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Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

As the war in Afghanistan approaches its tenth year, women and girls worry that the peace they want will come at the price of the few freedoms they have gained since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. From school closures to increased threats against working women, the rights women want seem to be slipping away. Read more about the difficult situations women are facing in Afghanistan in this article from the New York Times.

This month the Council will present two programs about strong women who are working to empower women. On August 11, the Asia Foundation will co-sponsor a program with Samar Minallah, the Asia Foundation Chang Lin Tien Visiting Fellow at the Global Fund for Women and the founder of Ethnomedia. Minallah is an anthropologist, writer, human rights activist and one of Pakistan’s few documentary filmmakers. She will share excerpts from her documentaries and discuss using video as an advocacy tool for women’s rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Asha Hagi, the co-founder and chairperson of Save Somali Women and Children, will speak on August 27 in a co-sponsored program at the Commonwealth Club. Hagi will describe the innovative creation of a women’s network, The Sixth Clan, to facilitate full participation in national politics and the peace process.

To register for either program, please visit the Council’s online calendar.

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Today’s second hour of KQED FM’s Forum with Michael Krasny featured a conversation about women and Islam in the Middle East. The guests included Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet, who is speaking tonight, Tuesday, May 18, at the Council; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, who will be with the Council on Wednesday, May 26 in conversation with Jane Wales.

For more information about the Forum program, click here. To register for either Council program, please visit our website.

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Sitting on a ramshackle assortment of wooden benches under the shade of a mango tree, we listen to the story of the widow Mary Gargar. An elderly and weathered Liberian woman with a look of determination just short of defiance, Mrs. Gargar tells us of how she purchased land from a man falsely representing himself as its rightful owner. Now that the war is over, a reverend who the government confirms is the rightful owner has returned and wants to build. While she holds a deed for the land in her name, and depends on its crops for survival, he too needs the land for his livelihood. How are they to resolve the dispute and meet their competing needs?

Land disputes are a recurring theme in the developing world and are at the root of much violent conflict. For the majority of the world’s poor, poverty is predominantly a rural issue. More than three quarters of those who live on just one or two dollars each day still live in the countryside. Living further from commercial centers, schools and health facilities and outside the range of many government and social services, the rural poor lack access to the inputs and infrastructure necessary for development. Residence in rural areas exacerbates poverty on nearly every level.

In Liberia, nearly 60 percent of the population is rural. Fourteen years of civil war devastated the physical infrastructure and destroyed what little access to systems and services that Liberia’s rural poor once enjoyed. Slowly, however, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government is working with partners to rebuild, increasing access to the inputs critical for development.

What role can philanthropists play in creating the conditions necessary for wide-spread economic growth in rural areas? While the challenges facing the rural poor are daunting, there are three key areas where strategic giving by private philanthropists can make a difference: agriculture, legal systems and education.

In Liberia’s post-war period, agriculture has accounted for over half of GDP. To ensure that agriculture continues to grow, philanthropists must direct targeted support to rural areas. Projects that improve access to agricultural inputs, including high-yield rice and other new technologies, and those that strengthen agricultural institutions and build supply chains from rural to urban areas should be a priority. Aside from direct agricultural skills training and education, donors can design financial services targeted to small-scale farmers that will enable them to invest and plan for the future with confidence. In a place like Liberia, where the war destroyed the country’s livestock population, the introduction of something as simple as donations or loans to purchase and insure livestock would have a dramatic impact on the capacity for rural development.

But to invest in and develop agriculture on a piece of land, one must first be sure that he or she is the rightful owner, as we learned with the story of Mrs. Gargar. Land and property rights are central to poverty alleviation efforts—to stability, food security, income-generation and status within one’s community. However, legal systems for registering and protecting these property rights face a number of hurdles, particularly in poor, post-conflict settings. As part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), the Liberian government commits to promoting effective land administration and management. Toward this goal, the government has established a commission and works with several key NGO partners, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Carter Center. The NRC works with the government to collect deeds and land records, increase the number of trained land surveyors and put a national system in place for land registration. Through outreach, the NRC spreads information about property rights and facilitates community resolution of land disputes, such as Mrs. Gargar’s. In addition, they put an essential new tool in surveyors’ (and land owners’) hands: global positioning systems. The process followed for making a determination includes the community and is viewed as fair—and the results are uncontested.

