Please join Illygirl as they close their show, SWEAT + ASHES, this Saturday June 8th, 7-11 at Art for Change 1699 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY.

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In September Illygrl, an interventionist collective, touched down in Guatemala City, inspired by the need to connect– to render the invisible and hear their stories, their voices that had been filtered out of our culture of consumption. We came with questions that could only be answered by women maquila workers. With the help of MADRE we made contact with Sandra, head of the Women Workers Committee. For the next ten days Illygrl ventured to Barcenas, a community found between the town of Antigua and some 25 textile factories, between ruins and reality.

Something is wrong with our society when over one thousand people die in a sweatshop collapse in Bangladesh the same week thousands of people buy from the very companies that neglected those workers. The New York Times reports the engineer of the building was recently arrested, and the factory managers will also be prosecuted. But we seem to be missing that puzzle piece, the link to understanding that our daily lives and daily buys are intrinsically connected with the millions of working women and men that sweat, slave, and sometimes die while making our stuff. The threads we wear pass through many hands and cross many borders. These are the ties that bind us.

While corporations wish to make these ties seamless Illygrl is dedicated to tracing their threads; we are speaking to those that have been rendered silent and bringing their voice to the masses who have been misinformed.

“Uno se pone un pantalón, una camisa pero no se pone a pensar cuantos han sufrido para hacer un pantalón o una camisa. Cuantas lágrimas han llorado, muchos…cuantos gritos a recibido uno, cuántas humillaciones por un pantalón”

“Someone puts on a pair of pants or a shirt but they don’t stop to think how many have suffered to make a pair of pants or a shirt…how many tears they’ve cried…how many times they’ve been yelled at, how many humiliations for a pair of pants.”

~Rita: Mother, fighter, sweatshop worker

Sandra guided our search and made it possible for IllyGrl to interview nine women who have previously worked in maquilas, making clothing for large corporations like GAP, Walmart, POLO and American Eagle.

“Yo practicamente pedí favor al jefe que me despidiera porque estaba demasiado enferma de los nervios porque había mucha presión del trabajo. Porque como ellos va ellos nos ponían a nosotros una cierta cantidad, entonces ellos hacen un contrato verda con el cliente de que mes a que mes van a entregar el producto. Entonces nosotros tenemos que sacar una cierta cantidad al dia para la hora de que la fecha de exportación se llegara, sacar un dia antes o unas horas antes el producto verda pa que se fuera la exportación…a mi me pedian 1,800 piezas diarias si yo no sacaba esa cantidad…pero fue por eso que yo estaba demasiado, estaba demasiado alterada de los nervios.”

I practically asked as a favor that the boss fire me because I was so sick with anxiety because there was so much pressure from work. Because they, lets say they gave us a certain quantity, then they make a contract right with the client from what month till what month they will need the product to be turned in. So then we have to make a certain quantity per day for the time of whatever day the date of exportation was set, to get it out one day before or a few hours before, right, so that it would be exported…they had me make 1,800 pieces a day if I didn’t meet that quantity…but it was because of that that I was so, I was so sick with anxiety.

~Carmen

Carmen was the first woman we spoke to. A cousin of Sandra’s, she had left the factory three months prior to meeting us. What was clear from Carmen’s story was that the daily dehumanization of being constantly rushed to produce takes its toll, to the point she asked to be let go. Carmen worked thirteen years in garment factories, making fast fashion clothes for companies like GAP, Polo, Kohl’s and Walmart. While here in the U.S. people relish in the newest $10.00 trends we are ignorant to the 25-hour shifts- blood, sweat and tears imposed to produce – like machines – for the clothing companies’ bottom line.

The regular anxiety workers face carry a deep, psychological and physical trauma akin to war conditions. Most of the women we spoke to described regular nightmares about the factory, one even suffered insomnia for 15 days straight. They all describe an inability to relax even on their single day off, being ON became part of the job.

When we asked the women if they felt like people or machines, nine voices echoed maquila.

