Announcing the launch of the Global Women’s Project!

Well it certainly has been a while since we last conversed. Apologies to all my readers who’d been trying to contact me, fearing I’d fallen off the face of the earth. Since returning to Melbourne from Morocco I’ve been treading a fine line between busyness and laziness, and the two dispositions have converged to expose a black hole in this blog’s timeline. Rest assured though, I’m alive and well, and with lots of exciting things going on.

So indeed, I have returned to Melbourne, to a more temperate (and temperamental) climate, to the comfort and conversation of friends and family, to my good guitar, and to a new job. I promise to properly update you on how things finished up in Morocco where I was working on the establishment of a women’s project with mothers of street-connected kids, but first I want to share with you something I’ve been working on recently, as part of a wonderful team of individuals: the Global Women’s Project.

The Global Women’s Project (GWP) is a secular, volunteer-run, not-for-profit organisation based in Melbourne. GWP works to support women and girls in developing communities to access literacy and skills training and lifelong learning opportunities which lay the foundation for them to make informed choices and exercise greater control over their lives. GWP currently partners with women-led organisations in Cambodia and Nepal. GWP not only provides financial and technical support for these organisations, but is designed as a global collaborative space, which promotes friendships and cross-cultural ties between women across the world.

So for everyone who supported my work with women in Morocco, and for newcomers to this blog, I invite you to explore GWP’s fabulous new website here.

We’ll be officially launching in the New Year, so make sure you like our Facebook page in order to receive invitations and updates.

And in the meantime, have a very happy New Year, one filled with positivity, friendship, joy, peace and love!

Briony

Fingers crossed we get the gold

Working with Street Children: An Approach Explored by Andrew Williams

This evening I write on the back of another day of developments for our Women’s Project. I don’t know where I’m getting the energy to jot something down for the blog, but I imagine it’s got something to do with being excited. I started with a meeting at 8.30 this morning and I’m just sitting down now after finishing a round of family home visits. It’s 11.30pm, so that’s a long day in anyone’s book. In fact, there’s been a lot going on this week, including the continuation of our workplace training with the women involved in our project, and getting the kids into gear for the new school year.

Also this week I’ve been quite lucky to have been able to spend some time with the very knowledgeable and lovely Andrew Williams. Andrew’s out here on behalf of the Moroccan Children’s Trust to have a look at the work the team here is doing with street children. Andrew is now based in London after 9 years working in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, during which time he established and ran an organisation called Retrak, which aims to support street children and to carve them out new and positive pathways. He’s also written a book called Working with Street Children, which is about, funnily enough, working with street children. It’s been great talking to him about the work he’s been doing in Africa, and hearing his insights about the team’s work here in Morocco. He’s here for another few days during which he’ll be running some training for the Moroccan team; we’re all looking forward to it.

But onto the Women’s Project! This morning, after a couple of early hiccups, including a printer that ran out of toner and temporarily losing Andrew Williams, the director of our organisation, my colleague on the project, Andrew Williams and I, met with the head honcho of the regulatory government body on social policy for this region of Morocco. We traipsed through town with our paperwork to his big, cushy office where we attempted to interest him in our income-generating project for mothers of street children. And what’d you know? Apparently, we’re onto a good thing. Not only was he supportive of our project, but he personally invited us to submit a funding proposal to the government department responsible for the disbursement of a $35 million Spanish Government foreign aid grant which is due to be allocated from the 30th of September. We’re all now in hyperactive mode scrambling to assemble the 15 different documents required by the department. It’d be absolutely incredible if our project were able to secure some of these funds, not only for the project itself and the women it aims to support, but for raising the profile of Groupe Maroc Horizons and its Street Child Centre.

What can I say but incha’allah!
* To order Andrew’s book in Australia, click here.

Women’s Project Update, Morocco: Getting the Government on Board!

I can hardly believe another two weeks has passed since I last updated this blog. So much has happened during that time, and on so many fronts, and it’s just hit me that I only have three weeks left in Taroudant, Morocco working with local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT). As I reflect on what I and the GMH/MCT team have achieved in the short five and a half months since I arrived here, and anticipate the exciting times that lie ahead, I can’t help but be incredibly proud of everyone who’s come together to make this project happen.

This project, is an initiative that aims to provide an income for mothers of street children who visit GMH’s Centre Afak Pour Les Enfants et Leurs Familles en Situations Difficiles. It is a project that has been facilitated and driven by the Moroccan team here, with the support of its London partner, MCT, but that has been formed as a result of months of close consultation with the women who will be benefiting from it.

