Former Child Soldiers Healing Through Art

Today, February 12, is the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day.

Children living through war are often survivors of physical,  psychological, emotional and sexual violence. Some manage to escape. Many find it hard to overcome their trauma. Rehabilitation is especially difficult for girl child soldiers, since re-integration programs are often ill-equipped to address their needs.

Taller de Vida, our partner in Colombia, is working to change that.

With their “Saquen mi cuerpo de la guerra (“Take my body out of the war”) campaign, Taller de Vida uses art therapy to empower former child soldiers and survivors of sexual violence.

By using multimedia, the young girls share their devastating experiences.

Participants in Taller de Vida’s programs share a message for the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers:

“Que los niños y las niñas no tengamos que contar historias de guerra!” (Boys and girls shouldn’t have to tell stories of war!)


 

taller de vida 1

Silence stayed with me, they caught me. When I was 7 years old … I could not prevent them from taking over my body. Today, I am 17 years old. Never again will I let someone possess my body and I will decide who to love.


A message from Stella Duque Cuesta, clinical psychologist and director of Taller de Vida:

In Colombia, the war is not letting up, especially for the millions of boys, girls and adolescent victims of armed conflict who suffer its consequences daily: death, displacement, mutilation, sexual violence, and recruitment, among others, and who require progress in the peace process and care.


 

taller de vida 4

I did not decide. My father decided for me. Instead of letting me go to the park, he gave me to the guerrillas. I turned wild … resentful … I was not a person. Why was everyone indifferent and did not look for me and rescue me? I was only 12 years old.


A message from Luna, a Taller de Vida participant:

This February 12, do not forget:

That the war in Colombia is a scourge that has disintegrated our families and has led us to be involved, used and to live a life of violence and sexual exploitation at an early age, also, it leaves us – boys, girls and youth – orphans. We want this to change and on this Red Hand Day we raise our voice and ask those who have the power to change our reality to act!!!

Because we have the right to be children, to dream and to build a future where no one decides for us and where we can live and grow overcoming the challenges of childhood and contributing to peacebuilding.

Luna


 

taller de vida 3

Innocence, silence and pain. We lived in the countryside, I was 7 years old, we were playing … but then the biggest horror of my life started. They began to touch me, and I did not say anything for fear of everything.


 Additional Resources:

Colombia: Protecting Children of War

Stop Hunting Children! Report on the sexual violence committed against adolescents in the armed conflict in Colombia

Creating a Conflict-Free Future for Colombia

How Do YOU Build Resilience through Your Giving? Lessons from 2014

Another year is fast drawing to a close! Now is a crucial opportunity to invest your giving in an effective, impactful way, so the change-makers you support can start the New Year strong.

But with all of the worthy options out there, how do you decide where to give? And how can you make sure that your gift makes the most impact for those in need? These are important questions to ask. But the answers aren’t always clear.

We’ve addressed this before, when we talked about the Three Steps to Build Resilience through Your Giving. When you’re choosing an organization for your donation, this is our advice:

  • Step #1: Make sure that those at the heart of the issue were consulted from beginning to end and that the organization provides services in a way that strengthens communities.
  • Step #2: Make sure that the organization relies on the voices of women and other marginalized members of the community.
  • Step #3: Make sure that the organization meets immediate needs and helps create long-term positive change.

What do you think of these steps? How do you decide where your giving will make the most impact? Share your thoughts below!

In 2014, we saw over and over again the wisdom of prioritizing grassroots women’s leadership. Bad news may grab headlines, but behind the scenes and in local communities, grassroots women activists are hard at work creating powerful, lasting solutions.

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When extremist ISIS militants swept into Iraq, our support to a local women’s organization meant that they could provide emergency escape, shelter and humanitarian aid to hundreds of women. They were there right away, even in places that large aid agencies could not go.

Frequent and persistent drought has tested the resilience of Indigenous women in Kenya—but by supporting the leadership of grassroots women, we can help make sure that they can face down this danger. They are innovating climate adaptation strategies like water harvesting to capture scarce rain and tree nurseries to provide natural cover for water supplies.