When she started the Comité de Mujeres Trabajadoras in Guatemala, Sandra committed to educating women in her community: to make them literate and better understand their labor and human rights. With the help of MADRE, her Comité has provided sex health information and contraceptives to working women. Fearlessly fighting against a broken system, we followed Sandra as she distributed condoms outside a sweatshop one afternoon, as the workers streamed out of the factories. Sandra and the Comité are an active part of the Barcenas community, which they live in.

Recognizing the systematically abusive conditions of the factories, Sandra serves as a resource when women are facing abusive bosses. She has archived each of the many cases women have filed against maquilas, seeking justice for her community. Sandra would love to build a library for the women to read more, to expand her classes and always keep the women empowered. She is a fearless leader.

Our final day in Guatemala we drove past many maquilas. Most looked like prisons, with seven foot walls laced with barbed wire. We filmed the factories, but what remained elusive was the history of how they got there. As Americans, we learn that some countries are underdeveloped “third world” nations, and what is left untold is how many countries were sabotaged by the U.S. for capital interests.

“Yo creo que Estados Unidos es el principal responsable de la guerra en Guatemala. No se permitió que Guatemala lograra una reforma agraria que estaba indicada para mejorar la situación económica de toda la nación. Estados Unidos derrocó al presidente Jacobo Arbenz porque él había iniciado una expropiación de fincas de la United Fruit Company. Pues entonces, tocó intereses norteamericanos que no le convenía a los Estados Unidos. A través de la participación de la CIA se derroca al presidente y se le roba a Guatemala la oportunidad de desarrollarse… Guatemala se convierte en escenario de la guerra fría.”

I believe that the United States is the main one responsible for the war in Guatemala. Guatemala was not permitted to achieve the agrarian reform that was proven would improve the economic situation of the whole nation. The United States overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz because he had initiated the expropriation of the factories of the United Fruit Company. It affected North American interests and was not convenient for the United States. Due to the participation of the CIA the president was overthrown and Guatemala was robbed of its opportunity to develop… Guatemala became a stage for the Cold War.

~Representante del Ministerio de Educación

Through Sandra, we met with a representative from the Ministry of Education in Guatemala, who did not wish to be identified. The representative and her/his family lived through the violent repression of Rios Montt. S/he recognized how different Guatemala could have been without the interference of the CIA’s support of Efrain Rios Montt. Underlying the unjust conditions women endure daily at the maquilas is the truth that Guatemala still writhes from the pains of dictatorships.

Montt was recently tried for Genocide and convicted, though the conviction has been overturned. We hope the pueblo of Guatemala stands firm on seeking justice but we in the states shouldn’t forget our government is also guilty. Montt was backed by the Reagan administration, supplied with close to $10 million in military hardware. The genocide of thousands would not have been possible without it. We will likely never see the C.I.A stand trial for crimes against humanity.

In trying to become “objective,” western culture made “objects” of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing “touch” with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence.

~Gloria Anzaldua

Bangladesh and Guatemala seem worlds apart, but they are not. They are in your closet if you look. We are connected: Our dollars, Their blood, sweat and ashes. In light of the lives lost in Rana Plaza many companies are finally agreeing to support the Bangladesh Safety Pact. Companies will be legally bound to financially support unions to do regular inspections. This is largely because activists on the ground have not rested since Rana Plaza. Still, several U.S. companies like Walmart and GAP have refused.

We must remember Rana and also beyond it. Everything has its source, everything has its history. For those that live in the underbelly of globalization, democracy is a myth and their reality relics of war. We must extend ourselves beyond this notion of “American exceptionalism” and attempt to understand- to imagine- who it is at the nadir of this system, who bears its immense weight everyday.

We must see ourselves as citizens of this world. Bangladesh is a beacon, a possible beginning, beyond its borders reaching Barcenas; but we must do our part. Illygrl is an interventionist collective and we believe consciousness begins with sight, touch, memory. We believe now is the time to push back on these companies who seemingly have no heart. It is time to boycott.

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I recently attended an event at the 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, on “Women, Peace, and Security: Elusive Opportunity for Afro-Colombian Women in Conflict Zones.” It focused on violence against women and security in times of so-called peace and in times of war. The panel featured four women from four different organizations: Black Communities Process: PCN, Global Rights, The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and AFAB (Association of Haitian of Women in Boston).

