Monday, June 30, 2008

The fight against violence is a long term effort

After a quick glance at Joanne’s blog from Sunday, we realize it’s a bit silly to bore you with two commentaries. So I’m going to infuse my comments into Joanne’s blog and we present it to you as one!

We begin our day by meeting with Mr. Benoit Kalasa, the UNFPA Madagascar Country Representative. He welcomes us to Madagascar and we explain our goals for our visit. We are touched by the enthusiasm that UNFPA has shown for our visit to Madagascar and how happy they truly are that Dr. Rabary has been chosen to be one of the 2008 honorees.

UNFPA works in 22 of the 28 regions of the country and we learn that 70% of UNFPA’s funding in Madagascar is directed towards family planning and health strategies like trying to put an end to maternal death. We learn that the government collaborates closely with UNFPA and has made a national commitment to equality and empowerment.

Next, we meet up with our translator and go to the opening ceremony for Dr. Rabary’s new program with Catholic Research Services. The project is being funded for two years and she reinforces at the beginning of her remarks that “The fight against violence is a long-term effort; it can’t be achieve in one or two years.”

What strikes me (Joanne) most during this press conference is that I had attended a very similar one in the United States in the 1990s, while working as a Capitol Hill staffer. The very same challenges regarding the stigma that surrounds domestic violence in the United States are the very same challenges they are talking about overcoming in Madagascar.

As a media person, I (Angeline) can’t help but notice Dr. Rabary’s powerful sound bites. She speaks of how with domestic violence there is not just one victim; the whole household are victims.

To victims she explains: “This is no longer the time to stay in your corner. You are NOT a dishonor. To give you hope and a ray of light in your life, know you are not alone.”

It is extremely gratifying to see Dr. Rabary receiving recognition and support for her programs from various other non-government organizations and elected officials from around Madagascar. Attending the opening ceremonies are representatives from USAID, UNFPA, several mayors from all over Madagascar, and various media outlets.

Dr. Rabary acknowledges Angeline and me during her presentation and I am a bit taken aback by the excitement and attention we receive from the audience. After the press conference, there is a lovely reception, where many guests inquire about our work with Americans for UNFPA.

After lunch, we meet the cameraman and head to Dr. Rabary’s home to begin taping her story and learn more about why she does the work that she does. Dr. Rabary shows us the very spot the grenade exploded when her home was attacked. Despite the trauma of an attack, she speaks of the incident with a sense of pride: she believes that she must be doing something right if there are people who are so desperate to keep her quiet that they would try to kill her.

During our on-camera interview with Dr. Rabary, we again she that she is a very good spokesperson for her programs and herself. We are starting to get a feel for why Dr. Rabary is so passionate about the work she does.

Angeline and I have dinner at a restaurant that specializes in cooking with Vanilla. While having dinner, a duo entertains the restaurant patrons with Beatle songs. At dinner, I truly don’t feel like I am outside the United States.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Hills Are Alive

I had a little time to get a sense of the city again this morning, but this time Joanne Zurcher, Director of Legislative Affairs was with me. It was certainly a different experience exploring Tana with her than it was the day prior. Joanne- 6 months pregnant, fairly tall-even in the U.S., and more typically American looking than me was a sight to see for the natives. I’d noticed that the features of some of the Malagasy people were quite similar to Sri Lankans, but I didn’t realize how much I blended in, until I was with someone without the same fortune. Suddenly, we were bombarded with street vendors trying to sell us trinkets and keepsakes. People walked up and down the streets with packets of Vanilla (ahh, yes, the Vanilla Coast of Madagascar), spices, small wooden guitars, horns and the likes.

Unlike me who brought only one book with me on the plane (Mastering French), Joanne had a medley of historical information in her memory and Guidebooks on hand as back-ups. Lucky for me to be with such a prepared travel companion! She explained to me that the city is divided in two—upper town and lower town and the two areas are connected by a few steep staircases in different corners of the city.

