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Women on the Frontlines of Development

Meet eight amazing women activists who are fearlessly pursuing justice. From aiding survivors in disaster zones to risking their own lives in defense of human rights, these intrepid women are changing the world.

by Leah Kaplan Robins

Earthquake ReliefMarisol Baez, Haiti

When the earthquake struck Haiti last January, Marisol Baez left her family behind in the Dominican Republic and crossed the border into the afflicted country. She helped lead her organization, Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA), to organize an ambulance caravan of 120 doctors and volunteers—all of them Dominicans of Haitian descent or Haitian immigrants—who spent weeks traveling the countryside treating wounds and saving lives.

But unlike many of the aid workers who flocked to Haiti during the height of the catastrophe, Baez never left. She has stayed these past 15 months to coordinate MUDHA's work in Leogane, a town not far from the earthquake's epicenter. She teaches leadership and income-generating skills to women living in the IDP camps and empowers local peasant groups to lead their own rehabilitation efforts.

Just 23 years ago, Baez was a beneficiary of MUDHA, making use of its services to the impoverished Haitian-Dominican community. Today she is one of its most passionate leaders. To the women she supports now in Haiti, she is living proof that their current situation doesn't have to define their lives for the future.

"We always tell the people: because you're poor, the last things to lose in your life are your dignity and hope. We tell them to be brave, because they can't let foreigners come and do everything for them. If they don't have tents yet, we tell them to do their best to find a tarp or something so they can have a shelter. We tell them they're not obliged to beg or to sell their bodies as women. They can do some marketing so they can survive. Dignity is a beautiful thing." 1

Educating Adolescent GirlsZertihun Tefera, Ethiopia

Zertihun Tefera knows how hard it is to be a young woman struggling to support a family with few resources. Years ago, when her husband abandoned her and their two young children, Tefera had no financial support and little education. She marshaled all of her strength to care for her family and simultaneously earn a university degree that would be their key to economic security.

Strengthened by her ordeal, she vowed to help other women overcome similar hardships. She formed a small self-help group for women from a nearby village, and from this humble beginning, eventually founded Siiqqee Women Development Association (SWDA), an organization that today supports 10,500 women and girls.

Tefera's impact on adolescent girls, in particular, is jawdropping. She pioneered a combination of empowerment activities and financial support in order to boost girls' self esteem, improve their academic performance and enable them to go to college. Today, Siiqqee's adolescent girls' program boasts a university enrollment rate of 100 percent among its graduates— astonishing in a country where only 36 percent of adults can read.2

"I observed how the neighboring women, my own mother and I have suffered because of the negative attitude towards women, the harmful traditional practices and patriarchal life style in our country. I committed myself to bring change for the well-being of my fellow women."

Refugee RightsZipporah Sein, Burma

Zipporah Sein was born into a conflict that has shaped her life and inspired her activism. Growing up a member of the Karen ethnic minority in Burma, she witnessed atrocities inflicted on her people by the military government. During decades of fighting, Sein's family moved constantly, seeking safety in the jungles of eastern Burma and in a Thai refugee camp. As an adult, she has transformed these obstacles into hope for tens of thousands of Burmese women.

Sein has spent most of her career leading Karen Women's Organization (KWO), which has provided humanitarian aid, health care and education to IDP and refugee communities on the Thailand— Burma border. It has also documented the effects of war on women and engaged women's participation in the struggle for freedom, democracy and equality. KWO's 2004 report, "Shattering Silences," generated international attention for its accounts of the Burmese army's use of rape as a weapon of war.

Sein recently became the first woman to hold a position of senior leadership in the Karen National Union, and in 2005, she was one of the 1,000 "Women for Peace" nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

LGBTI RightsRosanna Flamer-Caldera, Sri Lanka

It's easy to understand why many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people stay closeted in Sri Lanka, where homosexuality is technically illegal and violence against LGBTI people is commonplace. Most LGBTI organizations operate with similar secrecy, disguising their missions as "AIDS work" or "women's advocacy."

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, however, refuses to work in hiding. Instead, she wages a courageous, public battle against bigotry and hate. In 2004, this former leader of the International Lesbian and Gay Association founded Equal Ground, an organization that openly proclaims its support for the human rights of all LGBTI people.

Despite repeated death threats and a government that refuses to allow an organization with an LGBTI mission to legally register as an NGO, Equal Ground publicly responds to hate speech and other attacks. It also offers counseling, workshops, and support to LGBTI people, and educates those in other sectors about LGBTI rights. For long-isolated LGBTI Sri Lankans, the haven that Flamer-Caldera has created offers them optimism that a different future is possible.