Carline Desire, the executive direction of AFAB, is dedicated to promoting Haitian women’s rights. She reminded us how instrumental the role of women was in the revolution that led to the independence of Haiti in 1804 yet how brutally they were and are treated. A strong wave of women’s rights protests emerged in the 1990s with thousands of women marching through the streets of Port-au-Prince demanding more political representation, only to be violently rebuffed. Rape has been used as a tool of political suppression and a virtual epidemic has emerged since the earthquake in 2010. Economic insecurity has also led to sexual exploitation, as women are forced to exchange sex for food.

Carline added, it is essential to raise awareness and work on providing education for girls, vocational trainings for women and gender education for young boys and girls in the school system.

This was a point of convergence between Carline and another woman on the panel: Charo Mina Roja, the director of PCN. She emphasized the disconnect that exists between different parts of Colombia. Colombia has the fourth largest economy in the Latin American region, yet there are rural areas that are disproportionately poor compared to very rich regions of the country. Colombia has signed all the international agreements on women and children’s rights yet minorities like Afro-Colombians (which she is a part of) are constantly marginalized, Afro-Colombian women are significantly unequal to non-Afro-Colombian women, and Colombian women in general are constantly assaulted. As Charo put it, “women cannot be women” because of the violence imposed by the paramilitaries who constantly use them as targets to prevent any political action.

A woman in the audience posed a thought-provoking and inevitable question: what can we do to change these circumstances? The program director at the CWGL emphasized a principle that MADRE holds dear: she reaffirmed how important it is to partner with local groups and grassroots organizations to help women meet the needs on the ground that they themselves identify. Charo Mina Roja added that raising awareness is essential and international solidarity is very important. Carline ended by reminding us that NGOs cannot intervene in other countries by imposing their own frameworks: women need to be empowered, need to speak for themselves and should not let others speak on their behalf. We need, in other words, to make big international organization shift their paradigm and focus on giving women the help they say they need, not the help outsiders think they need.

The women at this panel were all incredibly inspiring in their commitment to promoting peace and security within their communities. Not only are they dedicated to women’s human rights but they are also proactively fight to give women a voice. As Carline put it, “We do not need charity but solidarity”. At MADRE, we fight every day with our partners around the globe to promote such solidarity.

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You’ve heard the story of the butterfly in Asia that flapped its wings and caused a tsunami in North America? In our increasingly globalized world, every policy change is a butterfly wing flap that has the potential to create a chain reaction that can result in food shortages, a climate crisis, or a democratic revolution halfway around the planet. In the case of biofuel, the United States’ purported attempts to cut down on oil dependence and even help the environment are a direct cause of malnutrition in places like Guatemala, where MADRE partners with the Women Workers’ Committee in Barcenas and the Indigenous women of Muixil.

A recent New York Times article observed that:

With its corn-based diet and proximity to the United States, Central America has long been vulnerable to economic riptides related to the United States’ corn policy. Now that the United States is using 40 percent of its crop to make biofuel, it is not surprising that tortilla prices have doubled in Guatemala, which imports nearly half of its corn.

The result has been severe and widespread malnutrition, and an uprooted population as families move to find work.

This problem is not new, nor is it limited to Guatemala. “In a globalized world, the expansion of the biofuels industry has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food-based agriculture in poor corners of Asia, Africa and Latin America because the raw material is grown wherever it is cheapest,” says the New York Times. What long-term good might be done by moving away from fossil fuel dependency is countered by the immediate human suffering of the unexamined consequences of new kinds of consumption. Misael Gonzáles of C.U.C., a labor union for Guatemala’s farmers, noted in the same article, ‘These people don’t have enough to eat. They need food. They need land. They can’t eat biofuel, and they don’t drive cars.’”

One analysis the article cited found that corn, which constitutes a large part of the Guatemalan diet and is now prohibitively expensive, cutting some families monetary access by half, would be 17 percent cheaper if the United States did not incentivize biofuel consumption.