For the last five months, our weekly women’s group meetings have been the mechanism via which we have fleshed out these women’s challenges and problems, priorities and hopes. Our focus in late months on the development of an income-generating project has stemmed from the women’s own identification of what they see as most useful to them. The weekly meetings have also been a forum for discussion on important issues, like women’s rights, and the occasional social outing or sports session. The memory of being fiercely chased with boxing gloves by the grandmother of one of the kids at the Centre, hijab off and hair flying, will stay with me for quite a while, I imagine!

What we have developed with these women, is in effect a catering service that will provide breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea to the employees of well-populated government offices, who currently find it very difficult to leave their posts to buy food due to workloads and allocated break times. We are currently in the process of establishing partnerships with heads of various administrations, and next week will be meeting with the President of local government himself to present our proposal with the hope we’ll gain his valuable support. Through both formal meetings and informal conversations with those whom the catering project would service, a great deal of interest and encouragement has been generated at the level of government. As similar services are being provided in other parts of Morocco (though these just follow a standard business model), and countless members of government including the administration chiefs have expressed keen interest, all looks good to go. What we are keen to negotiate is a permanent place for the women to use at each administration for the preparation of the food.

This project is promising for a number of reasons. Not only does it address a gap in the service market while providing previously unemployed and uneducated women with the opportunity to make an income, it places socially marginalised women right under the noses of policy-makers. In other words, secondary to the immediate goals of generating an income for these mothers and their families, it is hoped that integrating women into the public domain will help make their unique situations more visible to those who can influence public policy in their favour.

Whilst this project caters to women’s own strengths, as identified by them, we also hope to provide women with the opportunity to develop their skills and learn new ones. As a first step and to ready the women for their new roles, last week we conducted our first workshop/training module on food preparation and good hygiene practices.  Over the next two weeks we will be conducting modules on basic money management, professional communication and presentation, and other relevant topics. We also hope in the near future to be able to connect the women with training catering to other interests identified by them, literacy being just one of them. Below you can see a couple of photos from Thursday’s workshop. I’m happy to announce that I am now the proud Australian owner of the recipe for delicious traditional Moroccan pastry “missimin”!

Discussing good hygiene practices with the Women’s Group

The Women’s Group making traditional “missimin” during a food preparation workshop

Indeed, everything is very exciting; on the brink of being actualised. My only hope is that I’ll get to see the project implemented before I have to get on a plane in three weeks, though I’m afraid to say that timing has never been my strong suit! Nonetheless, I am assured a continued role via email, and who knows – I might even make it my business to return to this wonderful country sooner rather than later!

The advent of a new year…

It’s the advent of the new school year in Morocco, Ramadan is finished, and activities have recommenced at an unfamiliarly rapid pace at the Centre Afak in Taroudannt where I am currently based with the local NGO Groupe Maroc Horizons (GMH) and its British partner organisation, the Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT).

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In stark contrast to the slow pace during Ramadan and the school holidays, last week saw the 11 members of our team coming together for a whole week of team-building and strategy meetings, arriving at the centre every day at 8.30am for a communal breakfast, not leaving until 5pm when we embarked on home visits to the families who are connected with the centre.

Everyone is excited for the new school year, and to be involved in the creation and support of individual pathways for each child and, in line with the holistic approach taken by the centre, each of their family members. It was a long (indeed yet unfinished) process last week, as we addressed each of the case files of the 30 families who visit the Centre Afak for children and their families in situations of difficulty, as a team, assessing how we planned to support and foster the children’s development, and identifying ways we could support their families. The discussion was animated and enthusiastic, even though the heat has not yet let up (apparently this summer has been extraordinary – longer than usual and with temperatures daily exceeding 45C). Arabic bounced rapidly off the walls, while our director the wonderful Abdelleh Soussi translated into French and made notes on the white board, indicating the child and his/her family’s situation past, present and plans for this year. These discussions were typed up after the finish of each day and distributed amongst the team, ensuring everyone was on the same page with a unified goal for each child/family.

The women’s project, on which I am primarily working here, is also taking off and being embraced with open arms by everyone. It’s so exciting to think that after only five months in the country, I have contributed to the very near creation of an income-generating project that incorporates psycho-social support for the (often single) mothers of children who visit our centre. Not only is the project trial planned to go ahead in a few weeks, pending the approval of government officials whose office buildings we hope to be the focus of our breakfast- and lunch-time catering project, but we are now considering how we can expand our horizons to assisting women individually (rather than as a group) to realise their goals and ambitions. Next week, my Moroccan colleague Iqbal and I will continue our family visits to speak to the women about how they feel we can best support them.