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And just this month, a typhoon struck in the Philippines. You may remember last year, when Typhoon Haiyan decimated entire communities. The news was filled with pictures of the devastation and updates on the rising death toll. And since last year, local women’s groups have been hard at work to rebuild more resilient communities. They made sure they would be prepared for when the next storm hits. And they put pressure on policymakers to respond quickly and effectively to disaster. When the most recent typhoon made landfall, communities were in a much stronger position to respond—and people survived.

Climate change is guaranteed to bring more fierce storms. And war will continue to devastate communities around the globe. But these examples teach us something urgent — we must support grassroots women’s organizations with solutions proven to work.

They are experts in the local and unique needs of their communities.

They are critical first-responders to identify and meet the needs of the most marginalized in their communities.

And they will stand by their communities for the long haul, chipping away at barriers like poverty, violence and discrimination that stand in the way of community resilience.

The answer to the question in the title is simple: when you stand with grassroots women leaders through your giving, you help build the resilience that allows them to save lives and create stronger communities. The events of this year repeatedly revealed that reality. And 2015 will give us even more opportunities to stand together with women to meet urgent needs and create lasting change.

To learn more about how MADRE and our grassroots partners build resilience, click here.

Women’s Solutions For Climate Change

Recently, MADRE was invited to participate in the Marion Institute’s 10th annual “Connecting for Change” conference. The conference’s purpose was to inspire diverse communities to take action on environmental and social justice issues.

Watch the moving keynote delivered by Diana Duarte, MADRE Communications Director, on how women are disproportionately impacted by climate change and are well positioned to lead the movement to end the global crisis.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Good morning everyone. Thank you for having me. I am so happy to be here with you all at this gathering, connecting us all for change.

My name is Diana Duarte, and I am the communications director of MADRE. MADRE is an international women’s human rights organization. We partner with grassroots women to do two things. One – to confront immediate threats and improve conditions in their communities. And two – to advocate for their human rights. When these two combine – when they connect for change – that’s how we create lasting social justice.

You’ve come here today to learn about innovators who are coming together to create positive change in their communities. And I’m here to tell you about how grassroots women worldwide are organizing to confront one of the biggest crises of our time – climate change.

But first, I want to tell you a personal story.

In 1956, my grandmother was a young woman with 4 small children, living in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa. On that arid chain of islands, there was never enough rain. Instead of rain, there were droughts powerful enough to be memorialized in traditional songs about “fomi” or hunger.

These periods of drought and hunger defined life for decades, so people began to seek out new lives elsewhere. And my grandmother was one of them. She packed two suitcases, got on a trans-Atlantic ship and came right here, to New Bedford. Over the years, she worked hard to raise money and eventually brought her children to join her – one of those children was my father.

Driven by climate pressures and resource scarcity, hundreds of thousands of Cape Verdeans left the islands they knew behind. Today, there are more Cape Verdeans living outside of the islands than inside – and many of them settled right here in New Bedford.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this story does not stand alone – it is all connected.

As climate change intensifies, it makes the Cape Verdean story almost prophetic. More and more places have been hit by droughts and famines, hurricanes and storms that turn the most vulnerable people into climate refugees. More and more people are being forced to adapt to their new, harsh circumstances, or to leave their homelands altogether.

And I’m telling you this because, across the world and across history, women – just like my grandmother— have struggled to sustain themselves and their families in the face of a changing and often hostile climate.

This is a big part of why today’s message – connecting for change – is so important. We are all connected by the ways our climate and our histories intersect.

Our best chance for confronting our climate crisis head-on lies in recognizing these connections – and soon. Because the world has already reaching a tipping point in its ability to absorb the harmful impacts of rampant resource exploitation. Years of industrialization and essentially unchecked greenhouse gas emissions have already begun to release a cascade of dangers. More severe storms. Longer and drier droughts. More fatal flooding. Coastlines erased by rising water levels. For many of you sitting in this room, these predictions are nothing new. Continue reading

Radio + Women’s Rights = Autonomy

A central theme of the Indigenous Women’s Forum was “I + We = Autonomy.” This simple equation laid a strong foundation for the Conference. It reminded attendees of two essential forms of autonomy for all Indigenous Nicaraguan women. The first is that every woman deserves to have ownership and autonomy over her body and her rights. The second is the opportunities that Indigenous Peoples can seize if they respect and use the strength of all their people, women included.