As MADRE warned in a 2007 statement:

If we don’t reduce the demand for energy by consuming less, we risk a scenario in which most of the Earth’s arable land will be dedicated to growing ‘fuel crops’ instead of food crops. Growing agro-fuels on a mass scale is already jacking up food prices, depleting soil and water supplies, destroying forests, and violating the rights of Indigenous and local people in areas newly designated as ‘biofuel plantations.’

The Earth itself is, in fact, a finite resource; in order to preserve it, we must address overall energy consumption as well as ways to make the forms of energy we do use more generally renewable.

More than five years ago, MADRE observed that, “We need to consume less, not just differently, and steer clear of solutions that would expand the reach-and all the pitfalls-of industrialized agriculture. Creative and practical solutions for meeting our energy requirements-including some local, sustainable agrofuel programs-are being developed around the world. We can support proposals for developing sustainable renewable energy sources, while recognizing the need to reduce overall consumption .” That need to reduce overall consumption has never been addressed, and the world’s population continues to expand, having recently exceeded 7 billion. The only sustainable solution remains to consume less and in better ways.

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Yesterday’s US presidential election and confirmation of a second term for President Obama marked a series of unprecedented landmarks for human rights and progressive values.

With President Obama’s defeat of Governor Mitt Romney, millions of US voters repudiated an extreme version of an ideology that prioritizes profits over people and that threatened to implement policies that would gut basic social services that so many depend on. Yet, the fight for economic justice will continue under President Obama’s second term. MADRE will remain vocal about the need for policies that uphold basic economic rights. With Obama’s victory secured, now is the time to raise the issues that Obama has been silent about throughout his campaign–including how to meaningfully address climate change, end the drone war in Pakistan, and uphold civil liberties at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, the 113th Congress will include a record number of women senators at 20, or one in five. While this is still far from representing women’s proportion in the population, it is a significant step forward for US women’s political participation. Across the board, voters rejected the many candidates who, throughout the election, diminished and dismissed the severity of rape, the reality and consequences of which women around the world face every day.

Progressive measures took significant steps forward in this election. Three states made history by legalizing same-sex marriage via ballot initiative for the first time. Two states legalized the recreational use of marijuana, dealing a serious blow to the racist and unjust “war on drugs.”

We must commit to our work as never before, to build upon the opportunities this election presents and to hold US policymakers accountable in achieving real and lasting progressive change.

Despite the wins of last night, California did not end its use of the death penalty. The war in Afghanistan is not over, and for millions of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, the impacts of US wars will live on for generations. Civilians in places like Pakistan are not safe from US drone warfare. The so-called “war on terror” continues to be used to justify human rights violations, in the US and abroad. The US still has not ratified CEDAW, the central UN treaty on women’s rights. The struggle for equality and women’s human rights worldwide continues.

Our work to demand human rights worldwide, in partnership with grassroots women, will drive us today, through President Obama’s second term, and into the future.  MADRE is ready to move forward, hand in hand with you and with our many allies in the movement for global justice.

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Many people now want to shop sustainably and ethically. But often, artisans, most of them women, sell their goods very cheaply to intermediaries, who turn around and make an enormous profit on huge mark-ups selling the goods.

That’s why SasaAfrica is so cool. Sasa aims to use new technologies to allow women artisans to sell their products directly to consumers continents away. Almost everyone in the world owns a cell phone, but not everyone has a smart phone. Sasa will allow artisans with “regular” phones to take pictures of their goods, upload them to the site, take orders directly from customers, pack them up and mail them, for which they will receive the vast majority of the price the customer pays – cutting out the many very, very expensive intermediaries that have been used in the past.

We’re all very excited about this could mean for women artisans worldwide. Check out the awesome video below for more information:

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Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People! It was established in 1994 by the UN to promote the achievements and rights of Indigenous Peoples across the world.

Here are just a few of the ways that MADRE works with our Indigenous partners for rights, resources and results worldwide.

Farming for the Future

Indigenous Ixil women living in the Quiché region of the Guatemalan highlands endured 36 years of civil war. The Quiché region was the area most severely affected; nearly half of all recorded human rights violations – including the killing of 200,000 Indigenous People – occurred here.  Ixil women are among the poorest people in Guatemala, which itself has the highest infant mortality rate in Central America and one of the world’s worst rates of malnutrition for children.

