THE EARTH TIMES
AUGUST 2, 1993
Making a difference at Third World grassroots
Local women work with UN agencies
BY ASHALI VARMA
It was at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last year, that Bibi Sultana from Pakistan, Chandrika Shrestha from Nepal and Malati Mandi from India, met women from other parts of the world who were working to create a better life for grass roots women. These three women were chosen by UNIFEM to represent the peasant women at the Global Forum in Rio. These were women who had spent all , their lives in remote villages whose very survival depended on hours of effort, daily spent collecting water and wood. They were a grim reminder to the other delegates of the issues at stake at the Earth Summit.
In describing her experience at Rio, Bibi Sultana told the women back in Pakistan: “I took your voices to Rio and I found that women all over the world have similar problems.” She had not only understood the significance of the issues being discussed
but had also realized the opportunity she had been given to represent her lot, “There was a huge door that was closed before me. lt has opened a crack, now I have to continue to open it further as I have seen what is on the other side.”
After Rio, the women gained the confidence of their communities, respect of their families and a courage to speak out. Chandrika said to Santiago from UNIFEM, “You have given us the opportunity to make an impact on policy makers. Politicians are like horses. They ask you to bet on them and then you do and after you have done that they run their own race. What you have done is given us the reins to direct the horses again. “Giving women a voice, helping them to generate an income in turn leads to a demand for literacy, for health benefits, a control of their own fertility and a better life for their children.
Early this year, women from four different provinces of Pakistan attended the Second National Conference of Peasant Women, organized by the Aurat Foundation. They came from remote areas, for some it took four days to reach the village on the outskirts of Lahore. Some brought their children, others spoke of the problems created by husbands and in-laws who objected to women traveling on their own in an orthodox Islamic society. But these women had a mission, they were the catalysts for change in their communities and they came to be heard by politicians, NGOs and government officials.
This conference was the culmination of a process started with the help of UNIFEM
Two years ago. In 1991, UNIFEM organized Peasant Women summits in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The meetings brought grassroots women leaders face-to-face with political leaders, policy planners, scientists and government administration to ensure that their problems were heard by those responsible for plans and policies. The emphasis was to create links between women, whose daily survival hinges on caring for the environment, and policy makers. This should lead to national policies to which women contributed.
Even though UNIFEM has only a 15 million dollar budget, it has been effective in creating small income generating projects for women all over the world, from fishery in Pakistan to sericulture in India. The projects have grown as more and more villages have seen the impact on the lives of the people, which in turn has led to support from larger institutions and the government.
UNIFEM’s director, Sharon Capeling-Alakija, feels strongly about involving people and communities in their own development, saying, “Once it’s a good idea and it catches on we don’t have to be around. We want to create demand, people wanting change, believing in it; that’s what will change governments.” Alakija says: “We have only $15 million and we want to make a difference that is sustainable. Hence we make sure that while we are supporting micro activities, we do it in a way that produces models and is linked to larger activities, so that it isn’t simply a drop in the bucket.”