Fall Event 2007: Remarks from Women Leaders

October 12, 2007

Remarks by Momana Begum of Bangladesh, Carmen Carrasco of Bolivia, Flora Mtuwana of Malawi, and Pranita Jangam of India

With Introductions by Joan Holmes

The following text comprises the second part of Joan Holmes’ keynote presentation. The first and third parts of the presentation, printed in a separate document, include Joan Holmes’ introductory and conclusory remarks of the presentation.

Introduction of Momana Begum from Bangladesh

Ladies and gentlemen, let's first turn to Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, a country that achieved its independence as late as 1971, we’re mobilizing 10 million people in 10,000 villages. This effort is led by 100,000 trained animators.

In our newest strategy we empower Barefoot Researchers. Barefoot Researchers are volunteers from the poorest areas and are the most destitute people. The vast majority are women. This strategy empowers the poorest of the poor—empowers them to analyze the obstacles they face, devise strategies, and carry out campaigns of action to build lives of self-reliance.

We are now going to hear from a woman who is from a village in northern Bangladesh and who until a few days ago had never even been to her own capital city Dhaka. She has taken her first plane ride to be us tonight. It’s now my honor to present our partner and one of the most effective barefoot researchers in Bangladesh Momana Begum.

Remarks by Momana Begum (translation)

My name is Momana from Gaibandha District in Bangladesh. My family is extremely poor, and I never learned to read or write. Most of my village is poor, but my family is among the poorest. People used to look down on us.In 2005 The Hunger Project trained me to be a Barefoot Researcher in my village.

I formed a research team of 25 women. Our research team meets and analyzes the details of our low income and poor health, and the ways in which early marriage and mistreatment of women make this worse. And we come up with solutions. For example, we formed a group savings account to help women when there are emergencies like a child falling ill.

Another example is when we met with our local government about our low incomes, and they helped us get training and loans for better incomes.  We women formed a Freedom Squad. We stopped eight child marriages, two marriages to second wives and four cases of domestic violence. We have stopped many such crimes.

Poverty is not our fate. It is a violation of our rights and dignity. We have been held down by fear, shame and violence. But no more. Today, for the first time, we have the respect of everyone in our village. We respect ourselves. And we are building a better life!  I want to thank The Hunger Project for giving me the opportunity to speak tonight.

Eid Mubarrak!

Introduction of Carmen Carrasco from Bolivia

Our strategy in Latin America is to break the exclusion and marginalization of the indigenous people and empower and embolden them to know their rights and improve their lives.In Bolivia, we work with 500,000 Quechua speaking people. They live in villages so remote that the only way for them to communicate effectively is through the radio.

With our partner, Radio ACLO, we train animators known as People’s Reporters. These reporters are a life-line for their indigenous brothers and sisters. They capture their stories, share vital information and ultimately give voice to people who have been marginalized for over 500 years.

I'm thrilled for you to meet a woman who has trained—and continues to work with—nearly 1,000 people's reporters—Carmen Carrasco.

Remarks by Carmen Carrasco

Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to bring into the room tonight people—men, women and children—who have been marginalized for over 500 years. I want to share with you the conditions they endure and what they are doing to change them and also how they have taken their future into their own hands. Tonight, I will tell you of two women—women who are People’s Reporters on Radio ACLO. Their names are Felisa and Celinda.

Actually, our plan was to have Felisa here tonight but that was not possible. As a rural indigenous woman she was denied a visa to visit the United States. Not being able to get a visa is just one more time in her life where she experienced being disenfranchised, marginalized, humiliated. These are the things that indigenous people endure on a daily basis, for their entire lives. But, the story I am here to tell you tonight is that it is changing!

Imagine, just for a moment a fifty year old indigenous woman, carrying with her, as she always does, her portable radio. Imagine her in front of you. Señora Felisa Cruz Flores.  Even as a very young girl, Felisa could never sit by quietly while her community was mistreated. As she grew up, Felisa would listen to the traditional radio stations and was outraged—outraged! These news stories hardly mentioned her people at all, or when they did the reporting was filled with prejudice against her way of life. That outrage spurred Felisa into action. That’s when she decided she wanted to change how her people were represented.