This concept came to light during a two-hour workshop I facilitated on “Communications and Ending Violence: The Use of Radio at the Community Level.” As part of our work together, MADRE and our sister organization Wangki Tangni are using solar-powered radios as a way to prevent violence against women.

Natalia Caruso, MADRE Program Director, leading a workshop on the power of radio.
Natalia Caruso, MADRE Program Director, leading a workshop on the power of radio.

Wangki Tangni produces radio segments in Spanish and Miskito, the local Indigenous language, to reach even the most remote communities. These segments are broadcast on local stations. MADRE is providing solar-powered radios to allow women to listen to the segments.

My workshop allowed us to hear firsthand the experiences of the women who benefit from the program.

We talked with a group of 35 women about how radio can promote women’s rights. As in other rural communities worldwide where MADRE works, radio is the primary means of mass communication.

Many women told us that they listen to radio programs on women’s rights to empower themselves to stand up and say “no” to violence. The workshop proved once again that the radio can do more than broadcast community events, entertainment or soccer game stats. It is also an educational and empowering tool for communication about women’s rights and the right to live free of violence.

As one woman said: “I learned about my rights by listening to the radio.”

An impassioned workshop participant sharing her story.
An impassioned workshop participant sharing her story.

The radio is also a way of educating and engaging with men and boys about violence. A middle-aged Miskita woman from Ulwas at the workshop told us a powerful story. She told us that her husband is abusive and has physically attacked her. One evening, she found herself listening to the radio with her husband, and a program about women’s rights came on. After it ended, he turned to her and said, “I am afraid of you.”

What did he mean by that? She understood that he was beginning to recognize the capacity that she had for leadership. He was beginning to understand that what he had done was a violation of her human rights.

Wangki Tangni knows that we must include men and boys in conversations about women’s rights, and the radio is one powerful way to reach out to them.

During the session, I was seated next to a young woman from the Alto Bocay community who had traveled for two days, by boat, with a one-month-old newborn, to get to the Forum. She told me: “I came with my baby. I couldn’t miss it.”

It is exchanges like this that reflect the dedication and power that these women have to transform their communities. They will remake them into places where they have full autonomy over their bodies and their rights, and into places that are free of violence.

The Power of Sharing Our Stories

I believe in the power of a story to move, motivate and mobilize. Which I suppose makes it no great surprise that communications is so tightly linked to my activism.

When I went to Nicaragua for our partner’s annual Indigenous Women’s Forum, I had a specific agenda in mind. There were 1,000 participants there, but there were 17 in particular I’d like to tell you about. They are a group of young women called the “comunicadoras,” or communicators. As volunteers with Wangki Tangni, our sister organization, they lend their time and energy to grassroots organizing. And they had their hands full helping to make the Forum happen.

Diana Duarte, MADRE Communications Director, demonstrating how to use the digital recorders.
Diana Duarte, MADRE Communications Director, demonstrating how to use the digital recorders.

These comunicadoras saw the power of the Forum, and they wanted to capture it. They wanted to document it so that the lessons of the Forum could live on beyond its four days. And they wanted to build their own skills to amplify their stories and the voices of their communities.

During the Forum, I held a series of communications workshops. Together, we got up early and stayed up late to make sure we had enough time. MADRE provided Wangki Tangni with a set of digital voice recorders, and I showed the comunicadoras how to use these tools to conduct interviews and record the Forum’s valuable discussions. Through the days of workshops, we also talked about how to take powerful photos and how to craft impactful messages.

The comunicadoras in action.
The comunicadoras in action.

Most importantly, we talked about the stories that drive their activism. They shared stories about the violence that women in their commmunities face. They spoke of the need to create possibilities for young girls instead of selling them into marriage. We talked about their fears at the environmental degradation triggered by industrial agriculture encroaching on Indigenous territories. These conversations would often turn into debates, as they mulled over the best solutions they could offer.