Since we had an early start and it was a Sunday, the streets were quiet, most shops were closed and the few locals we encountered (outside of the street vendors) were dressed in their Sunday best returning home from Church. Music still emanated from the town center speakers—and today’s kick off song was Wamm’s Careless Whispers. Just next to the speakers was a bouncy castle, which again, I really didn’t expect to see, and then an outdoor market was on the opposite side. We laughed about the throw back to the 80’s but I still can’t deny that the familiarity of the tune was welcoming.

We soon met up with Dr. Rabary and her husband, as well as Gisele, our main liaison at UNFPA Madagascar; Solo, our translator; and Njaka, our cameraman. One of our primary purposes of the visit is to obtain footage to produce a video to show at our Gala in October where Dr. Rabary will be honored.

After going through the logistics for the upcoming week, we went to dinner at Le Rossini, which is the oldest house in Tana and used to be owned by Dr. Rabary’s mom. It was amazing to walk through the restaurant, and have Dr. Rabary point of bedrooms and playrooms that were now private dining and banquet rooms.

Dr. Rabary is very humble. She seems to have so many interests and a strong balance between them. She spoke fondly of her 5 children, their spouses and her grandchildren. She spoke with fond remembrance of her 1st husband, and shared the modern day love story of Mr. Arima, her now husband of 3 years. She was a teacher and a doctor and now works to provide justice for women through legal advocacy. In her spare time she crochets, knits and embroiders. Her life has been at risk many times because of her efforts to unveil and rectify human rights violations in her country. I’m sure I’ll learn more about all of this in the days to come…

After a jet lagged slumber, I wake up and get ready for my day of sightseeing with Angeline. I’ve done a lot of reading up on Tana and have several areas I am interested in seeing in town. As we got into the taxi to Tana, it is the first time I realize that I might be a bit taller than the average Malagasy citizen.

When we arrive in downtown Tana, it is a very quiet Sunday morning. There are a few people walking around trying to sell us their wares. Angeline and I decide to climb the steps to the upper portion of town to get a better perspective of Tana and buy a cup of coffee.

Lining the stone steps to the Upper Town are various Malagasy selling their wares and I begin to see abject poverty up close.

Upon reaching the top, Angeline and I turn around to take in the view of Tana — the size of Tana is what I notice first and how the mountains frame the city. It looks like a lot of coastal cities I’ve been to, in that the houses and buildings are built into the sides of hills. The only difference, of course, is that Tana is landlocked.

Sunday is truly a non-workday in Tana. All the stores are closed, with the exception of restaurants and patisseries. Instead, there is a small market that’s open and music is being played. Much to our surprise, the first song we hear played in Tana is from the band Wham.

As we walk along the upper town, I begin to realize how small the world is. I began noticing that families walking passed us dressed in their Sunday finest are on their way to church. We stumbled upon an old church, and upon further investigation, we believe it to be Protestant, as there are very few Catholic churches in Tana.

We spend the rest of our time sightseeing just walking around and taking in downtown. It is hard to do much with everything closed. After lunch at a small but tasty restaurant, we decide to check out the market. You can buy just about anything at this market, from beef to baby’s clothes. But nothing really strikes our fancy, and we move on.

As we are walking away from the market, a group of boys comes running toward us and begins asking for my empty water bottle. I am surprised that is all that they want and happily give it to them. Apparently, they want to use it to get water from the fire hydrant that had been opened.

We returned to our hotel to rest before meeting Dr. Rabary. At five p.m. sharp, Dr. Rabary, her husband Mr. Rabesara Arima, Gisele; our UNFPA liasion and Solo — our translator — arrived to meet with us and go over our itinerary for the week.

My first impression of Dr. Rabary is that her English is much better than my French. In addition, she has this presence about her that you know she is someone special and yet extremely humble. We discuss the itinerary for the week and decide when we will need the cameraman.

