Waiting for my visa interview on a dusty embroidered couch at the Afghan Embassy in Cairo, minutes turned into hours. I had recently decided to spend International Women’s Day in the countryside outside of Kabul, to learn from women there as they work towards a better Afghanistan. My mind wandered as I prepared for the journey, and I found myself reflecting on the meaning of a day set aside to celebrate women. Memories drifted through the past few years where I had spent International Women’s Day with Grassroots International’s partners in Palestine and Haiti. Years apart and worlds away, the experiences were bound by song.
Gaza Strip, 2009
“Yallah, come onnnn,” squealed Khadija, taking both of my hands at the wrists and waving them high above my head as she pulled me onto the makeshift dance floor with about two-dozen other Palestinian women. Her winning smile contrasted the visible pain in her eyes.
Just over a month before, the Israeli military had stopped its assault on the Gaza Strip that left at least 1,300 dead. At the women’s center where we danced on the outskirts of Gaza City on March 8, 2009, almost everyone had lost someone close—Khadija being no exception. But the women had chosen to take International Women’s Day off to sing together and celebrate a more hopeful future.
That day turned out to be a perfect introduction to Grassroots International’s Gaza-based partners, and a testimony to the commitment they have to women’s rights and empowerment.
At the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), women form the core of “Urban Agriculture,” a project that Grassroots has supported for more than seven years. By carefully selecting women heads-of-households, PARC allows them the opportunity to foster farming skills and support their families.
PARC itself employs a large number of women, and sent one of them named Nida’a to the field with me and Marie Kennedy (a Grassroots board member), to learn more about their work. We were able to engage in personal conversations throughout the day and build women-to-women ties.
Showing off small gardens—often on rooftops—the participants explained that agriculture was also quite political. Since larger farms have been targeted in Israeli military operations like “Cast Lead,” in turn causing families to flee rural areas for overcrowded refugee camps, the women working with PARC felt that they were pioneers for decentralized sustainable development in their communities.
Part of PARC’s commitment to women led them to seed the Rural Women’s Development Society (RWDS). It started as a small project, but today is an independent organization that reaches tens of thousands of women—allowing them further opportunities to network with one another.
Another group that fosters women’s leadership in Gaza is the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR). Grassroots works with their legal department as they document a wide range of abuses, via both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. During the attacks, their role was especially critical since international journalists and human rights workers were routinely denied access to Gaza.
But even before Cast Lead, PCHR’s staff focused their work intently on the rights of girls and women. Their numerous female documentarians and lawyers are able to access the most vulnerable victims, and partner with them to build new lives and possibilities.
Palestinian women living in Gaza constantly work their ties with their sisters in the West Bank and the Palestinian minority in Israel, despite the physical barriers that separate them. When possible, they meet via phone or videoconference. But more importantly, being part of grassroots organizations and social movements can virtually break impenetrable borders.
Melodic voices drifted out of the open-air organizing center and spilled down the hills of Papaye in Haiti’s Central Plateau. The narrow dirt roads were filled with hundreds of women travelling by foot and by donkey to join their sisters in song and celebration on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.
By the time that everyone had gathered at the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) headquarters, the energy was unshakable. Many women received certificates honoring their work, and others brought home goats. All of them were beaming, wearing silky purple scarves that read “Viv Dwa Fanm” (meaning long live women’s rights in Haitian Kreyol).
The ceremony culminated in a mass march to the town of Hinche, several kilometers away. Men and boys also walked alongside the women to offer their support. Cars pulled over and pedestrians parted way in awe and amusement as the sea of purple rushed past them. The marchers eventually gathered in Hinche’s central square, where several women gave speeches—each one ending in an enthusiastic roar and loud applause from the crowd.
Rural women in Haiti fight daily as they struggle to find their place in society. Nicole, a female organizer, put it well as we prepared lunch together before visiting projects. “It isn’t easy,” she said with a sigh. “We have everything against us—we’re Haitians, and we’re peasants—which should be enough. But being a woman in that situation adds a triple threat.”
It’s a threat that the women of Haiti don’t take lightly, and are determined to overcome.
Across the country, they are actively engaging in their own development as well as taking care of one another. To do this, they self-organize into community groups (gwoupman in Kreyol) that number between 15 and 20 women. Local movements like the MPP and national movements, such as the one to which that organization lends its name, the National Congress of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP), support these groups.
As MPNKP’s National Coordinator, Rose Edith is one of the best-known female leaders in Haiti. She is also not afraid to put the older male establishment in its place. Her philosophy is that there’s power in numbers, and she points to women-led community groups as the place to make that happen.
The gwoupman work together on a wide range of projects—from community gardens, to animal husbandry, to art. Each of the projects has goals that reach much farther than just sustaining a livelihood. They are all grounded in popular education and political organizing—tools that Haitian women recognize as necessary in building a sovereign country that offers them the space to bring their potential to fruition.
Grassroots International, for example, works with rural Haitian women to repopulate the native Creole pig after it was eradicated with under U.S government pressure almost two decades ago. The pigs provide a source of income for families, but more than that they give Haitian women chances for leadership in their families and communities.
Back at the embassy in Cairo, I eventually passed the interview and obtained my visa. My trip to Afghanistan would be a beautiful, sad, and complicated journey into yet another part of the world where external and internal politics violate women’s rights. It would solidify the lessons I learned in Palestine and Haiti—that no matter how long the journey, strong women are paving the path.
But for International Women’s Day, there would be singing.
Salena Tramel is a journalist and international development consultant, and formerly the Program Coordinator for Haiti and the Middle East at Grassroots International