This special opportunity to meet with young social leaders from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Papua New guinea, El Salvador, India, Indonesia, Honduras, and the Philippines this week provided an up-close opportunity to learn from these front line workers.
The purpose of our meeting was to explore together – actually for me to learn from them – what is truly valuable in supporting women’s leadership development in the communities where they work. These folks are iLEAP Fellows, participating in a three month intensive learning/teaching experience here in Western Washington. In their home countries they work in both urban centers and remote rural villages, in programs to improve health, gender equality, women’s rights, access to education, organic farming, sustainable agriculture, sanitation and hygiene education, youth empowerment, microfinance.
We spoke first about what they saw as enabling women to exercise leadership. Education opportunities, political connections and individual personality and passion were key themes they identified. Several spoke of their personal commitment to themselves and their communities as the basis of their motivation and key to the hard work, courage and persistence required in their work.
Here are some of the specific stories they shared:
- Practical one-to-one and small group work to help women make connections and discover opportunities for work is important. Vocational training for developing employable skills is necessary, including in new fields such as ecotourism, and also finding scholarships so that women can take advantage of such training.
- In some parts of India once women are married they are quite isolated. They are always inside the house and do not even know their neighbors. There is much diversity of religion in these areas and concern about perceived efforts to being converted seems to reinforce the isolation. Workers often go door-to-door to connect with these women, and continually seek ways to build trust – not only with individuals, but to foster trust within the community as a whole. The teaching here is aimed at both creating social connections in the community where ideas can be shared and also specific information about organic farming. Women are taught how to use the small plot of land attached to their houses for growing healthy, organic food for family consumption – such as leafy vegetables, tomatoes, onions. Those without land are encouraged to use plastic pots that would otherwise be discarded, or cement bags, as containers for growing a few plants.
- In other countries the people do know each other. However, as a middle class emerges, and the concept of ownership is embraced, a different form of isolation is created. While in rural areas, families need one another, and connection is necessary, in the more urban areas as people are able to own property, or “things,” the sense of what is “mine,” weakens the feeling of being interdependent as a community.
- In some countries money from drugs and guns creates major distinctions between the poor and those who are gaining from the drug/gun trafficking. In this environment women are definitely leaders already – they have to be in order to survive. In working with women here, the focus in on supporting women in developing relationships with one another, and in consulting with these women to learn what they need. Here it seemed to be important to teach about gender equality and to provide micro-financing so women can become more economically self-sufficient. It also became clear to the workers here that these women had no health care. When they asked the women “What does health mean to you?” the women replied that being healthy meant being able to open ones eyes and get out of bed in the morning in order to go to work – thus, as long as one could move at all, one was healthy.
- The critical connection between the various levels of society – in creating change – was highlighted through conversation about Indonesia. When there was a woman president attitudes changed! (Megawati Sukarnoputri, July,2001 – October 2004). NGOs were able to create an alliance with the National Health Ministry. In 1998 a National Commission on Violence Against Women was created.
- Personal power was highlighted in a final story of the afternoon. Trained as an engineer, one of the leaders who was part of the conversation described working in a hotel and being given a lower job – with lower pay – than a similarly trained male engineer. How to change that? Speak up, say what’s wrong and what needs to happen to change that! That is using one’s personal power. AND, following one’s own heart is also using one’s personal power. Though Lidieth was offered a good job with the hotel, she saw the need to work with women, to help women to help themselves and chose to invest her energy in this work. “It takes courage, but I had to do what was meaningful to me.”
These stories the Fellows shared reveal powerful strategies for encouraging and supporting women’s leadership development. They provide inspiring examples for us to heed and to share with other women.
The Intention of this blog is to provide a space for women to Create Our Own Story. As described in the intro of the blog:
The story about women and our place in the world, the one we tell ourselves, the one history describes, the one that holds the assumptions that influence decisions and interpretations all around the world – that story was written by men. Our responsibility ~ and opportunity ~ is to
Create our own Story.
The stories shared by the iLEAP Fellows through this posting are some of the actual stories of women’s leadership!