After getting the logistics for the week out of the way, our little entourage goes to dinner at a restaurant that's in an old house. The reason Dr. Rabary wants to take us to this particular place is that the house is the very house that Dr. Rabary’s mother grew up in. At first this seems to make the restaurant very special, but after talking to Dr. Rabary, you get the sense that her mother would not be pleased that her childhood home has become a public place.
After ordering our dinner, we are given a tour of the entire house, and Dr. Rabary tells us what changes have been made to the house and what each room was originally used for. Then we return to our table for a delicious meal and interesting conversation about life in the United States and life in Madagascar. As we are enjoying our dinner, I notice that a gentleman at the next table is wearing an Obama for President t-shirt. Once again, I am reminded how small our world has become.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Seeing More to Madagascar that I like to move it-move it

From Joanne:
Aside from seeing the animated movie one too many times with my four-year-old, I had never thought seriously about visiting Madagascar. Now, I am on a plane ride to visit this African nation and meet Dr. Rabary, one of our 2008 Honorees for the Health and Dignity of Women.

I am honored to be going, simply because I'm looking forward to meeting Dr. Rabary. From one phone conversation with Dr. Rabary and from reading her application, my first impression of this incredible woman is that she is a strong, dynamic leader who puts the welfare of the women in her country above her own personal safety and ambition. In addition, this trip provides me my first opportunity to see a UNFPA field program. I am very excited to see how UNFPA has made a difference in Madagascar and thus bring a more personal connection to my work in D.C.

Arriving in Madagascar: Finally, after 17 plus hours of traveling, I am in Tana, Madagascar. As I walk from the airplane to the terminal, I say a silent prayer that my luggage arrived and that I will find the driver that will take me to my hotel. As soon as I enter the terminal building, I am greeted by my driver—and I realize security is very different in Madagascar. He, along with many of the other travel agents picking up passengers, move freely between customs and baggage claim without anyone raising an eyebrow. He escorts me to the customs line and, after getting my passport stamped, sends me to get my luggage…which made it without incident! Considering that lost bags seem to be all the rage in the U.S., I'm extremely impressed.

As we drive to my hotel, my first glimpse is Tana by night. My impression is it’s 11:30 p.m. and there are an awful lot of people on the streets walking around. I quickly realize that Tana is a much bigger city than I had initially thought. In addition, I am struck by the poverty I see.

We reach my hotel and I am grateful to see Angeline has also arrived safely. We chat for a bit and make plans to explore the city tomorrow.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I Passed the Rains Down in Africa

From Angeline:
I am off to see UNFPA field programs in Madagascar and witness firsthand the tremendous impact that with the support of UNFPA, local women like Dr. Mathilde Rabary is able to have on her community. I must say, it is bittersweet that the last email that I received before my flight departed was an announcement that for the 7th consecutive year the Bush Administration had decided to withhold Congressionally allocated funds from UNFPA.

Determined not to feel defeated, I am even more excited to meet Dr. Rabary and share her story with Americans. Dr. Mathilde Rabary, one of three winners of our International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women, works to promote justice and rights of women – particularly victims of domestic violence- in Madagascar. Over the next week, as you read these updates, hopefully you’ll facebook a friend, or send them our blogspot link, and help spread this message to those who may not be as familiar with UNFPA’s work. And, I’m hopeful that as we spread the impact of UNFPA’s work beyond that of the 100k or so Americans for UNFPA’s supporters, that together we’ll be able to encourage our next President to restore U.S. support for UNFPA.

As for the plane ride, it was about 18 hours, and I think I ate more bread and cheese during that time than I have in the last 3 months. As you might guess based on that, I was flying Air France. It wasn’t as nearly as exciting a flight as the last one I took—there were no celebrity sighting, like Usher, who was on a flight with me earlier this month….

By the time I arrived in Madagascar it was nearly midnight on Friday. I was based in the Capital City- Antananarivo--- Tana for short. I was a bustling city: lots of traffic, lots of people and like many major cities, both extreme poverty and extreme wealth.

On Saturday, while I was supposed to be recovering from jet lag (which I like to pretend doesn’t’ exist) I wandered into town for some lunch and I couldn’t help but laugh when the first song I heard was “Africa.” Cheesily, that was of course the song running through my own head throughout the week prior as I prepared for the trip.

