Many of the graduates have begun producing handmade, natural soaps at Sacred Mark, an enterprise developed by MCC Bangladesh.
MCC strives to support projects that offer opportunities to women and men – and increase women’s full participation in communities. In rural Nicaragua, MCC is supporting renewable energy efforts through a partner organization, Asociacion Fenix. Jasmina Mendoza is one of the community technicians trained to install solar panels and solar systems to provide electricity to communities. Through the effort, communities are entering an age of electricity without relying on the fossil fuels that most Canadian and U.S. residents take for granted.
In the Vumbi District of Kirundo, Burundi, Maria Maculata Macumi washes coffee beans and separates them from their shells to dry. MCC is partnering with an organization called Help Channel Burundi to plant trees in areas where too many have been cut down. Local people are employed in replanting trees and paid with food, including MCC canned meat. Women represent 70 percent of the world's poor. Statistics indicate women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk for hunger because of systemic discrimination in education, health care, employment and control of assets.
Home-based caregivers such as Maureen Mundia are a critical link in the efforts of Zambia’s Brethren in Christ Church to respond to HIV and AIDS. Church efforts include caring for those who are ill, providing information about HIV and its spread and supporting income generation, education and nutrition for HIV-positive clients and their families. This includes encouraging adherence to antiretroviral drugs for those clients who are receiving them. Mundia is shown walking through the Chisekesi Brethren in Christ church building, which is getting a new grass thatch roof. Women bear a disproportionate burden of the cost of HIV and AIDS. In addition to volunteering as home-based caregivers, when a family member has AIDS, it is most likely women who provide care. More than 15 million women are living with AIDS. In addition, today in southern Africa, 75 percent of new HIV infections among young women between the ages of 15 and 24.