It is very difficult for poor, uneducated women in Taroudannt to find employment. It is even harder for them to find employment that also allows time to look after their children. For many women, including young women and girls, prostitution is a very real pathway. Some of the mothers of the children who visit the centre are trying to make livings selling clothes and other goods, but cannot make enough money and are forced to sell their bodies. Children are often exposed to this activity, their tiny communal family-living spaces separated from it by nothing but a thin curtain. Supporting mothers to find gainful employment or alternative pathways will be an increasing focus of GMH’s work in the coming year.

Though I’m coming to the end of my placement here (I’ve only got five weeks left! How time has flown!) I will continue to keep you all updated on the work of GMH, MCT and the Centre Afak in the weeks to come. I’m sure there’ll be lots to report!

 

Book Review – ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’

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‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I feel like this might be a year of firsts for me.  I’ve recorded my first album which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always secretly wanted a blog too, and now I have one that I think is very pretty. I’ve also always thought I’d like to try and write a book review(s), because every so often I read a book that I just want to talk about (even if not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons).

Though I don’t have a lot of time to read for leisure at the moment, I did miraculously manage to actually finish a book the other day. That book was ‘Half the Sky: How to Change the World’ by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the international bestseller which champions the rights of women, and the potential of investment in them as a solution to global poverty.

Now, as a humanitarian, a development worker and a feminist, this is a subject that I feel pretty passionately about, and as the book points out it’s hard to ignore the arguments in favour of investing in women in developing world contexts: that women are generally the primary caretakers in many societies so investing in the education of women has far-reaching, inter-generational benefits; that it has been suggested that women are likely to invest up to 90% of their income back into their families and communities, whilst for men it is more like 30-40%; and that raising the status of women in order to create greater gender equality generally translates into more harmonious, less conflict-ridden, and therefore healthier, societies. This is just to name a few.

‘Half the Sky’ rings true in its support of arguments like these, and for the most part I enjoyed reading it (though I’m not sure that’s really the right word to describe the reading of a book that graphically details the egregious atrocities committed against women every day all over the world). Despite periodically cringing at some of the suggestions made throughout (more on that later) my overall inclination is to applaud the authors for writing a book on such an important subject that isn’t overly academic and that is easily accessible and digestible to a wide audience (not just development geeks!).

Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is that, through the telling of women’s individual stories of suffering and resilience, it manages to ‘re-humanise’ those for whom human rights abuses are a daily reality. Too often in the developed world (and for certain in the developing world too) we are able to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, or worse, effectively condone them because we understand the issue as an abstraction, removed from our own realities. We’ve stopped seeing our fellow living creatures as thinking, feeling beings – they exist as ‘others’ in an abstract place, far removed from us. Look, I am not a vegetarian, but being confronted by unblinking goats heads at market stalls makes me want to be. Likewise, perhaps if a greater number of us could empathise with human suffering on a less abstract plane, the issue of asylum seekers in Australia wouldn’t be a political football, and the gang rape of three year old girls in Pakistan would no longer be tolerated. Half the Sky’s most significant strength is that it humanises suffering and human rights abuse and thus, via its readers and their broader networks, has the potential to galvanise wide support for the women of the world who are victims of circumstance on a daily basis.

Despite this, it’s hard not to criticise some of the suggestions made by the authors throughout, which range from the mildly bizarre or suspicious to the outright appalling and dangerous. Given that I guess I’d sort of bought into all the hype and excitement surrounding the book (surely an eye-opening and serious expose!) I was a little surprised to come across Ben Affleck in the first couple of chapters. Our favourite mysteriously-Academy Award-winning screenwriter and actor had visited an American volunteer posted in Goma, who had become afflicted with malaria. Now, don’t get me wrong, in theory I’m all for using fame and fortune as mechanisms for advocacy if you can get it right (even though the high-flyers don’t most of the time), but I’m somewhat reluctant to give the authors credit here. I’m confused as to whether they’re innocently relating an anecdote, or whether *horror* they’re suggesting a link between volunteering and meeting movie stars. Either way, I cringed.