The song blared through the streets- a sound I actually like. It gave the area a real community feel. When I first moved to New York, I was staying with a friend in Brooklyn, and I loved the Latin tunes that her neighbors would play every Saturday afternoon. It made me want to go dance in the streets with them and the familiarity of the sound made me feel welcome—both in Brooklyn and Tana.

As I stopped in a convenience store to pick up some water, I was even more surprised to hear, in succession, No One- by Alicia Keys and Too Late by Chris Brown. Just one more reminder that though we sometimes think of Madagascar as worlds away… or experiences aren’t so different.

Mexico - The Last Day

Today was short and marked by several problems such as our translator canceling Tanitra’s ticket back to New York. Dr. Elu decided today – of all the days that she has spent in Oaxaca – she wanted to go to the Santo Domingo Church. We sent our camera guy along and I think he’s talented enough to turn the half hour she spent in the gift shop into good footage.

On our last day here we were lucky enough to catch a documentary about the teachers uprising 2 years ago. I was amazed to see so many women out on the streets protesting, try to stop the military from entering the city, and setting up food and aid stations. As we walked around the city you could still see evidence of the teachers strike, the economy has not fully recovered.

Since it was a short day, I’ll take this opportunity to make one final point about Mexico and reproductive health. Less than one percent of Mexico’s population is infected with HIV (like Niger where I visited last year). This is what they call a contained epidemic, still largely within the community of men who have sex with men and now sex workers. Like Niger, Mexico is spending a great deal of energy on HIV prevention, particularly among young people, before the epidemic spreads. (A concern is that some of the men who immigrate to the U.S. become infected and bring it back to their wives in Mexico.)

In fact, the UNFPA office is preparing for a huge HIV conference in August.

We’ve noticed is that there are no condoms on display in the pharmacies and wonder if there is a stigma involved with buying them and if that means condom use is low.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Place of the Cloud People

Early this morning we headed into the mountains to a town called Tlahuitoltepec for a midwives conference. Dr. Elu told us the drive would take 4 hours but we had Mario Andretti behind the wheel and made it in about two and a half. In 45 minutes we went from dry arid land into the lush tropical pine forest. Pines trees in Mexico?!

The town is one of those places where the lack of access to contraception smacks you in the face. There is just no getting around the child to adult ratio (and here, there are very few men).

The Mixtecas seem very stoic to us, though the kids run and scream and, while we were there, most of them spent their time playing soccer in a courtyard where the walls were painted with the words “no playing soccer here.” A few of the women surreptitiously took photos of Tanitra and we think it’s because they don’t often see Asians (she’s been claiming to be from Veracruz with some success but I guess she can’t fool the Mixtecas). On a side note, the Mixtecas call themselves "People of the Clouds." They live high up in the mountains beyond the fog. As we were standing on the cliffs we could see whiffs of clouds engulfing the valley below. We tried to be respectful when taking pictures of the Mixtecas. They don't like getting their pictures taken because they believe that their soul is captured in the image.

The regard between Dr. Elu and the midwives is clear. She said when she’s around them she feels happy “because they are the experience and the hope.” But, as is the case all over the world, these women are indigenous and are generally not treated well by the larger society.

The midwives expressed a lot of anger that they are not respected by doctors at health facilities. One talked about how it’s very important to the Mixteca that they bury the placenta when a child is born but at the hospital they just throw it away. This is shocking for the Mixteca but the hospitals seem not to care and so the women prefer to use their traditional midwives.

This area (in the state of Oaxaca) is known for an adult band and a children’s band. We had heard someone warming up on a trumpet for much of the morning and it made me think of how awful it was for my mom when I was learning to play the flute. But, when the band set up and started playing, they were terrific. In fact, I was really impressed that they played several songs without a conductor – that’s quite a feat for musicians with many more years experience.

Despite the music, lunch was (again) stoic. The women in village cooked huge pots of food and unloaded them from the back of a pick up truck. We had tortilla soup with chicken, tamales as big as my arm and, of course, Mescal (that was poured into Jose Cuervo bottles from gasoline containers). Apparently, after meals, the Mixteca dance because we were treated to quite a show – including, of course, Dr. Elu.

