Some of the most frequent questions I received when I returned from New York City after attending the Commission on the Status of Women were, “What do you do there? What is your purpose?” There are many reasons to go and many benefits of doing so, but one of the highlights for me, as a writer and collector of stories, was the opportunity to talk to women from around the world, from so many different countries and so many different cultures that it was sometimes hard to keep track; women in beautiful, elaborate, colorful clothing so different from my customary outfit of business black—women with a message, and a strength of purpose that became a form of devotion, tears that were a prayer, and the opportunity to bear witness to the beautiful, the tragic, the heartbreaking, and the everyday miracles that bind us together in a vast sisterhood of faith that speaks of compassion, courage, humility, and grace. These are a few of their stories.
Rita Nyampinga, Harare, Zimbabwe, Female Prisoners Support Trust
What happens when a mother is no longer free to meet the needs of her family? What happens when she is no longer even free? In Zimbabwe there are women imprisoned across the country, some of them for doing things that they did not know were against the law. It is these women who Rita Nyampinga is trying to help, serving them not with judgement, but with compassion and mercy. Rita believes that all mothers should be able to take care of the most basic needs of their children: clothing, foods, basic hygiene. But for some mothers, specifically those who have been incarcerated, it can be almost impossible to meet those needs. In Zimbabwe, when a woman is sent to prison, if she has a child under 18 months old, that child is sent with her, and raised and cared for within the confines of various correctional facilities. Rita is working to help these women take care of their children, gain access to hygiene products, and be reconciled into their communities after their release. She became aware of their needs while working with another organization, visiting those in prison, and seeing the young children who were incarcerated with their mothers until they reached the age that they would be sent away to live with family or members of the community. Although the children are a part of life in the prisons where women are incarcerated, the government does not provide for them. Rita noticed that guards were bringing clothing and diapers gathered from their own families to help the mothers take care of their babies. That is when she felt called to start the Female Prisoners Support Trust. The group helps take care of women and their children in the 36 prisons in Zimbabwe, providing clothes and diapers for the children, as well as feminine hygiene products for the women in prison. And when women have served their sentences, the Trust helps them return to their families and communities and begin the process of reconciliation, allowing them to make a more successful transition back into their lives. Rita said, “Acceptance for these women is a challenge, unless they have someone to take them back to their families and act as an intermediary, asking for the family’s forgiveness, and asking them to accept the women back into their homes and lives.” This effort has drastically reduced the number of women who return to prison, and has improved the lives of those who are still serving their sentences. Rita is taking small actions everyday to improve the lives of those she is serving. She is showing us how one woman can make a difference—that pain and sadness can be overcome with hope and love, that forgiveness can change bitterness into acceptance, and that sometimes the little things are not really little at all.
Juany Murphy, Otra Cosa Network, UK and Peru
Water. For most of us we do not think much about how much of our daily needs are founded upon easy access to clear, sparkling water. And yet, it is something that not everyone has access to. Juany Murphy, from Peru, is trying to change that. Juany said, “Water is a women’s problem. We are the ones who cook, we are the ones who clean, we are the ones who wash the clothes, and if we cannot access clean water, or if that access is prohibitive, it limits the education and development of women and girls in communities.”
Working closely with over 150 families, Juany and her husband are trying to help provide the households in their community with access to water. This has been a natural outgrowth of her love of the women in her communityities. Juany and her husband have started a foundation called Otra Cosa Network, an organization founded on increasing access to education and basic services, particularly for women in rural communities. Along with the water initiative, Juany is trying to put a book into the hands of every woman, some of them for the very first time. “Education is important. Feeling like you have the power to educate yourself –, that is important. We need to help one another. Sisterhood, and the support of other women is one of the most powerful factors in the success of women individually, and within communities. Our priority needs to be education and access to the basic necessities of life.”
For most of us, when we think of what we need, we don’t think of water. Of the ordinary miracle that fresh water can be, of the many small ways that it can change your life, of the way it can run through your veins in a sparkling silver stream that liberates and empowers. But Juany Murphy is not only thinking about it, she is going out and doing something; she is harnessing the power of a gleaming river to change the lives around her with water and with words—and what is more powerful than that?