She learned about Radio ACLO and the People’s Reporters and she was impressed with how they spoke with such truth of their people’s reality and she decided that she wanted to become one too. And now, she is one of our star reporters! If Felisa were here in this room tonight, you would feel her leadership. You would experience her commitment to her people. And you would know that the people have a strong voice in Felisa Cruz Flores.

Let me tell you of another powerful woman, The Honorable Celinda Sosa, formerly a Radio ACLO People’s Reporter. Today, Celinda is Bolivia’s Minister of Economic Development. She uses her political office to serve her people and, as she showed us when she worked with Radio ACLO, she is not just talk, she is action! Celinda has shown that a woman—an indigenous woman—can become a Minister and can use her power for the good of her people.

The work that Felisa, Celinda and the thousand other People’s Reporters do is causing change.  As you may know, in just the last five years Bolivia has undergone drastic changes! While indigenous people are still marginalized, they are no longer invisible. They hold leadership positions at all levels of society, from the grassroots through the very highest office!  We have elected our first indigenous President—Evo Morales! And the People’s Reporters contributed to making that happen by keeping voters informed and by mobilizing support.

As we speak, the Bolivian Constitutional Assembly is writing a new constitution and the head of that Constitutional Assembly Is an indigenous woman! During this process, the People’s Reporters are a vital link between the communities and the Assembly. They keep the people in the villages informed about the progress being made by the Assembly and they keep the Assembly informed of the issues and concerns that matter most to the people in the villages.

This is remarkable! Because even though indigenous people make up more than 60% of the population, until this point they were invisible. Well, not any more!  And Felisa, Celinda and thousands and thousands of other indigenous men and women are making this happen. They are creating a new future.

You know I have dedicated my life to the empowerment of the indigenous community—to empowering them in their fight for voice, for respect, for dignity. And that’s why I joined Radio ACLO, because I know that the indigenous community holds the answers—answers to the challenges we are facing. They treasure and protect the precious gift of community. They see beyond the individual and they understand that we are nothing if we are not connected. They value all of life—they value the collective sense of life!

Above all, I’m honored and grateful to stand shoulder to shoulder with Felisa, Celinda and all my brothers and sisters as they build a new future for themselves, for Bolivia and for the world.

Introduction of Flora Mtuwana from Malawi

Africa is home to the world’s most severe hunger. Forty-one percent of the people live in abject poverty. In Africa, to empower grassroots people to meet their basic needs we have a holistic empowerment strategy. Women and men make the journey from abject poverty to self-reliance in five years. We call this the epicenter strategy. This strategy mobilizes close to three million people.

Today there are more than 80 epicenters in eight countries in East, West and Southern Africa.  A key component is the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative (AWFFI). Through a program of training, credit and savings, this initiative empowers rural women to become economic players and respected members of their communities.

With us tonight, from the Jali Epicenter in Malawi—an extraordinary and successful entrepreneur, the Chairwoman of the village livestock association, our partner—Flora Mtuwana.

Remarks by Flora Mtuwana

When I was a young girl, working in my mother’s field, I never dreamed that I would one day fly to New York. But today, I am here to share my story.  I was born into a family of eight children. When I was 12 years old my father passed away and my mother was left to raise the family. That's when poverty struck our family. We often went all day without eating.

And life was not just hard for my family, but for everyone in my village. There was a shortage of food. There was no medicine. There was no clean water. Life was particularly difficult for us women and girls. It was normal for women to die while having babies. Almost all of us would walk 12 miles a day with babies tied on our backs to fetch water and firewood. Our husbands beat us for no reason. Men controlled us. It seemed like my family and our village were going to be hungry and poor forever.  So, at first, we couldn’t believe the aim and vision of The Hunger Project. Is this true? Can people who are hungry do this? Can we really end our own hunger and poverty?

In the beginning, we thought we would just get free food like we did from other organizations. But, it soon became clear that The Hunger Project was different. It took a year to change our minds and to really understand the aim of The Hunger Project. But that year was worth it! We are now empowered women and men with a vision, working together to achieve it. Now we know that when we build something ourselves it will be ours forever. No one can ever take it away!

