This article was first published in The e.MILE People Development Magazine Sept 2014

The odds stacked against them: a lack of food, health care and education.. Still some women leaders succeed in transforming their communities. These women step up to the challenge and lead their communities to greatly improved living conditions. But sometimes it’s the goats that get in the way.

After working in major corporations I have yet to meet more accomplished leaders. Leaders who have the courage and skills to share their vision and take their entire community on a journey that brings sustainable water, food and health care for all, and education for their children. They inspire their communities to conquer chronic hunger and poverty.

During a trip to Benin in early spring 2014 I was fortunate to meet hundreds of village women leaders trained in a unique approach and I was truly inspired by them. Most had not attended primary school, were often illiterate and made their living from small farming activities. When I spoke with these incredible women they told me that they used to feel invisible.

Sophie in Benin with Women Leaders

Once trained and provided with ongoing support by volunteers who had been through similar programmes, these women were empowered and took actions to rise from a position of subjugation to one of courage and leadership. They are now confident, skilled and stand up for themselves. They have a real voice at the decision-making level in their communities. The transformative effects are extraordinary. Every single day these women stand tall in the face of threats, violence and social ostracism in order to challenge the status quo. They do so for their children, their community and themselves and other women.

Lessons from the Village

As one example out of the many women we work with at the Hunger Project, Parkhi’s visionary leadership secured a future for girls’ education in her community. Parkhi is a non-literate Elected Women Representative in one of India’s local government councils. For someone whose culture does not include written language, she is the reason for the exponential progress made for girls’ education in her area. Oddly enough one of the obstacles standing in her way was goats.

In her community, it was generally agreed that girls did not go to school: they were needed to herd goats and make fuel cakes out of cow dung. After being trained about the importance of education and gender equality, Parkhi realised that girls could have a powerful impact on the future of their community – only if she could convince parents about the benefits of girls’ education. As an Elected Women Representative, she attended one of the ongoing Women’s Leadership Workshops. She also connected with other women leaders through supported Federations, which enable a stronger force of women to voice their concerns as a collective unit. Parkhi used these skills and knowledge to passionately campaign in her village. She went door to door to inform people about the value of girls’ education to families and the community. Although some showed scepticism, she never gave up on her vision. As a result of her persevering leadership, forty girls in her area now go to school. Referring to the issue of goat-herding, she said ““You can find other ways to make sure the goats are herded – but there is only one way to educate girls and that is to send them to school.”

Elected Women Representatives - India | The Hunger Project UK



Economic empowerment

Women play a major role in ending hunger. They consistently invest more of their income into their families and do the most to improve the levels of health, education and nutrition in their communities.

As an example, there has been surge in women’s involvement in The Hunger Project African Microfinance Programmes, with 57,000 active Women Microfinance Partners in 2013.

This economic empowerment gives women a greater say in how the family finances are spent. It also enables them to participate in decision-making concerning sending their children to school, feeding their families, making home improvements, and starting or expanding businesses.

As women gain economic influence as well as reading and writing skills, they also earn social confidence and pride. Women are increasingly taking on roles of power within the programmes – Over 100 Microfinance Programmes currently operate in our projects in Africa, with women holding at least 75% of the leadership roles. These figures put the so called ‘developed’ corporate world to shame.
The most disadvantaged of the poor are re-thinking what is possible. They may not be literate, but they are bringing water to their villages, stopping child marriages and creating schools and new businesses. They are achieving significant results with minimal resources.
Once unseen and unheard, these women are the first to bring water to their village. They see the value in education and ensure that children, especially girls, are able to stay at school. They spread vitally important messages among their community on health, nutrition and sanitation. They are the engines driving transformational change.

An invitation

So what is behind this transformational change? What is inspiring these women to stand up in the face of extraordinary challenges?
The experiences and stories of the women mentioned above and men who work them have inspired our colleagues in Australia and the United States to work with life style coach Joanna Martin to create a unique two-hour workshop. It is called “Rethinking what is possible”.
It is designed to give participants a flavour of the simple yet extraordinary power that can be unleashed within an individual by literally re-thinking what is possible in their lives. If it can work in the most deprived parts of the planet can you imagine what it might do for your organisation?

“When witnessing the work of The Hunger Project in Bangladesh I expected to feel pity, perhaps guilt at the life I led. What I didn’t expect was to be profoundly humbled. And to recognize that we are all on the same journey of trying to create our dreams in the face of adversity and obstacles. The tenacity I witnessed moved me to reconsider my own life, my ambitions and where I was getting stopped. The most powerful leaders I have met come from these most unlikely places. We can learn much from these men and women and their bold leadership. I look forward to sharing their stories so that you can rethink what’s possible in your own life.” Dr Joanna Martin.

We are extremely grateful to Dr Joanna Martin to have accepted our invitation to host our very first workshop on Thursday 9th October from 6.30pm to 8.30pm in central London.

This exclusive event is free of charge. If you would be interested to be one of the first here in the U.K. to rethink what is possible register here places for this event are limited.

Sophie Noonan, Country Director,The Hunger Project UK
This article was first published in The e.MILE People Development Magazine Sept 2014