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.

blog maddy miller health

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.


Quick Link Roundup — US Expands Bombing into Syria

This week, the US military expanded its bombing campaign to Syria. Advocates for peace and human rights have spoken out to confront this escalation and to call for rights-based solutions that do not deepen violence. Below are a few links with more information about this crisis.

Phyllis Bennis reminds us in Foreign Policy in Focus that the US bombing in Syria is in violation of international law.

And Jon Queally at Common Dreams highlights how, once again, civilians in Syria are paying the price for escalated bombing.

Even the New York Times has recognized this bombing campaign as a “wrong turn.”

Take Action: CODEPINK released this action alert calling on Obama to cease bombing Syria and Iraq.

From the March and Beyond: The Enduring Pursuit for Climate Justice

Two days ago, I was one of 400,000 people in New York City–and one of many more worldwide–who took to the streets demanding climate justice.

[l to r] MADRE's staff: Program Coordinator, Sahita Pierre-Antoine; Executive Director, Yifat Susskind and Communications Director, Diana Duarte.
[l to r] MADRE’s staff: Program Coordinator, Sahita Pierre-Antoine; Executive Director, Yifat Susskind and Communications Director, Diana Duarte.
As we chanted and marched, ​big questions h​ung in the air​.

Can we rally around a definition of climate justice based on doing away with business as usual, including the economic models that created this crisis and the discrimination that puts some of us in greater danger from ​the impacts of climate change? Do we all understand that there can be no climate justice without gender justice?

M​any more vital questions​ will be​ ​asked in the days to come. As we mold the answers, I will continue to be inspired by the people I marched with on Sunday.

I saw an elderly man​ ​walking with two canes​. His son march​ed alongside him, ​carrying a folding chair. ​Each time the march pause​d​, the son would open the chair so that his father could sit and rest for a few moments. Over and over again, he stood up and kept marching.

I saw a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, shouting into her cupped hands, “The people united will never be defeated!”

I saw thousands of people lined along the sidewalks, carrying signs with words like “There is no planet B” and “Be kind to your mother” over a drawing of Earth.

All of us, including MADRE’s grassroots partners from all over the world, are determined to confront climate change and protect our communities. Today, world leaders are busy making speeches at the big UN summit on climate change. By turning out in force, we’ve put them on notice that we are watching.

Peace and Development: A Challenge for Humanity and for World Leaders

In commemoration of this year’s International Day of Peace, our partner Otilia Lux de Coti, Executive Director of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (IIWF-FIMI), delivered a statement on the inextricable link between the rights of Indigenous Peoples, peace and sustainable development. 

Otilia Lux de Coti presenting at the International Day of Peace Symposium.
Otilia Lux de Coti presenting at the International Day of Peace Symposium.

Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the world are united by ancient history and spirituality, cultures and ways of life, knowledge and wisdom. We are daughters and sons of Mother Earth and we are people with rights, with a vision of the world that is different from that of the cultures that have subordinated us. History, as a mother and as teacher, has taught generations of how all republics were formed in Latin America.

These republics were established as a State born of elites, rooted in racist, patriarchal, discriminatory, exclusionary and feudal pillars, accompanied by an ideological militarism that created violence, which continues in today’s societies. They are mono-cultural, corporate states founded on the exploitation and mutilation of Indigenous Peoples.

The Guatemalan Maya and Mesoamerican People have started a new B’aqtun, at the end and the beginning of time since the conception and thought of the Mayas. This new period means changes or transformations of human behavior towards a decent life and with high respect for Mother Earth. But the changes will not be possible if the conditions to create new states and new economic models that can sustain transformations that societies require do not exist.

The new states must break with these ignominious paradigms of exclusion and discrimination, inequality and poverty, which are an affront to the high values ​​of democracy, freedom, peace, order, justice, law, equity, development and progress.

From the perspective of women and Indigenous Peoples, to implement governance and peaceful democratic coexistence, you must have deep awareness and commitment to solve the big problems that the societies of our countries face.  This can only be possible with a vision of a plural state and rule of law on the part of governments, political parties and leaders, and societies. Additionally, governance and peaceful democratic coexistence are possible if they are based on cooperative processes and workable solutions.

When Indigenous People, including women and youth, address peace and development, we do it from our own perspective, approaching it from the reinvention of a new economic model, based on respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. We also analyze it from the perspective of a good life for all mankind. Moreover, our vision includes the respect for Mother Earth and natural resources or natural methods, which are the substantive axles of life of the people.

If these principles are the foundation of a good and harmonious life among human beings, nature, and the cosmos, this is enough to understand compliance with the norms of coexistence, and to understand and respect each other as human beings, respect Mother Earth and manifest respect for a right to life.

What do we mean, then, by harmonization of peace and development? Our response is guided toward the elimination of injustice, economic and political impunity, and the eradication of poverty and violence.  It is ensuring food sovereignty and security.  It is also ensuring life, the rule of law and governance with new models of human development and identity. It also focuses on inclusive, high-quality and long-lasting education models.

