This piece was published in the May issue of MotherVerse Magazine.
Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1983, a partnership was forged between a group of Nicaraguan women and a group of women in the United States. At the time, the US-backed Contra army was waging a campaign of killings, rape and abductions, with devastating consequences for women and their families. The organization that emerged from this partnership took its inspiration–and its name–from the mothers whose children had been killed by the Contras. MADRE (mother in Spanish) became an international women's human rights organization rooted in connections between women worldwide and in the desire of mothers to seek social justice for all families.
On the celebration of Mother's Day in the US, we take the opportunity to honor mothers around the globe who are striving to create positive social change. We remember that, in 1870, US activist Julia Ward Howe released her Mother's Day Proclamation, in which she called for mothers to come together in the name of peace and justice. The women profiled below–all leaders in the communities of MADRE's sister organizations–share their stories with mothers in the US and remind us of this call for unity.
Fatima Ahmed: Planting Seeds and Putting Down Roots (Sudan)
Ask Fatima Ahmed about the challenges of balancing work with raising her young sons, and she is frank. "I never rest. It takes a lot of energy." For years, she has served as the director for Zenab for Women in Development, a community-based women's organization in Sudan. In a country roiled for decades by civil war in the south and more recently by bloodshed in Darfur, Zenab has partnered with MADRE to provide emergency aid to displaced women and families and to support women in refugee camps, who are routinely targeted for sexual violence.
Fatima works with women farmers, many of whom bring their babies into the fields with them everyday. The women have organized a union, part of an effort to recognize the key role played by women in agriculture and the need for more resources, like seeds and farm tools, to sustain their work and their communities. Occasionally, Fatima's work requires her to leave her own children for weeks on end, as she travels to rural communities throughout Sudan. The separation can be difficult, but she explains, "I know how much I love my children, and I know that I want everything for them. That is why I feel so much for other mothers who want the same but cannot provide it. When my kids ask me why I'm leaving, I tell them that I'm going to help other mothers and kids who cannot afford the things they have."
She attributes her drive and her commitment in large part to her own mother, who was also a community leader. "Since I was a child, " says Fatima, "I saw my mother's compassion for the people around her. Women in the community would come to her for help, and no matter what, she would always welcome them and help them with their problems." Zenab, the organization that Fatima founded, is named for her mother, and the values and goals it embodies are clearly inspired by her legacy.
"I wish peace for my children, says Fatima, "because without peace, how can we make any progress? We need progress in health, in education, in all areas. For this, we need peace in local communities, at a national level and at an international level. That is the only way."
On Mother's Day, Fatima's thoughts turn to mothers in the US. "I want to tell mothers in the US to raise their kids to look to other worlds beyond their own. They must teach their children that there are other kids just like them and that we are all connected."
Yanar Mohammed: Motherhood as a Source of Strength (Iraq)
"Becoming a mother, " says Yanar Mohammed, "changes you from an individual into someone who is inextricably connected to–and responsible for–other people's lives." In her own life, Yanar has built on that connection through founding the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). Yanar has dedicated herself to meeting the needs of Iraqi women and families suffering as a result of the US invasion and the rising religious extremism it has unleashed. Together with MADRE, OWFI has founded a network of women's shelters in Iraq. In addition, OWFI's unique Freedom Space project brings together young poets and artists of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds to create art and express their hopes for a peaceful Iraq where human rights are cherished.
In the context of US occupation and civil war, Yanar's work has proven dangerous. But she is driven to fight for peace and human rights, in part because she is a mother. "When you are responsible for a vulnerable life, it changes your own. You realize that millions of people can become vulnerable as a result of some situation that they didn't create–a war, a famine, an occupation. Being a mother is about making the connection between the life you have brought into the world and all life. It's about stepping up to meet the needs of those who are vulnerable."
"Early motherhood, especially, can be destabilizing in its many practical challenges, like sleeplessness and the disappearance of any 'free time.' But learning to meet those challenges can also be empowering. It makes you more durable, and ultimately, more willing to take on the work of nurturing. Developing that capability prepares you for the even bigger mission of creating social change. You see that any big, positive change needs to be birthed, nurtured and committed to with constancy. I see this in the women of Iraq. They are more prepared for the challenge of living through this difficult time than their men, more resilient because of the experience of being mothers."
As she looks towards the future, her goals–for her own son and for her country–are far-ranging. "What I want is freedom and equality. As a mother, I feel therefore that I have to constantly protect my child from a world where these cherished things are missing."
"My wish for mothers in the US and around the world is that they never carry this burden of having to protect their children from a ruthless world. Children should grow in a world where they are nurtured, protected and safe. They should not be punished for being born in the wrong place. I hope that mothers in the US will think of the children of Iraq this Mother's Day, because these are their children, too. I believe it's the birthright of every child to be cared for by every adult."
Robitalia Moreno D�az & Mar�a del Rosario Moreno D�az: Building a Future in the Face of War (Colombia)
War has changed the face of Villavicencio, a city a few hours by car outside of Colombia's capital of Bogot�. Displaced by armed conflict and seeking the relative safety of the city, families routinely arrive by the hundreds. Over the past four years, they have built houses along the edges of the city and filled empty lots, establishing a community known as Ciudad Porfia. Women are often forced to start their lives over and struggle to find new homes and new means of survival for their families. But even in these challenging and dangerous circumstances, mothers are determined to build a future for themselves and for their children.
LIMPAL, a MADRE sister organization in Colombia, has worked with displaced women and families for over ten years. In Ciudad Porfia, LIMPAL has been helping women to organize, to participate in human rights trainings and to create their own community development projects. All the while, the leadership of mothers has been the major motivating force. Two sisters, Robitalia Moreno D�az (known as Robi) and Mar�a del Rosario Moreno D�az (known as Rosa), exemplify this drive.
When the war and financial hardship forced Rosa and her family to flee their home, she was lucky to have the aid of her older sister Robi, who helped her to settle in Ciudad Porfia. Together, Robi and Rosa have become leaders within the women's group, motivated like so many mothers by their desire to lay a foundation for their children's success.
"I want what every mother wants for her children, " says Robi. "Their well-being. I want conditions to get better." Robi, a long-time community activist, pointed to reasons for hope she could see around her. "Throughout the years, everything has changed. The community has brought progress to Ciudad Porfia. Now we have electricity, and we pressured the government to build a footbridge across the river to improve transportation. But there is still more that needs to happen." She worries about the continuing violence and the limited access to health care.
Robi's children have absorbed their mother's determination to create positive change. Mayra, her 17-year-old daughter, explains her goals for the future, saying, "What I have always wanted is to study nursing or medicine. I would like to work on anything that involves helping this community."
At a meeting of the women's group in Ciudad Porfia, the scope of their plans and projects for the future is inspiring. Rosa explains, "All of the women agree that it's important to establish projects that will help the children's development. For example, we may found a community feeding center, a day care or a job training project for women. Hopefully, we can start implementing our ideas soon."
"Women here are fighters, and we all know that we will improve our conditions and make progress. We work hard for our children so that they can have better opportunities. As mothers, we are not fighting only for ourselves but for our children."
Robi adds, "I always remember that life is really short and that we should take advantage of the moments we have with our children. We have to value and educate our kids, and we have to build trust with them. That is all we can give them–the guidelines to start building a solid future."