And then Mario Andretti got us safely back down the mountain.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Maria Carmen Lovefest

Today UNFPA hosted a reception for Dr. Elu which was attended by her family, colleagues in the NGO community and some officials of the Ministry of Health.

Dr. Elu is clearly revered and adored. Her husband told us that she is a feminist but he married her anyway. They married three months after meeting each other and will celebrate their 50th anniversary in December.

We thanked our colleagues at the Mexico City UNFPA office for hosting an event that allowed us to announce Dr. Elu’s award but they thanked us and said that because she was selected, it will help them with their work. It’s really nice for us to hear because, as a small organization, as our award only comes with a grant of $5,000. So we’re especially happy if our award offers the imprintur of “international recognition,” as it sometimes helps women who have to struggle against apathy or opposition from their communities and leaders.

This is obviously not true with Dr. Elu. While the government is not great on these issues, there is a support in the Ministry of Health and there is no obvious opposition to Dr. Elu’s work these days.

But we were delighted to hear that because UNFPA’s Mexico City office nominated Dr. Elu and their affiliation with her lends them credibility. Often the idea of being the AMERICANS can be embarrassing and hard to live up to. Rita told us a story of visiting UNFPA program in Bolivia several years ago and a woman who begged the Americans to fix her blind child because she was convinced that they could help. I’ve had similar uncomfortable experiences so it’s nice when we can sometimes spin the expectations into something positive for our friends and colleagues around the world.

Afterwards we had to say goodbye to Aldolfo (who was headed to Chicago with veterinarians to translate for them at a conference) and head to Oaxaca – where Mescal became a constantly offered drink. We were treated to full throttle Maria Carmen at the airport and she can be downright goofy. She makes everyone laugh, even when she’s cutting the line. We don’t even know what she’s saying and it’s funny. (She still retains her Spanish accent and I have trouble understanding her when she’s not speaking English.)

Despite all of us being pretty tired, we attended another love-fest for Dr. Elu where my Spanish had to suffice for Tanitra and Rita (a fate fit for no one) and where we were treated to Dr. Elu’s prowess on the dance floor.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Meeting Dr. Elu

The only agenda item for today was to finally meet Dr. Elu and interview her on camera but we filled up the schedule. It worked out pretty well though we had one of those moments when we needed to leave to make our appointment with Dr. Elu but we risked offending several people. Luckily, our translator, Aldolfo, seems to have figured out how to guide us through these cultural misunderstandings (read: get us to do the right thing) without our realizing he’s doing it so it all worked out.

It’s a good thing we have Aldolfo because I keep speaking Spanish to people – really badly. We were surprise to find out that Aldolfo was the go to guy for reproductive rights translations.

The Mexfam clinic we visited is in a poor neighborhood near Xochimilco, far south but still part of Mexico City. They provide a wide array of services including dental care and, we noted, the board at reception specifically listed Diabetes care. The clinic is clean and well-equipped but there was no water in the bathroom. Yesterday Ofelia acknowledged that Mexico receives less international aid for women’s health because, on paper, it looks as if the country is lowering fertility rates and combating maternal mortality. She also noted the disparity between urban and rural health care and she made a special point of saying that domestic violence is a very big issue for Mexico right now.

At 72 and despite her accident, Dr. Elu seems to maintain a great deal of energy. She bounded down the stairs and greeted us at her offices as if we were her long lost children. Born in Spain, raised in Cuba, she married a Mexican man and has lived here for 50 years. She’s got that warm, encompassing Latina personality that can melt the stiffest of Anglo exterior. And she’s hilarious. She showed us the scar near her hairline from the accident last year and insisted that it is not from a facelift.

And she’s a talker. We didn’t mention that she will only give a two minute speech in New York. I think she might have a heart attack and I’m sure she will pretend not to understand.

After all the interviews were finished we went to the zocalo to get footage of Mexican women. The zocalo is the main plaza in Mexico City and the largest in the Americas. It’s bordered by the anthropological remains of the Aztec’s central temple (Templo Mayor) that Cortez leveled to build the Cathedral and the National Palace where the legislature meets and the President lives.