To achieve a viable link between peace and development, we need to face major challenges, prioritizing the following because they ensure justice, peace and development:

  • Respect for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including among the priorities the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. The collective rights to land, territory and natural resources are clear examples of complementarity between individual and collective rights. As is well known, Indigenous Peoples are an intrinsic part of the land, where its history and their identity as people are inscribed. It is the basis of life and is why the right to land, territories and natural resources are key demands of the international movement of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous women. 
  • Open and transparent dialogue among civil society, Indigenous Peoples and Governments with the private sector. The rule of law for all. 
  • Design, develop and implement public policies oriented in comprehensive security, intercultural health, inclusive quality education, basic shelter and capacity building. 
  • Strengthen justice, democracy and the rule of law.  Promote Human Rights, Women’s Rights, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The new development model should be based on the values ​​of human relations in their healthiest forms: trust, cooperation, appreciation, solidarity and willingness to share. This will allow the promotion, growth and development of rural economies and of Indigenous Peoples including women and youth.

  • Ancestral knowledge of women and Indigenous Peoples should be a basis for sustainable development and climate change mitigation.
  • Multiculturalism and gender as critical approaches to implementing public policy and of the State. 

Coexistence, harmony and respect for all and a full understanding of different cultures within the framework of respect for human rights is the fundamental and universal principle that should prevail to achieve true peace and development for all people on the planet.

The UN must direct real commitments to address these challenges to maintain peace in the world.

Leer la declaración en español, aquí.

#AskYanar: An Iraqi Women’s Rights Activist Answers Your Questions

Thank you for participating in our #AskYanar campaign!

Our partner Yanar Mohammed, President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), appreciates all of your questions on Iraq’s current crisis and how OWFI is working to protect families fleeing the surging violence. Keep reading to see her answers:


What actions are people in Iraq—especially women, LGBT folks and young people—taking to make change?

In spite of all disasters which fell upon us in the new millennium, there was one advantage which cannot be undone. The internet and media, including satellite television, has opened Iraq up to the world. Women, youth and LGBT have developed a new awareness, becoming connected to international movements against oppressive and patriarchal tendencies.

In addition, many Iraqis who had left the country during the long-lasting wars came back with a vision of how to connect with an international movement of human rights. Meanwhile, many of the older political activists who lived under decades of dictatorship began to work under different circumstances, where change is possible. In 2003, many of us set up our civil society organizations, where our understanding and expectations of a good future was passed on to a younger generation of women, men and LGBT who had aspirations to exercise their free will. Our hope was betrayed by the brutality of occupation, especially once the US made common cause with reactionary religious fundamentalists bent on destroying women’s rights.

In spite of the political mess of the ruling class, many organizations made use of the time, in order to train groups of activists.

Although OWFI has trained many young activists, we notice that the most driven and determined ones are those who had found refuge in our shelters and benefited from our programs: the woman who had a knife at her neck, only a few years ago, or the LGBT person who was denied all possibility of dignity or safety. As OWFI activists, they are now dedicating their life to change the reality around them to make it more tolerant for the next generation.

At our shelters and programs, older women activists accept the responsibility to mentor, care for the wellbeing, and provide human rights training to our residents, thus creating a new generation of human rights activists.

This team of activists takes this strong human rights message out to the society, through our radio station Al Mousawat 103.8 FM in Baghdad.  They broadcast messages that challenge the legislators and misogynists in ways which nobody else dares to do.

With the invasion of ISIS, and the division of Iraq into two parts, the central government took the opportunity to order the shut-down of many opposition media outlets, which had challenged their authority and oppression. Our radio was one of those who were ordered to shut down, thus leaving the airwaves with no challenging voice calling for liberation. We were told that our frequency might be given to a newly rising militia which wants to have its own media platform. This militia has been responsible for mass killings of women and LGBT people.

How do you console a heart and body having been victimized via war, patriarchy, rape, etc.? Thoughts? Quotes? Personal experiences?

We would speak warmly to a survivor of violence. But our main strategy to help their healing is to introduce them to fellow survivors who have overcome their distress. These fellow survivors are living a new life, with new goals to become strong enough to protect others from violence. They have experienced transformation into social and political activists. When a survivor of violence can see her options in life and can feel the success that others have achieved, that is their first step towards hope and empowerment.

Ours is a space of believing in oneself, willpower and determination. After 11 years, we have many role models at our women’s centers who are walking examples of the transformation from victim to fierce, uncompromising activist. They are the best experts to nurture the new survivors, as they have experienced the same pains.

Is there any protection for women in Mosul from the ISIS?

Recently, OWFI posted a message on our social media networks addressing the grievances of the women in Mosul, Telafar, Sinjar, and other western cities. We included our telephone numbers for those who are distressed and in need of a way out.

In the community of men who support OWFI, we’ve also managed to find inter-city drivers who make daily trips to Mosul and volunteer to bring women to our safe-houses in Baghdad and Kerbala.

One of the OWFI branches, in Hawija is in a community under ISIS control. This branch assists mothers with medical and physiotherapy services for their disabled children of this town. More than 600 children under 11 years old have physical disabilities resulting from environmental contamination by the US military. OWFI received donations for the physiotherapy equipment from MADRE.

After the invasion of ISIS in June, the militants came to our offices asking our representative in a hostile manner about the source of her financing. When they doubted her story and became angry, the residents interfered begging them to keep the center open, as their children’s well-being depends on it. The final say came from the cleric of the neighborhood, whose two children’s mobility were improving because of our services.

Today, the OWFI-MADRE health care center is open and serving the children of Hawija. Hawija has also absorbed many waves of refugees from the western cities of Tikrit and Mosul, and many were sheltered in our offices for weeks, until we re-located them to the houses of our membership. We distributed food baskets and clothes to 80 families in Hawija in the last two months.

Additional Resources: 

Help Our Sisters Who Need Us Most

Understanding ISIS: A Women’s Rights Perspective

Aid and Shelter for Women Fleeing ISIS