MADRE is establishing small chicken farms as a source of food security and income for Ixil women in Guatemala. Implemented in cooperation with Muixil, the project improves families’ diets by providing eggs, generates income for women, and builds participants’ technical and business skills, in turn creating more economic opportunities for young people in Quiché. Based on a community-centered model of micro-enterprise, Farming for the Future not only brings in money; it also creates opportunities for women to learn and then teach other community members about human rights.

Defending Territories and Traditions

On the North Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, Indigenous Peoples face entrenched human rights abuses, including poverty, the denial of education and healthcare services, and the degradation of the ecosystems that are the bedrock of their traditional diet, economy, cultural practices, and very identity as Indigenous Peoples. Having survived and resisted genocide, colonization, forced assimilation, and multiple invasions by the United States, families here now face further danger from governments and corporations seeking profits from the minerals, timber, fish, and other natural resources located on Indigenous territory.

MADRE has co-founded the Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development (known by its Spanish acronym, CADPI) to promote the education, culture, political participation, and community cohesion that people need to effectively demand their rights and develop their economy and government according to their own vision. CADPI offers art and music classes, human rights trainings, and children’s recreational and skills-building programs for local Indigenous and African-descent communities. CADPI’s museum, Casa Museo, displays the work of local artists, organizes international cultural exchanges, and encourages appreciation of Miskito culture among young people in the area.

Voices for Justice

In Peru, more than half of all people – and nearly 80% of Indigenous Peoples and those of African descent – live in poverty. Indigenous women face the additional challenge of gender discrimination. They are underrepresented in local government, exposed to gender-based violence and lack access to health care. Maternal mortality in the region is 185 deaths per 100,000 live births, as compared to an average of nine per 100,000 in industrialized countries. Indigenous women who seek health care often encounter professionals who do not speak their local language and cannot fully explain reproductive health information.

MADRE and our partner CHIRAPAQ (The Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Cultures of Peru) are using radio to share information on health, domestic violence, women’s political participation, food security, climate change and more in these geographically isolated communities. Together, MADRE and CHIRAPAQ are training Indigenous women and men in radio production and broadcasting, providing equipment to a network of radio producers and developing programming to promote women’s human rights and collective Indigenous rights.

Demanding a Political Voice for Women

MADRE partners with the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (better known by its Spanish acronym FIMI) to equip women leaders in Bolivia with the skills they need to succeed in politics. The project brings Indigenous women leaders from around Latin America to conduct trainings with Indigenous Bolivian women who want to run for public office. In order to reach the greatest number of Indigenous women leaders, FIMI and MADRE are working with Bartolina Sisa, the largest Indigenous women’s organization in Bolivia, to train Indigenous women for leadership roles at the local, national and international levels.

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We recently heard the story of an Indigenous Guatemalan woman named Catarina. We’re sharing it with you to show just what your support has meant—to one woman among many.

Before Guatemala’s devastating civil war reached her, Catarina lived peacefully with her family in a community called Nebaj.

But when the terrible violence spread to their village, Catarina and her two daughters fled to the mountains—where they faced disease, sickness, cold and extreme hunger.

“We were chased by soldiers, we always tried to hide. There were constant bombings. My daughter Rosa was good and healthy but one day, a bomb fell near my daughter Rosa and now she is deaf,” said Catarina.

Lacking food, Catarina and her daughters struggled to survive. Often, they were forced to subsist off a meager diet of wilted herbs and plants.

But Catarina no longer has to worry feeding her children.  Now, she has the essential skills and means to provide for her family, thanks to your support of Farming for the Future.

MADRE works with Muixil, a grassroots group of Indigenous Ixil women in Guatemala. Together, MADRE and Muixil created Farming for the Future, establishing small chicken farms as a source of income and nutrition for Ixil women and their families. Catarina was able to start her own chicken farm, selling eggs and using the proceeds to put her daughters in school.

Thanks to the success of Farming for the Future, MADRE and Muixil hope to double the number of participants in the chicken farming project to at least 100 women in the next year.

What’s more, Catarina has had the chance to participate in trainings where she learned about her human rights, including the right to vote.