At the end of the workshops, I was honored to give each of them a certificate marking the effort they had made and the skills they had built. And I know that their debates and storytelling will continue.

The comunicadoras with their certificates.
The comunicadoras with their certificates.

End the US Embargo and Save Lives in Cuba

With it’s recent editorial “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba”, the New York Times positions itself on the right side of history. Yet, one vital fact requires emphasis: the embargo is cruel and punitive. This, above all, is a pressing reason for policy change.

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Cuba exports quality medical care worldwide, and its impact belies its size. In West Africa, Cuban doctors are saving lives on the front-lines of the Ebola crisis. But inside Cuba, the embargo causes death and suffering. U.S. pharmaceutical companies are often the sole providers of certain life-saving medicines. The embargo keeps these supplies out of the hands of Cuban doctors, who are among the best-trained in the world.

MADRE's founder and Senior Advisor Vivian Stromberg delivering medical supplies to Cuba.
MADRE’s founder and Senior Advisor Vivian Stromberg delivering medical supplies to Cuba.

The result? These professionals are unable to treat conditions like cancer and HIV/AIDS, and people die needlessly.

The editorial highlights the political win the Obama Administration would score by ending the embargo. But the simplest reason is this: to save lives.

Indigenous Women Living on the Frontlines of Climate Change

Over and over, during the 6th annual Indigenous Women’s Forum in Waspam, we heard the same refrain. Climate change is a clear and present threat to our lives and communities, they shared.

A Harvesting Hope member carrying squash from the organic farm. © Elizabeth Rappaport
A Harvesting Hope member carrying squash from the organic farm. © Elizabeth Rappaport

The women said they see it in the irregular weather patterns that make local harvests unpredictable and threaten their food supply. They see it in the intensified storms that have hit the North Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. These tropical storms have washed harvests away, making their food security even more precarious. Just this past week, torrential downpours displaced 33,000 people in Nicaragua.

Natalia Caruso, MADRE Program Director, spoke to two women, Albertina and Severina. They have been active in our Harvesting Hope project, which provides organic seeds to women small-scale farmers.

“The harvest and the crops are impacted by climate change,” said Albertina. “The cabbage and tomatoes are impacted also, and the corn and beans as well. We also need water and a well. We need to have access to water for the community.”

They also spoke about the solutions they have devised to confront climate change. For instance, through Harvesting Hope, our partners have set up a seed bank. From one harvest to the next, they collect and preserve seeds. This not only conserves local biodiversity, it protects seed stores from worsening hurricanes associated with climate change.

Indigenous women in these communities are building a powerful model. They are showing us the potential of a small-scale intervention with outsized impact.

In other words, their seed bank means some measure of food security into the next planting season. But it also gives us a glimpse at what it looks like when people control their food supply. What it looks like when women become community leaders and stage interventions to protect local well-being. In short, it gives us a glimpse at the possible.

Additional Resource: Click here to read the MADRE paper, titled “Climate Justice Calls for Gender Justice: Putting Principles into Action” (PDF).

Sounding the Drum for Women’s Rights

We traveled for two days to get to our destination – the community of Waspam, near Nicaragua’s northern border with Honduras. After two flights and an hours-long, bumpy and dusty ride, we were bone tired when we first stepped out of the car.

That tired feeling soon evaporated. It was replaced by the humming energy of the place and the reason that brought us there: the 1,000 Indigenous women gathered for a four-day annual Forum to discuss their lives, their communities and their rights.

Rose Cunningham, Director of Wangki Tangni, leading the forum's opening march. © Lindsey Stuart
Rose Cunningham, Director of Wangki Tangni, leading the Forum’s opening march. © Lindsey Stuart

There were four of us who had journeyed there together. Natasha Bannan is a human rights lawyer and a member of MADRE’s board. Natalia Caruso is MADRE’s Program Director. Lindsey Stuart is a midwife and nurse practitioner, who joined us via the organization Circle of Health International (COHI). And finally there was me, MADRE’s Communications Director, arriving in Waspam for the first time.

