Teach A Woman To Fish...

Why empowering women is the key to lasting community development

When Thoeun was a little girl, a terrifying measles outbreak swept through her village and there was no escape. Mothers clutched their dying children, powerless to act. “I remember [thinking] that I would die too,” Thoeun recalls.

Mercifully, Thoeun survived the measles, yet she grew up with the understanding that the measles and other afflictions—including pneumonia and chronic diarrhea—were the work of evil spirits or bad karma. She prayed to her idols, anxiously petitioned her dead ancestors and begged the witchdoctor to protect her.

It would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the day when health teachers came to Kampong Cham, Cambodia’s most populated province. It was the first time Thoeun and her neighbors had heard of germs, viruses, the concept of preventing disease and the importance of early medical intervention.

Armed with this new knowledge, Thoeun began to share the teachings with other women in her community. Soon she was training women from other villages to teach their neighbors the warning signs of potentially deadly illnesses so they’d seek help before it was too late. Today she’s a trainer for World Relief’s Care Group project, spreading life-saving health messages in hundreds of villages the most effective way—woman to woman, mother to mother.

Thoeun exemplifies the power of women to change their world. She’s proof that when you empower one woman, you can transform a whole community.

For generations, Cambodia’s rice-growing heartland has been a “man’s world,” one in which women have been expected to take a subservient role. Not anymore. Women are growing in self-confidence and problem-solving capabilities. They’re seizing the initiative to make decisions for themselves and their families. And they’re trading the role of silent sufferer for one of vocal leader, tackling critical issues such as child diseases, AIDS and sex trafficking.

In the remote village of Tropaing Ansoung, death seemed to lurk behind every door. Children died in their sleep—victims of severe diarrhea, dengue fever and tetanus. It wasn’t unusual for women to hemorrhage and bleed to death while giving birth. About a decade ago, 15 children a year died of preventable diseases in Tropaing Ansoung. But as the local Care Group spread health teachings, the light came on. Child deaths have been virtually eliminated as women soak up health knowledge and put it into practice.

“I just absorbed everything,” says Chrab, a 36-year-old mother. “I kept asking myself: ‘Is this right? Can it be true?’ I soon found that my whole family was stronger and healthier.” Thankful for the huge difference the Care Group has made in her life, Chrab volunteered to become a health instructor. Today she teaches other moms—women who, just like her, need to be empowered to change their world. As Chrab’s neighbors see the results, they’re embracing the changes, becoming enthusiastic teachers themselves and building a health movement that will stand. Because the movement originates within the local community, the teachings become widely accepted. It’s hoped they’ll be passed down from generation to generation. Women no longer live in fear, instead making precious memories with their children.

Memories could soon be all that 9-year-old Matamando has left.

Seated next to her mom in a cornfield, she flicks through the Memory Book they’ve compiled together—a scrapbook titled “Nkhani Yanga” (“My Story”) and containing family snapshots and reminisces. Soon Matamando will be all alone. This simple book will be all she has left to remember happier moments before AIDS finally claimed her mother’s life. That is, if Matamando outlives her mother. She, too, contracted HIV when her mom breastfed her as a baby.

Once when Matamando fell sick, she whispered to her mom, “Mom, am I sick because of you?” Tears fill her mother Dorothy’s eyes as she recalls, “That broke my heart.”

For now, though, 39-year-old Dorothy, widowed by Malawi’s AIDS epidemic, is determined that she and her daughter will live life to the full. They love church, where they sing, dance and laugh together. Although the specter of AIDS looms over Dorothy’s life, she draws on her own experience to help others living with HIV. She trains church members to look after people living with AIDS and shows them how to treat opportunistic infections that are common among AIDS patients.

Dorothy is part of a growing faith-based movement in Africa’s AIDS-ravaged communities—a movement of HIV-positive women who refuse to wallow in self-pity, instead choosing to use their experience to strengthen others.

Under the shade of a tree, women from St. Mathew’s Anglican Church meet for mutual encouragement. These volunteers have a difficult job, one that saps their emotional energy and draws deeply on their faith. They support 70 people living with AIDS in their village. It’s a ministry of compassion that’s touched the entire community, causing even those skeptical of religion to acknowledge there’s something different about these women. After all, most of those visited by the women aren’t members of St. Mathew’s and many don’t attend church at all.

“When we go into a home, we begin by praying and reading the Bible,” explains Lucy, the group leader. “We offer encouragement and help them with work around the house.”
As more women join the group, they’re trained to care for others. “We say to them, ‘Jesus healed people, so it can be the same for you if you have faith in Him,’” Lucy says. “When they hear that, they are so excited, and they have the faith that one day they will be healed.”

Even the most anxious souls find peace. When her neighbors found out 28-year-old Judith was HIV-positive, they hurled insults at her. “I was lost in the dark,” she says, “and the worries were overwhelming.” But when everyone else shunned her, the women from St. Mathew’s opened their arms. “God is with me and I feel at peace here,” Judith says. “It’s a blessing beyond words.”

Because of the willingness of women to stand up to AIDS and the prejudices surrounding it, Joyce, an HIV-positive widow, has claimed a new beginning. She starts every day singing and working in her garden. “I used to feel like I was just waiting around to die,” she says, “but now I feel like I have a life to live.” Joyce also has a lot to give. “I am able to visit those who are sick and share my encouragement with them,” she says. “I know how important that is.”

In rural Malawi, where change happens at a crawl, women are challenging many of the old ways of doing things, in some cases ending harmful practices that have beset communities for centuries. In the village of Chipolwa, for example, 27-year-old Kafulesi showed the women how to remove the toxic shell from the soybeans before mixing corn flour to make porridge. “The mothers didn’t realize the shells were hurting their children,” Kafulesi says. “They’d been preparing porridge like that for generations … and their children [were] vomiting.”

Around the world, women are driving change in their communities, women are rising to the fore, women are braving rejection and ridicule to go against the tide. Increasingly, as we grapple with the great problems of our age, women show the grit that’s needed to come up with the answers.

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