Because it was too late to go into the National Palace, and because you really shouldn’t be in Mexico City without seeing at least one Diego Rivera mural, we went to the Diego Rivera Museum, which was built to house his masterpiece, Dream of a Sunday in the Alameda. This mural was in a hotel across the street but was moved to this location when the hotel was irreparably damaged by the 1985 earthquake. Paco, our camera guy who is a cameraman for telenovellas in his regular life, had no idea there was a Diego Rivera Museum or where to find it. I’ve started accusing him of being Paco el Bolivi├ín because how can you be Mexican and not know the Diego Rivera Museum, I ask you?

Rita invited us all for a drink at the Opera Bar (probably because I had been raving about it). Tanitra describes the place as opulent. Very old school Mexico. Their claim to fame is a bullet hole in the ceiling, reportedly made by Pancho Villa once when he rode his horse into the place and started shooting. With Aldolfo’s help we talked about Mexican politics, the tax structure (which is severely flawed) and life in Mexico and New York. I have been speaking as much Spanish as I can and people are letting me do it without telling me that it’s like piercing their eardrums with an ice pick.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mexico's #1 Fan

Mexico City is one of my favorite places so when our jury choose a woman from Mexico as one of our honorees, I was delighted to return to a city that I enjoy so much. My mother claims Mexico City should hire me to run their tourism board. I do understand that not everyone considers the sprawl and crowds of the world’s third largest city to be an ideal vacation spot but I love the art, the fact that you can find it everywhere, the architecture, the mix of old Mexico and super hip Mexico. It’s everything I love about New York, only Latino and fantastic in that way.

My reason for coming is Maria del Carmen Elu Cayado, a social anthropologist who brought the problem of maternal mortality into the light in Mexico and forced the government to add it to their national health plans. She was actually selected to be one of our 2007 honorees but before we could contact her, she was in a terrible accident. While driving in Chiapas a bolder fell on the car. She was near death but pulled through. We postponed her award until this year to give her time to recover.

Tanitra, our web maven and my Barometer-of-Cool, is also coming on this trip to learn more about video production. Also, we invited one of our board members, Rita O’Connor to join us. I came a few days early as the last time I had a business trip to Mexico City (back before the Jack Abramoff scandal and the new ethic rules in the House of Representatives that prevent us from taking members of Congress to see UNFPA’s work) I was frustrated at not having a free hour to stroll this city. So I came early and by the time Tanitra arrived Sunday I had already wandered my favorite streets, eaten at some of the city’s trendiest restaurants (thanks to my hipster cousin and traveling companion) and climbed the Piramide del Sol at Teotihuacan. Unfortunately, and to the chagrin of some good friends who were in Mexico City a few weeks ago, I did not get to the Lucha Libre (which means free wrestling and by that they don’t mean it doesn’t cost anything.)

On paper, and in some concrete ways, Mexico is the success story of women’s health. From a fertility rate of more than seven children per woman, the country has lowered the rate to just over two per woman (the same as the United States). But, as Dr. Elu and my colleagues in the UNFPA Mexico City office continually point out, there is a huge disparity between urban and rural women and one fifth of all Mexican women live in Mexico City. So the statistics are skewed to make it seem as if Mexico has transformed their health care system when this is only true in metropolitan areas.

With no specific agenda on Monday, Tanitra and I decided to take a laptop to Mexfam (the Mexico Family Planning Organization, part of the International Planned Parenthood Federation) and see if we could get them interested in our Lifelines project. We met with Ofelia Aguilar, the Director of Operations, and explained that we are trying to build a community of women who are not classified as givers and receivers of aid, but as individuals learning from each other and that, because of the challenging issues of Mexican immigrants in the United States, we thought it would be really great to have some strong, accomplished Mexican women highlighted.

We got a lot of support from the women at Mexfam, even Ofelia who allowed us to post her Lifeline. One of the directors invited us to her clinic tomorrow to interview two of her doctors.