Then there was the ardent call to forge partnerships with evangelical churches, particularly the Pentecostal church which is ‘gaining more ground more quickly than any other faith, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America’. Despite the authors’ own acknowledgement that Pentecostalism’s expanding faith base can in part be attributed to the claim that Jesus will protect its followers from AIDS (surely not a positive step towards increasing women’s health and reproductive rights), and admit this is ‘suspicious’, they nevertheless support ‘working together’ with the Pentecostal church as well as evangelical religious organisations in general. Now whilst it is certainly true that most religious organisations are inspired by some form of altruism, it is the manner with which these ‘good intentions’ are conceptualised and manifest that is so dangerous to women’s rights. And once we start buying into evangelical organisations that preach strange and backward ideologies and that are ‘increasing influence’, we set a precedent for compounding these powerful religious agendas without ability to regulate them. This has the potential to be disastrous for women!

The authors’ argument for these partnerships is flimsy, not to mention it ostensibly conflicts with their strong opposition to archaic US foreign policies like the ‘Global Gag Rule’ (no longer in existence thanks to Obama, but still heavily lobbied for by right-wing conservatives), which excludes any organisation offering counselling on abortion or abortion services anywhere in the world from the financial backing of USAID (take, for example, the fantastic women’s health organisation, Marie Stopes). Given such policies are so strongly and irrefutably influenced by the religious agendas of American conservatives, it seems completely bizarre that the authors buy into the idea of partnerships with evangelical organisations in the pursuit of women’s rights.

Another strange and superficial suggestion is that we should encourage sweatshops, of all things, because ‘they’re preferable to the alternative of hoeing fields all day back in a village’. I can just hear community development workers setting off a chain of groans to reverberate around the world! Despite the authors’ obvious value judgement that working in the city is better than an agricultural lifestyle, not to mention their complete oversight of the nuances of globalisation and capitalism, it seems utterly confounding that the authors should laud the ‘benefits’ of sweatshops for women, when it is widely known that sweatshop conditions in the developing world are euphemistically less than ideal and more often than not completely unregulated by labour laws. It seems more likely that encouraging sweatshops (through buying more stuff?  …this is also unclear) is more likely a method of buying into and sustaining discrimination against women, rather than improving it. Even more hilarious, is that in an endnote at the back of the book the authors pay a fleeting lip service to what they call the “feminist critique” of this stance.

Another issue that kept rearing its head for me, was the continued focus on women as economic assets. While the authors intention was likely to try and galvanise the support of a wider audience (including big business, governments and macro-economists) by including an economic argument for the inclusion of women in development, the continued emphasis on this argument tends to detract from the authors’ overall stance that the injustices perpetrated against women should be addressed on humanitarian grounds. Supporting the women of the world based on their economic potential takes away from the power of the humanitarian case. Not to mention that I’m sure big business and governments have an army of their own advisers on the subject and this book’s probably not going to sway their thinking!

Besides this, the simple ‘women as economic resources’ argument no longer has much credence in the contemporary development discourse. The pretty one-dimensional and over-simplified theory emerged in the 1970s from the mouths of neo-classical economists, and since then, thinking has evolved to become far more nuanced. No longer is it accepted that the ‘add-women-and-mix’ approach will suffice. What is required is a greater understanding and incorporation of gender in policy formulation, and more specifically, how gendered roles and responsibilities impact on both women’s and men’s ability to perform certain tasks.

An often cited example concerning women’s economic inclusion is that it’s not enough to simply create jobs for women, the fact that they already work virtually full-time as family and community caretakers means the assumption they have any more time to engage in economic production is fundamentally flawed. What is required then, is not just a consideration of women as ‘economic assets’ but of the nuances of gender roles and responsibilities, and the value attached to what actually is already important work in the domestic sphere. This is not to say that opportunities shouldn’t be created for women’s economic empowerment – everything should be done to facilitate this – but what Half the Sky fails to address is that most women in the developing world already have full-time jobs; the assumption that women are simply under-utilised economic assets has been long debunked.

A bunch of other sentiments drew my attention for the wrong reasons during the course of reading this book, but I’m afraid I’ve run out of time to elucidate upon all of them. I will say just to wrap up, that despite all its misgivings, this book does have great potential to galvanise support for the world’s women, to be a tool for advocacy, and to make people stand up and take notice of the circumstances that women are often born into. I do give it a great deal of credit for placing such emphasis on human rights, and on the education of women and girls as a way out of poverty. It also prudently stresses that any solution to poverty should be understood contextually, should be dynamic, and perhaps most importantly should ultimately come from the grassroots in any given community.

That said, perhaps it is telling that it is George Clooney and Angelina Jolie who have written the testimonials on the front cover, rather than respected feminists or gender and development experts.

BM