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Around the world, women are far more likely than men to be poor, ill-housed, under-educated and victimized by war and discrimination. To help women help themselves and their communities, the Global Fund for Women, or GFW, a San Francisco-based organization, gives $8 million a year to support grassroots projects. So far, the GFW has helped to fund community-based development projects in 167 countries.
The organization invited some of its current grantees to its recent 20th anniversary celebration in New York. Leymah Gbowee, who helped found the Women in Peacebuilding Network in her rural Liberian community in 2001 was among those attending.
After 11 years of civil war that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, talks between President Charles Taylor's government and rebel militia groups were stalled. To help prod the parties into action, Gbowee and other rural women staged peaceful demonstrations outside the buildings where negotiations were being held. And when an agreement was finally reached, the women worked to hold both sides publicly accountable for their promises.
"If some appointment in the government went wrong, we were there," Gbowee recalls proudly. "If disarmament was going wrong, we were there. We were just all over the place!"
Although the role of women may seem minimal to some, especially when dealing with warlords, Gbowee says, "[women] are the conscience."
Gbowee's first grassroots group led to the formation, in 2006, of the Women Peace and Security Network-Africa, or WIPSEN. Today, the Global Fund for Women is helping WIPSEN survey rural women in five West African countries to determine what they believe will ensure peace and security in their communities and the region.
"The U.S. government put billions of dollars into the restructuring of the Liberian army," she says, "but have they ever stopped to ask the rural women 'What is security to you? Are you interested in having a gunboat or having another missile launcher in your army?'"
Gbowee says, for her and many rural African women like her "security means more health care for my children, a proper education and more schools."
Halfway around the world, in the South American nation of Colombia, decades of violent internal conflict have meant horrific levels of sexual violence and displacement for women. To address both problems, the Global Fund for Women has supported the launch of the League of Displaced Women, led by lawyer-activist Patrica Guerrero.
One of the League's main projects is its so-called "City of Women" initiative. It's a grassroots project that has trained over 500 internally displaced women in construction skills, then given them raw materials to build their own homes and create new communities for themselves and their families.
The "City of Women" initiative offers one model for effective grassroots development, but it's also politically innovative, because women who normally would never own their own property have a place to call their own. And, according to GFW Latin America program officer Erika Guevara-Rosas, it also helps to prevent domestic violence. "The women feel empowered to tell their partners 'if violence starts at home, then you can leave, because this is my place!'"
Global Fund for Women grantees are also working in Asia, where they have tackled such problems as human trafficking and the health and safety of factory workers. In Tibet, GFW has partnered with a yak loan program designed to help elderly nomadic women whom the government has forcibly resettled in towns to become financially self-sufficient. "It's a very creative and culturally appropriate strategy they're using," says Dechen Tsering, GFW's program officer for Asia and Oceania.
Sometimes, the challenge women must confront in their societies is not poverty or war, but ignorance. When Prudence Mabele, a black South African, was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS in the early 1990s, she and others afflicted with the disease were forced to suffer in shame and silence. Not surprisingly, there were few medical or social services to help them cope with their disease.
In 1992, Mabele publicly announced her condition, and took her own meager savings to start the Positive Women's Network to advocate loudly for AIDS sufferers.
Sande Smith, the Global Fund for Women's public education director, is inspired by Mabele's story, which she says can serve as a model for the empowerment of women everywhere.
"You can do that, too. You can say 'What is it that I need? What is it that I wish I had in my community?' Start talking to others, and then act on it! When ... you know that you can make a difference, you become an agent of change, and life [itself] changes."
Other projects supported by the Global Fund for Women range from initiatives in education and legal services to children's health, and the prevention of domestic violence. However, says Smith, there is one common principle underlying all these efforts. "Women can't wait for someone else to do for them. So they have to do it for themselves. And they are creating a world that is going to be good for everyone."