In some ethnic cultures in Cameroon, a woman whose husband dies is isolated in a dark room for three days, with only the presence of other widows for company.
Justine Kwachu Kumche and Women in Alternative Action wanted to change that custom, but her organization had to find just the right way to intervene in what it viewed as a cultural practice harmful to women.
Kumche shared their solution before a packed room of women who had come from around the globe to exchange information during the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Those involved in the March 9-20 commission meeting, in an official capacity or as nongovernmental activists, are assessing progress made since the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, still considered the foundational document on women’s rights.
Part of a 24-member delegation sponsored by United Methodist Women, Kumche was a panelist for “Participatory Development: Learning from Grassroots Women Leaders,” a parallel event at the Church Center for the United Nations sponsored by UMW and the Huairou Commission.
Women are doing important work in their communities, noted Tatiana Dwyer, the UMW executive who organized and introduced the panel. “To move to the next level, they need global and national policies that are supportive and that are inclusive,” she said.
“Because they know local vulnerabilities and local problems better than anyone else, working with grassroots will help identify these problems and design relevant community interventions,” Dwyer told the gathering. “It will help us move from rhetoric to genuine people-centered development.”
Women in Alternative Action knew it had to engage the grassroots to deal with cultural issues such as the mistreatment of widows, genital mutilation and the early marriage of girls, Kumche said.
United Methodist Women is sponsoring a delegation of 24 women — 10 from the U.S. and 14 international — who are participating in the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations and related venues this week.
UMW provided a two-day orientation March 5-6, followed by an Ecumenical Women orientation session March 7.
For Justine Kwachu Kumche, a delegate from Cameroon, the orientation, daily check-in meetings and other ways to connect give the delegation a “family” feel. “United Methodist Women gives me an added value,” she said.
The purpose of bringing a delegation in, explained Tatiana Dwyer, an executive based in UMW’s office at the Church Center for the United Nations, is not only for networking, “but also to learn how global policy affects them.”
“In Cameroon, the wives of traditional leaders, when they speak to community women, they are respected,” she explained. “In 2012, we organized the first national forum, bringing together 100 of these wives of traditional leaders.”
The forum left the women feeling empowered, but the organization did not stop there, conducting “gender sensitization” training for the traditional leaders themselves. In feedback after the trainings, the male leaders expressed their willingness, she said, to involve women in their local administrations.
Another strategy is to identify some of the progressive traditional leaders as champions of women’s empowerment. As a result, she said, one leader in northwest Cameroon made a law “that any person who would not allow the girl child to go to school will have some punishment within the community.”
Acknowledging role of grassroots groups
Among the recommendations in the statement submitted earlier by UMW to the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women is to “acknowledge the key role that women’s civil society and grassroots organizations play in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the Beijing Platform for Action and involve them at all levels.”
For Esperanza Cardona, coordinator of the National Women’s Commission of La Via Campesina in Honduras, grassroots refers to the peasant women who are trying to claim their rights. The organization represents two million women in the countryside, of which, she said, 70 percent are in poverty and 49 percent in extreme poverty.
“We peasant women have launched campaigns against violence and also campaigns to harvest justice for the women of the countryside to demand our right to land,” she declared through a translator during the panel presentation. The women have organized forums, sit-ins and marches.
“Let’s talk about food sovereignty,” said Cardona, also a member of the UMW delegation. “Food sovereignty for us peasant women is to have our rights respected. Those rights are the rights to land, the right to credit, to the market, to housing, to health care and education.”
Governments have a different definition of food sovereignty, she noted. “They think that food sovereignty can include importing food from other countries.” Honduras, for example, recently imported beans from Ethiopia. “This is absurd when we peasant women in Honduras could produce these foods, grow these beans, as well as corn and rice,” Cardona said.
Other members of the UMW delegation also stressed the importance of leadership and connection at the grassroots level. Jennifer Ferariza Meneses, executive secretary for the United Methodist Board of Women’s Work in the Philippines, believes that all international statements and documents “should be grounded on the people’s experiences.”
For churchwomen in her country, grassroots interaction has been a guiding principle on how to do work with women, youth and children. “It’s the women on the ground, it’s the people on the ground, who can really tell the authentic reality of women,” she explained.
Nichea Ver Veer Guy, a member of UMW’s board of directors and chair of finance on the executive committee, agreed that it is vital to hear those voices to get the bigger picture. “You can’t have a decision-making body not in touch with the grassroots women,” she said.