“Before, I was very poor and scared, I never spoke. But Muixil accepted me, and I participate in trainings and meetings. Now I participate in the community, and I have no fear. I know I have the same rights as men. I received the support from Muixil, and I thank all the women who help us in other countries far away,” said Catarina.

Check out the photos below to see the impact of your support.

All photos copyright Muixil

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Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate mothers and to honor the invaluable work they do—at home, in the workplace, in the public sphere, everywhere. Here at MADRE, our work to advance women’s human rights is shaped by the realities mothers worldwide face daily. We work together with mothers to change these conditions and to demand their rights. We start by listening to their stories.

For the month of May, we’re sharing these inspiring stories with you. Today’s story comes from Fatima, the founder of MADRE’s Sudanese sister organization, Zenab for Women in Development.

Fatima Ahmed’s mother was named Zenab. In the 1930s, Zenab became the first woman in Sudan to be educated in their state of Gadarif. She then went on to found several schools for girls, championing girls’ education throughout the region. A young Fatima witnessed all of this. She knew she would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

But Fatima also witnessed her country’s decades-long civil war and the ravages of climate change on countless communities. She knew that women—and mothers in particular—were the ones responsible for the food and health of their families. Because of this, they are most immediately and severely affected by these threats.

She decided to start an organization to support women. Her vision was broad. She wanted a world where women enjoyed equality and social justice, where they had equal opportunities for education and jobs, where they would learn about their human rights and be active partners in building peace. She decided to name her organization Zenab.

Fatima was inspired by her mother, a woman whose compassion for others, whose drive to fight for women’s rights and whose commitment to fostering community are at the core of Fatima’s work today.

Today, MADRE supports Zenab through our collaborative project Women Farmers Unite, which provides fundamental support to women farmers and their families. We provide seeds, tools and resources that enable women farmers to improve the health and well being of their communities. In addition to material support, we also provide educational support through trainings in health, human rights and political participation to ensure long-term socioeconomic progress for these women. Women Farmers Unite not only brings strong women together, but it economically empowers them to improve their situations and communities.

You can help support Zenab for Women in Development by sending ten pounds of seeds to feed two families in Sudan. You can also provide farm tools for five Sudanese women. These gifts mean so much—they mean food and health for our sisters and their families.

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This past weekend, President Obama hid out from protesters at Camp David. He was hosting the leaders of the world’s eight wealthiest economies, known as the G8. As they readied to meet, on Friday, Obama put forward his New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

This occasion gave Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, the chance to make an astonishing statement:

“We are never going to end hunger in Africa without private investment. There are things that only companies can do, like building silos for storage and developing seeds and fertilizers.”

That’s news to millions of women farmers in Africa. Their harvests feed their families and generate income that sustains local economies. For generations, they have been doing just those things: storing their harvests, protecting and developing seeds, using natural fertilizers.

Smallholder women farmers save and exchange seeds that help keep local crops viable. They demonstrate how to adapt to climate change by adjusting planting cycles, experimenting with new drought-resistant crops and more. They produce crucial food supplies using the small-scale, organic methods that are increasingly recognized as vital to the health of the planet—and everyone who lives on it.

There are differences, of course. Unlike big companies, small-scale women farmers do not grab millions of acres of land for monoculture plantations that destroy local biodiversity. They do not develop the terminator seeds that hold farmers hostage to the seed patent rights of corporations. They are not the inventors of chemical fertilizers that worsen climate change.

Those honors belong to the very companies that President Obama is inviting to oversee Africa’s food security. We know that their primary goal is not anybody’s food security but their own bottom line. That’s why it’s governments, and not corporations like Monsanto, that should bear responsibility for funding and developing agriculture. It is simply not true that only companies can build silos and develop seeds and fertilizers.

President Obama anticipated these criticisms when he addressed “whether this New Alliance is just a way for governments to shift the burden onto somebody else.” He was quick to assure that, even in hard economic times, his administration would continue to make investments in development aid. Let’s make sure that those investments work to prioritize the right to food over corporate profits.

Because here’s the truth: we’re never going to end hunger in Africa without upholding the rights of smallholder women farmers who feed the continent and care for its ecosystems.

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