"Human rights and equality for all is non-negotiable and it is our job to ensure that everyone on this planet understands this." 3

Indigenous Land RightsOranuch Phonphinyo, Thailand

In February, Oranuch Phonphinyo led 200 peasant farmers on a 500 km march from their villages to Bangkok, to insist that the Prime Minister resolve a 30-year dispute with the Forest Industry Organization over their right to ancestral land. The National Human Rights Commission concluded in the villagers’ favor in 2007, but the Thai government has yet to recognize the community’s claim.

This gutsy demonstration is characteristic of the 39-year-old land rights activist, who is head of the Eco-Cultural Study and Restoration Center of Petchaboon Mountain Range Communities (ECSRC). Phonphinyo was first sensitized to this cause as a young volunteer, when she saw state authorities abuse their power in order to force villagers off lands that they had lived on and worked for generations. She has since made it her life’s work to protest such land grabs, and to protect the natural resources of Thailand.

By instigating actions like the February protest march, she shows villagers that their voices matter. Her deep commitment inspires them to learn more about their rights and persevere in continuing their struggle.

PeacemakingSeynabou Male Cissé, Senegal

Twenty-eight years of armed conflict in Casamance, Senegal, have left many women feeling powerless: powerless to stop the frequent deadly bursts of guerilla violence; powerless to feed and educate their children in the midst of the chaos of conflict. But Seynabou Male Cissé saw the futility in this collective paralysis and recognized that the women of her community possessed an innate strength that could be used to help solve her country’s problems.

In 1999 she co-founded USOFORAL (“let’s join hands”), a grassroots organization that makes use of Senegalese women’s traditional role as mediators. USOFORAL sets up local women’s peace committees, promotes peace education and helps strengthen rural women’s organizations. Male Cissé’s courage has inspired many women to protest the seemingly never-ending violence in their midst.

In 2007, she was recognized as an ambassador for peace by the Universal Peace Federation. She is now the vice chair of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, and in February, 2010, led a delegation of 50 women leaders to the World Social Forum in Dakar, where USOFORAL advocated for collective peacekeeping and led a panel about women’s leadership in conflict settings.

Land and Water RightsTatiana Roa Avendaño, Colombia

How does an engineer for an oil company come to be one of the most fervent spokespeople for the indigenous movement against petroleum extraction? Tatiana Roa Avendaño decided in 1991 that she could no longer stand by as her employer, ECOPETROL, destroyed Amazonian ecosystems and threatened the lives and livelihoods of indigenous Colombians.

She quit her job and began a new life as an activist, knocking on doors to talk with women farmers about the importance of water. In 1997, she co-founded CENSAT (Asociación Centro Nacional Salud Ambiente y Trabajo Censat Agua Viva) to support indigenous Colombians’ resistance to oil and gas extraction, which pollutes their territory, dries up their water and threatens to displace communities.

Roa Avendaño has recently taken on the struggle against proliferation of agrofuel farming in Colombia, which led to forced displacement of indigenous communities in 2004 and has driven up local food prices. In 2007 she collaborated with the National Movement of Afro-Colombian Communities to launch “Filling up the Tanks and Empty Territories,” a campaign that raises awareness about the disastrous impact of agrofuel crops. That year she was also one of the main proponents of the national referendum on water as a constitutional and fundamental right.

Afro-Peruvian RightsMonica Carrillo, Peru

At 21, Monica Carrillo knew that she wanted to change things in her country. As a member of Peru’s marginalized Afrodescendent community, she faced unrelenting discrimination and racism, from every-day harassment in the street to formidable barriers to education and employment. Her government offered few protections.

In 2001 she founded a grassroots organization called LUNDU, hoping to combat these assaults on her community and deepen local pride in Afro-descendant cultural heritage. Under Carrillo’s leadership, LUNDU has achieved significant advances, including the inclusion in Peruvian law of the right of minority populations to equal access to education, health services and employment. In 2009, LUNDU mobilized over 4,000 people to participate in an anti-racism campaign that led to a government apology for the abuse, exclusion and discrimination historically perpetrated against Afro-Peruvians.

In a twist on traditional activism, LUNDU uses art as a tool for social change. It runs a radio series that has brought the voices of Afro-descendants to public radio for the first time and it organized a collective photography exhibition that was part of UNESCO’s initiative, “The Route of the Slave.” Carrillo’s impact is visible in the vibrant youth-driven Afro-Peruvian human rights and cultural movement that is emerging.


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American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism's imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

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