Complementing this work, organizations like the Carter Center support small programs in underserved rural areas to educate people about new laws and the legal means for resolving disputes. In a country where illiteracy rates are high, and access to information limited, the Carter Center sends traveling troops of local actors into the villages to perform entertaining and educational skits, followed by Q&A sessions with the villagers. On Saturday, I and 20 philanthropists, who are members of the Global Philanthropy Forum, took a UN helicopter to visit Liberia’s most isolated and rural region, the South East, to participate in one of these village gatherings and the robust Q&A session that followed the play.

We also viewed the re-opening of Tubman University in Harper city, the first and only institution of higher education in the region, which had been closed down during the war. It is nearly impossible to emphasize the importance of education to lifting the rural poor from poverty. Despite the government’s Free and Compulsory Primary Education Initiative, unofficial fees still prevent many children in Liberia from attending school. Over 70 percent of schools were destroyed or damaged during the war, and those that still operate do so with few supplies and poorly trained teachers with poor attendance records due to inconsistent pay. But, by efforts such as underwriting teacher salaries, providing books and supplies, funding the construction of new schools and providing the safe transportation of students to schools, philanthropists can have an enormously positive impact on rural education, and thus economic development.

On the final day of our trip, we visited a safe-house and rehabilitation center for vulnerable girls run by Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness (THINK). Many of the girls in the program were fighters during the war, or were trafficked to Monrovia under false promises of education in the capital city. Families willingly send their children to Monrovia, believing that they will receive an education and a chance for a better life. Too often, however, these children are forced into near slave-labor conditions as market sellers, house cleaners or prostitutes. The stories of these young women, although now on a positive path, represent an ugly nexus between rural and urban poverty. The rural poor are trafficked to the city because of the desperation of the urban poor. If affordable education in rural areas is provided and reliable means for families to make a living through agricultural development and property right protection are strengthened, women may be spared from making these dangerous decisions about how to educate their children.

This all sounds like a tall order, and many of these goals require the investments of governments, but each can be advanced substantially by small grants, especially to organizations like THINK, NRC and the Carter Center, each of which is having powerful impact on the lives of many who have suffered too much—including the strong willed Mrs. Gargar.

– Jane Wales

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“Women are part of the development agenda for the first time—and we are making use of our time. Traditional culture has made us reticent. But, no more. Our eyes are now open and there is no way they will close again.” These are the words of Liberia’s Vabah Gayflor, Minister of Gender and Development. Soft-spoken and patient, when her moment comes to speak, her voice drops to a whisper that commands the attention of all in the room. The 19 philanthropists with whom I am traveling in Liberia are focused; we have met a truly powerful person.

Gayflor, who is not a member of any political party, is an unmistakable champion of the person and policies of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Her colleagues speak of two revolutions led by Liberian women, and the one to come. The first was their struggle for peace in 2003. The second came in 2005 when they registered to vote and stood for election. Now, the third revolution is a more sustainable approach to economic development, one that provides benefits for all.

Quiet power characterizes the women of Liberia with whom we have met. They and their daughters have been the victims of extraordinary gender-based violence throughout the country’s 14-year civil war and still to this day, for the culture of impunity lingers on. However, in Minister Gayflor’s words, “women believe their time has come.” Meeting them persuades us that is so.

Throughout our day today, we met with women and girls who were being given economic opportunity, albeit modest, for the first time. Job creation has not come near to keeping up with the need, and remains an urgent necessity for President Sirleaf, who met with us over dinner last night. While some of those jobs will come from large corporations in search of coffee, rubber and cocoa, Sirleaf notes that the extractive industries are “capital intensive, and will not provide all the jobs we need.” And so the prospect of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) attracts the donors with whom I am now traveling, leaders of the Global Philanthropy Forum and The Philanthropy Workshop West.

In a large building on Monrovia’s main thoroughfare, we met with the exuberant members of the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, a pilot enterprise of Chid Liberty’s Made In: Liberia, a promising new business to manufacture apparel that would be fair trade certified and a source of employment. Elsewhere in Monrovia, each woman who opens a stall at the Nancy B. Doe Market, funded by the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, is required to open a savings account at the ECO Bank branch located within the market. And she is given access to daily literacy classes within the market walls. In a country where 60 percent of agricultural output and 80 percent of trading activities are carried out by women, ensuring that they have training and access to credit is essential.

