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Story of the Month

Each month we highlight the story of one woman who is making a difference in the world.  We invite you to celebrate these women, learn from and be inspired by their stories. We also invite you to share your stories of women leading the way, so that we might share it here.

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February 2015:
"They never thought I was the person they were waiting for."

Estelle

 

In many cultures, authority and power are perceived as masculine – big, tall, suits or traditional regalia.

What happens when the female Programme Manager of a $ 300,000 to $ 500,000 / year infrastructure development project shows up to review the progress of the project?

"Well," says Estelle, "folks were looking around at the men on my team trying to determine who was the boss."

 

Estelle may not be tall; she may be dressed in a knit shirt and blue jeans and may arrive in a small boat, instead of one designed to signal “Look how important I am.”  She may not be initially recognized as “the boss.”   However, she is “the boss,” a powerful, confident woman who has her own ideas about what it means to be a leader.  As she visits the sites of the projects she manages, she looks for who is serving the coffee.  She believes this is an indication of one’s commitment to the community.  It reveals someone who knows how to make visitors welcome.  It reflects someone who can create an environment where people are not afraid to try new things.

Estelle was born in Ambanja.  This is a county in the Northern Province of Madagascar, the home of her father. Her mother was from the Southern tribes. Her parents made a decision to live in the Capitol City in order to have the best schools for their children, and Estelle continued her education there through high school, university, and a four-year Master’s Degree in Economics.

As a young professional, Master’s Degree in hand, and eager to make a difference, Estelle very intentionally chose to leave the city and begin her career in Diego-Suarez, the Province where she was born.  She was poised to apply all she had learned and motivated to prove wrong the stereotypes that people living in the countryside and in the Provinces were lazy or not as smart as people in the Capital.  She was shocked when she was greeted with condescension and disrespect.  No one thought a “city girl” was capable or serious about her work.  This was a blow to Estelle, a hard introduction to her transition from student to professional.

Years later, through persistence and hard work, demonstrating both technical expertise and care for the people she worked with and those they served, she had earned the respect of those who had greeted her with such skepticism. The funding for this project had come from a partnership between Malagasy Government and French Cooperation, which had supported similar projects in other areas of the country.  When this funding was exhausted, all of these local projects, except the one which Estelle led were phased out.  Estelle took the initiative and proposed a plan for continuing the work through the local government.  “I might be expensive for you,” she explained, “but my team is very good.  They are well trained, skilled in planning and programming.  I will bring them progressively into the municipality.”  Indeed her team was skilled.  They were able to assess infrastructure projects – streets, schools, public sanitary infrastructures, to determine what needed to be done, how many people would be needed, and what would be required to make them productive.  After two years she had transitioned all her team into the local government, and the projects were being developed on schedule and on budget.

Her Master’s degree prepared her for both the hard work necessary in her chosen field, and also for the necessity of understanding exactly the conditions under which projects had to be completed.  Their mantra was “You have to have been there and done that,” in order to understand how a project has to work and to lead a group of workers.  Having walked six hours a day, in the heat, to get to the site of her internship, she had great appreciation for the people who were served by the projects that she managed.  She challenged her workers to “listen carefully” to the citizens they were surveying, in order to understand “how hard it is to get more than 40kg of bananas, on a shoulder more than 3 hours to the market place” for example.

Beyond formal training, however, Estelle demonstrates the ability to learn from her own life experiences.  As a child, she never felt she “fit in.”   Her mother and father are from different parts of the country and different backgrounds, her mother being the first in her family to marry and live outside her community.  In play with her cousins, Estelle got the clear message that she was “different.” She agonized over being excluded because of her ethnicity.  She recognized the stereotypes various groups had of one another.  Even at the death of her brother, to whom she was quite devoted, the mourning family was disputing where he could / should be buried.  Overcoming this sense of exclusion, Estelle strengthened her own internal confidence, recognizing that her value as a person had nothing to do with her ethnicity, and knowing that she could make her way in the world regardless of stereotypes and judgments.

She also learned from an unexpected mentor, her father-in-law.  “He taught me two important things!” Estelle explains. 

I was concerned about women’s land rights.  In some parts of Madagascar, women cannot own their own land.  They cannot inherit land from their parents.  My father-in-law helped me understand that “if we are not empowering our daughters – through education and skill development - having the “rights to land” is never going to be a reality; women will only give their land to their husbands.”   He helped me realize that women must understand and claim their own freedom so that they can claim their Land Rights.  They must have the will and the skill to make decisions and manage their own land.

My father-in-law also helped me understand how to best serve the women in the villages I visit.   “You must be the same as the women there,” he said.  “If you are seen as a “special” woman the men may respect you, but they still will not respect the women of the village.”  He urged me to learn the protocol of every village I visit, to ask questions so I can learn what it is like to be a woman there. 

Estelle is an influential leader.  She demonstrates the strength of inner confidence, the power of asking questions and continually learning, the necessity for stepping outside one’s comfort zone, to do what needs to be done. After being selected as Humphrey Fellow which involved a yearlong program in the United States, she opened up a new window of her life, always convinced that continuous learning is a key for success. Competing globally on a UN-OCHA research project, she was successful and received funding to implement her research project… again related to small-scale farmers resiliency.

Estelle may be contacted at herimpitia_estelle@yahoo.fr