These women only speak Spanish and have graciously allowed us to post their stories in English. This is generous of them. And I also want to point out that it would not have been possible without our excellent translator Adolfo, who is apparently, friends with everyone in Mexico City who works on women’s health issues. Everywhere we went in Mexfam’s considerably large (and beautiful) office compound people waved and greeted him by name.

Check out the Lifelines we got – just search on Mexico.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Aasmani, tribune of the people

Nepal is a country in transition, and Aasmani Chaudhary herself is emblematic of that fact. The nation has ousted its King, become a democracy, and is going through a struggle for the control of its Parliament between formerly-rebel Maoists and the traditional ruling party.

In Dang valley, these seismic national changes are not readily apparent – the region has been controlled by the Maoists for years anyway, and its remoteness gives it a certain insulation from tumult. But times are changing anyway, and perhaps for the better, in part because of the Rural Women’s Development Center and its leader, Aasmani.

She began 15 years ago (just as the valley was first being electrified; now roughly 40% of the people have electricity), organizing small groups of Tharu women (the Tharu are the ethnic minority that live in this part of Nepal) to pool their money and save it – empowering them with a level of financial independence Tharu women never had. For years she was resisted by the men in the community, by the local rebel leaders (who didn’t like seeing money that could have gone to finance their revolution spent on sewing machines and farm animals instead), and even by some of the women themselves. But her proof was in the pudding, as they say, and the success of her savings (and now microfinance lending) groups brought about the birth of more groups, such that everywhere we stopped in Dang valley during our visit Aasmani could tell me about the local women’s group there.

And as these women’s groups expanded in number and size, Aasmani saw the need to expand their mission as well. By the time of my trip, she could show me a literacy group teaching girls to read, a landless-peoples group working for the rights of the very poorest Tharu, groups of younger women talking about safe sex and family planning, and groups of mothers talking about how to tell if your pregnancy is encountering problems and you need to see a trained doctor or nurse. All while the microfinance and savings groups continue to empower the women of Dang.

Now, when the local political leaders encounter Aasmani, they know better than to fight her or disparage her work – instead they bow and honor her by way of currying favor with half the population that she understands better than any of them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Welcome to Dang Valley

I cannot easily describe the extraordinary reception I received upon my arrival in Gorahi, Dang, Nepal. I was there to bestow an honor upon someone else – Aasmani Chaudhary, the inspiring leader of the Rural Women’s Development Center – but the occasion of a visit from an American to this remote part of Nepal (itself a somewhat remote nation, being landlocked and having one side dominated by the Himalayas and the other by wide malarial plains) was sufficient excuse for the local women to organize an impressive social event.

As our UN vehicle pulled into the street where RWDC is located (after a five-hour drive from the nearest airstrip), we found ourselves staring at somewhere between 200 and 400 local Tharu men and women (mostly women), dressed in their traditional event attire (red and white for women, blue for men), who had been waiting in the drizzle for us to arrive. The women had bouquets and laurel necklaces (think Hawaii), and dishes of a red dust used as a dye – and it was all to properly bedeck their guest (namely, little old me). I walked through a block-long gauntlet of affection, flowers, and dust, only to make it to the doorstep of Aasmani’s organization where the banner welcoming Americans for UNFPA was hanging above a dais and a stage.

Aasmani herself had been the chief organizer of this gathering – a testament to her respect and influence in her community that she could bring so many together in a choreographed manner. And speaking of choreography, what followed for our entertainment and celebration was two hours of traditional dances interspersed with speeches from Aasmani and the UNFPA staff reminding the many who stayed to watch just why we were having this gathering in the first place: because the work Aasmani does is so necessary for the development of a stronger, healthier Dang Valley.

That, after all, was why I was there too, and why we are brining Aasmani to New York in October for our Gala celebrating her work (and the work of two similarly inspiring women from Madagascar and Mexico). I can only hope (but honestly I have my doubts) that we provide her with a reception as awe-inspiring as the one she gave me!

I’ll spare you all the details of the banquet…