When we pulled up, Natalia was the first person out of the car. She had been in Waspam so many times before, and she already knew her way around, greeting people by name and pointing our way forward. We were right in front of the beautiful home of Rose Cunningham, the Director of MADRE’s sister organization Wangki Tangni.

Within moments, Rose smiled down on us from her balcony and greeted us with a shout: “You made it!” Stepping inside, we found a place buzzing with activity, as the Wangki Tangni organizers worked hard, using her home as a staging ground to put everything in place. It was a big task — no wonder with over 1,000 Indigenous women from across the region converging in Waspam. Some of them had even traveled for days to arrive, some by foot, some on boats along the nearby river, the Rio Coco.

(A few days later, we even met one woman who traveled for two days in a canoe with her one-month old baby daughter strapped to her chest – just so that she could be part of this Forum. Pause for a moment to think about what that must have been like.)

Forum attendees marching through Waspam. © Lindsey Stuart
Forum attendees marching through Waspam. © Lindsey Stuart

Why did these women feel that it was so important to be there? We asked that question to some of them over the course of the next few days. Many of them were leaders in their own villages, organizing to improve conditions for their families and communities. They wanted to meet with other women activists from the region, to share their stories and experiences. And they wanted the chance to present their demands to the local and regional authorities who would attend the Forum.

And on that first day, it started with a bang. To be exact, the banging of drums.

I was standing in a courtyard in front of the local basketball stadium. That was the space that Wangki Tangni had claimed, where Forum participants would gather for the next four days. We were all milling around, preparing for the launch event of the Forum, a massive protest that would wend its way through the streets of Waspam. Moments before, I had turned to Natalia to ask, “How will we know when it’s time to start the march?” Her simple reply: “We’ll know.”

[l to r] Rose Cunningham, Bibidelia Clarence and Natalia Caruso marching. © Lindsey Stuart
[l to r] Rose Cunningham, Bibidelia Clarence and Natalia Caruso marching. © Lindsey Stuart
Suddenly, there was an eruption of sound, loud drumming coming closer. I walked closer to the gate leading to the street, looking to my left just in time to see Rose herself, approaching at the head of a marching band. It had started.

For the next hours, a mass of people moved through the streets. We carried signs and raised our voices, denouncing violence against women and demanding human rights. The whole town came to know that something big was happening.

For the next four weeks, we will blog more about the Forum – about what brought us there, about what happened and about what came out of it. But first, I wanted to share this memory, about the hope, anticipation and possibility that hung in the air, from the very start.

Dear US, All Lives Matter

Hundreds of demonstrators from across the country have flooded the streets of Ferguson, MO as part of a four-day Weekend of Resistance. They’ve come to demand justice in honor of Michael Brown and others who have died due to police brutality.

"MikeBrown30.NMOS.MeridianHill.WDC.14August2014" by Elvert Barnes, cropped from original
“MikeBrown30.NMOS.MeridianHill.WDC.14August2014″ by Elvert Barnes, cropped from original

On August 9, Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. His death has amplified the call for the end of black lives being the casualties of racist violence. And the world is watching.

Driven by social media, the unrest in Ferguson has gained a global audience of empathizers.  In a gesture of solidarity, young Palestinians tweet advice on how to cope with tear gas and Tibetan monks traveled from India to join the movement.

Despite the ideological and failed attempts by the US to export democracy, there’s no doubt that the US still has a ways to go to create real democracy and human rights at home.

One final note on the extent of this hypocrisy: consider that today the federal government continues to observe Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was a brutal, genocidal tyrant responsible for atrocities against Indigenous Peoples—not the discoverer lauded in our textbooks. A growing number of cities and states have repurposed the controversial holiday, choosing instead to celebrate Indigenous Peoples and draw attention to the marginalization they continue to face. And these sentiments are not only limited to the US. Today, several Latin American countries recognize October 12 as Dia de la Raza and Day of Indigenous Resistance.

Racist violence perpetuated with impunity by the powerful. That’s what critics of Columbus Day seek to illuminate and confront. And that’s what protesters in Ferguson have been trying to defeat.