Liberian women have found ways to advance other aspects of the Sirleaf government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Members of the West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP) told us of their efforts to increase women’s participation in peace-building at all levels in the country, through advocacy, capacity-building, radio outreach and rural initiatives.

And the truly extraordinary women of West Point—the largest slum within Liberia—have formed their own West Point Women for Health and Development. Forty eight percent of West Point’s population is comprised of children, 35% women (mostly single parents) and 15% men. In this area not yet reached by government services, these remarkable women concluded that “enough is enough” after seeing too many children raped and killed. They self-organized and took responsibility for their impoverished community, with each paying weekly dues of 30 Liberian Liberty Dollars (roughly 40 cents US). With this money, they fund grassroots efforts to improve health and sanitation, reduce gender-based violence, provide literacy classes, reduce prostitution— and see to it that the police do their jobs. And if the police fail them, as is so often the case, they take matters to higher authorities until perpetrators of violence are prosecuted and some form of order is achieved. Their annual budget is $10,000. With funding, they would like to expand their skills training to teaching a woman to drive a car. Newly empowered with that skill, she could be a taxi driver and make a living for her family.

So what is the role for private actors—philanthropists and social investors? Is the right entry point a community based organization, an NGO that provides skills training and meets basic needs? Or is it to create the conditions for small enterprises to take seed, so that the economy can expand more than its current 5% per year. With funding and technical assistance, increased access to education, skills development, credit and inputs, women will be able to lift their families from poverty.

Women did not get the vote in Liberia until 1948. Their country did not get peace until the women demanded it in 2003. Now a woman holds the presidency, powerful women are heading ministries, holding Senate seats and women with no education and no obvious reason for hope have transformed West Point from being a daily, deadly danger to their sisters and their children. Their eyes are now open to the power they wield. Will they turn back? And how can the rest of us ease their path forward?

– Jane Wales

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Why are women treated poorly in Islam? And, why don’t moderate Muslims denounce jihad? Tamim Ansary, author of Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, offered his perspective on these two most frequently asked questions at the Council last Thursday. Ansary describes himself as a storyteller and has recently focused on the story of the Islamic world, how it differs from Western history and how the two are beginning to cross paths like never before. He spoke about the Muslim idea of “ummah,” or community, and the ways it has changed over many centuries. Ansary closed by speaking on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism and said that the way to diffuse this threat is to address underlying issues, such as land ownership and water rights, that drive Muslims to fundamentalism and jihadist actions.

To hear the full program with Tamim Ansary, visit our audio archive here.

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Speaking to a capacity crowd at the Fairmont Hotel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof said, “We’ve all won the lottery of birth, and with that comes some real responsibility.” Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are the authors of a new book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide.  He joined the Council and the International Museum of Women last Wednesday for a discussion with Council CEO Jane Wales. The book project began as a way for the authors to look through the “prism of gender” at issues that are rarely reported by the international media. As they traveled and met with women in many countries, they learned that there are 60-100 million “missing girls” across the globe, girls who have died as a result of gender discrimination. Kristof spoke on numerous topics, including methods of ending coerced prostitution, the need for more foreign aid to be directed at local grassroots efforts, and the economic advantages associated with educating and employing women and girls. He noted the Western tendency to condemn low wage labor, but remarked that “the only thing worse than being exploited in a sweatshop is not being exploited in a sweatshop,” as girls whose jobs are taken away often end up in prostitution to replace their lost income. Kristof ended the program by discussing the decision to take his three teenage children to Southeast Asia and show them the brothels he had visited while writing the book. He said that he and his wife feel strongly that “the way you come to think about the world is when you…see these things and they make an impact on you” and that it is important, as parents, to try to teach their children “empathy, compassion, a notion of involvement, a sense that they can make a difference, [and] the joys of social entrepreneurship.”

To listen to the entire program with Nicholas Kristof, visit our audio archive here.

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KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasney will host a conversation with Nicholas Kristof, co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Wednesday morning at 10 AM.  Then later in the evening he will join the Council for a conversation with Jane Wales. The sold-out Council event will take place at the Fairmont Hotel and begin at 6 PM.

Kristof’s co-author and wife, Sheryl WuDunn, was recently on the Colbert Report. You can watch her conversation with Stephen Colbert here:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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