And I’ve seen changes in myself. I became an AWFFI partner and I took out a loan. With that one loan I purchased three pigs, and the rest is history! Those three pigs turned into 300! I am a successful business woman! And I am now one of the most respected people in my village—a respected woman and a respected person. I can now buy medicine for my family!  My family has three nutritious meals every day! I send my two young daughters to school and I feel fantastic knowing that when they are older I will be able to send them to university. I have built a five room house for my family.

And, I am most proud to say that I have a bank account, in my name, with my own money. You see, when I was a girl, women were not allowed to touch or even hold money, let alone decide how to spend it. I almost can’t believe it—almost! I am a leader! I am the Secretary of my Epicenter’s Food Processing Committee! Chairlady of the Pig Farming Association!  I am working with my AWFFI partners so that the Jali Epicenter can one day open a women-owned and managed bank recognized by our government! I am a teacher—I help women and men learn to be successful farmers!  I invest in the future of my village! I opened, with my own money, a nursery school for 34 orphans. At school, they eat a nutritious breakfast and lunch each day, they learn and they are loved.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I, Flora Mtuwana, am a leader!  I am proud to be an example for my two little girls and for all of the girls in my Epicenter! I am a living example of a woman who is strong, a woman who is successful, a woman who is powerful!

Introduction of Pranita Jangam from India

India is the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the same time, India’s child malnutrition rate is essentially the highest in the world and the reason is buried in the soil of inequality between men and women. For the first time in 5,000 years, women can now serve on village councils called panchayats. In fact, one-third of the seats on village councils are now reserved for women.

Our strategy is to empower women elected to these panchayats—empower them to be effective key change agents in their villages for the end of hunger.  To date, we have trained and empowered 65,000 leaders. They impact the lives of 18 million people. In addition, The Hunger Project is mobilizing thousands of elected women into federations where they take collective action to catalyze policy change.

Let me present to you one of these courageous women. She is not only the elected President of her panchayat, she is also one of the leading voices in her state-wide federation. Ladies and gentlemen our partner from the state of Maharashtra, Pranita Jangum.

Remarks by Pranita Jangum (translated)

I have spent 65 hours of travel by train and plane, but it’s been worth it, just to be with you this evening.

My heart is so full of joy because I have the opportunity to represent millions of women in my country tonight. This is not just an honor for me, but you honor all the women of India. This is also recognition of the leadership of all the elected women representatives.

The chance that I, a rural village woman, have received to be here with you could only be possible due to the alliance between The Hunger Project and our partner Parivartan in Maharashtra. Together, they are strengthening the leadership of women. My experience will inspire other women to take on leadership roles in their communities.

When I took the Women’s Leadership Workshop, I learnt that I had rights—that I had my own identity. I learnt technical know-how as well as saw the obstacles I would face and the solutions to those problems. I was informed about the panchayat laws and my responsibilities as an elected official.

And so, I began my work. During my presidency over the last 2 years, I have successfully accessed several government programs. For example, homes in my village which have been dark for decades now have light. We have stopped the selling of alcohol in my village. Women used to be beaten up by their husbands under the influence and this situation destroyed many homes. We now have a library and several toilets for the community. I have also organized the women to form savings and loan committees.

I am extremely proud to say with the partnership of the women and men in my village, in 2006 our panchayat received government recognition for being one of the cleanest and most sanitary. The prize money of Rs. 100,000 (the equivalent of US$4,000) was given by the President of India.

The biggest obstacle I faced was when I went to the district government office to ask them to properly document the names of the poor who lived below the poverty line so that they could gain access to resources allocated to them. Our demand was ignored. This is because today the political system is insufficient to meeting people’s needs. That is why, a federation of organized people is absolutely critical.

I went ahead and formed a women’s federation along with Parivartan. As a first step we advocated for women’s active participation in the local village council meeting. They learnt their rights. They found out that they have right over 50% of their family property. This had them lay claim to their future economic security.

Although technically, the law states that women in local government must have 33% representation, the truth is that men pull the strings. But now women are beginning to cut those strings. We are stepping out of our traditionally designated roles of taking care of the children and working in the kitchen and seizing every opportunity. The results we produce are gold—they change lives forever! Ladies and Gentlemen, I am that living example.

Finally I want you to know that I, Pranita Jangam, fear nothing. I will not be stopped. I am a powerful woman and a successful leader. And yes, this is just the beginning. You have not yet seen what we women can do. Just watch!