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A job few would volunteer for


NOVEMBER 1-15, 1996


A job few would volunteer for

By Ashali Varma

Nepalgunj, Nepal—She is 36 years old but looks like a teenager and works at a job few would volunteer for.  But that is exactly what Josette Navarro from the Philippines did.

“I joined the United Nation’s volunteers program because I wanted to share my experiences and skills with people from other countries and, at the same time, learn from them and have a greater understanding of their culture and tradition, “said Navarro.

A nutritionist and dietician, she first worked for the Department of Social Welfare in the province of Negros Oriental, south of Manila, in a day care supplemental feeding program for children and the elderly.  Her first posting as a UN volunteer was in Sri Lanka from 1988-89, at the height of the civil war.  Based in Puttalam district, 60 miles north of Colombo, she worked with a women’s organization which had programs on teaching women employment skills. “I worked with local women’s groups which consisted of around 800 women.  My role was to motivate the women, to strengthen their organization and in doing so improve their lives.”

To improve their lives was not an easy task since the war had left many women alone. “So we had to keep motivating them and telling them not to give up.  Women used to come to me and talk about their fears.  They had little food, they could not move around freely because of the tension, they feared for the lives of their children and husbands,” said Navarro.

Working with local NGOs, Navarro organized day care programs, income generating schemes for women such as sewing and handicrafts, and training women on how to get more from their land. “We had to build up their confidence and get them to make decisions which till now had been made by the male members their families.  We had to convince them that they had to keep going for the sake of the others who were dependent on them.”

Navarro lived with a family and grew to love them.  But there were problems of adjusting to the food, carrying water for a bath and generally living with fear all around.  On the question of how she struck it out for two years, Navarro said, “Basically I stayed because of the women.  I wanted them to know I would be there for them.” 

Since 1995 Navarro has been based in the town of Nepalgunj, which borders India.  Traditionally, in such towns women don’t live alone.  But she says that women NGOs are inspired by what she does and this motivates them.

The difficulties are language and the distances volunteers have to travel or walk to reach the remote parts.  “To reach people, volunteers may have to walk five days over difficult mountain terrain, where there is no water, or resting place or food.  So all this has to be carried with them,” Navarro said. She feels it has been worthwhile.  “This was the first project for NGOs in this region and we have opened the gates for donor agencies and government to work, with NGOs by strengthening them,” Navarro said.