Jun 29, 2021

Peace Fellows Resume Work Overseas, With Caution

Jeremiah with former migrants in Senegal
Jeremiah with former migrants in Senegal

This report is being sent to 212 friends of The Advocacy Project who have supported out fellowship program, Fellows for Peace, through GlobalGiving. With your help, we have raised $35,166.26 for the program and deployed 316 graduate students to more than 40 countries since 2003. Thank you!

June is normally our favorite month of the year, because this is when we recruit Peace Fellows for the summer. We particularly look forward to the week of training in Washington, because it brings everyone together in one place before they head out and builds team spirit.

COVID-19 put a stop to that in 2020. This year we have taken some baby steps back to normality and sent three graduate students out to Africa (sadly, without the training), but even this has been anything but smooth sailing. Thankfully it has been a different story here in the US where ten talented Fellows are working remotely from home and doing a fine job.

This report will review both parts of our fellowship program, in the field and in the US. We hope to show that it remains as creative as ever, in spite of – or maybe because of – the pandemic.

Taking on Migration, Ebola, and Sexual Slavery in Africa

The three brave souls who took on assignments in Africa are Matthew, Anna and Jeremiah. All three are studying for a Masters degree at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Matthew (photo), a Liberian national, returned to his home country to help survivors of Ebola recall their experience of the epidemic through embroidery. As we explain later in this report, story-telling through stitching offers a great way to launch a start-up with a new partner and is enormously popular with women. Matthew also hopes to learn some lessons from Ebola about the challenges that will face survivors of COVID-19.

Anna went to Gulu, in northern Uganda, to support a long-standing partner, the Gulu Disabled Persons Union which has – with our help – launched start-ups to make soap and masks. Anna also established a new partnership with Women in Action for Women, an association for Ugandan women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the 1990s and have still not recovered. They too have decided to start with story-telling through embroidery.

Our third Fellow from the Fletcher School, Jeremiah (photo) is in Senegal working with former migrants who risked their lives to escape to Europe but have been forced to return home. They will also describe their ordeal through embroidery. We hope to learn what prompted them to leave, what they faced on the journey, and whether they plan to try again. Jeremiah’s research may also throw some light on other migration hot-spots like the southern border of the US. His latest blog, entitled Barcelona or Death, suggests that it will not be reassuring.

These three subjects – Ebola, sexual slavery and migration - have been selected by the local partners. We have embraced them with enthusiasm because of their importance and because they will provide our three Fellows with an opportunity for strong research.

In the same spirit, Savannah, an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, is researching the link between climate change and conflict for Children Peace Initiative Kenya (CPIK). Savannah is also advising us on how to nominate CPIK for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tripped Up by COVID-19

This resumption of foreign travel, though modest, has been greatly complicated by the pandemic. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, because nothing about COVID-19 has been predictable. But we never expected to see such a sudden spike in infections in Africa, where Fellows are working this summer.

This has caused all manner of problems - some serious, others less so. Anna almost missed her flight to Uganda because KLM demanded a COVID test and result within 24 hours of her departure. In spite of being fully vaccinated, Anna then faced the ethical question of whether she might unwittingly be endangering her hosts. She left the decision to her hosts, who were desperate for renewed contact with the outside world. But this did not save Anna from being accused of having a “white savior” complex, after she discussed her dilemma in a blog.

Anna then faced a much more serious challenge. Infection rates began to soar in Uganda within days of her arrival, and the government imposed a lockdown for 42 days. One of Anna’s Ugandan team members, who heads the soap-making project, came down with the virus.

With less than 1% of Ugandans fully vaccinated, this was not the time for Anna to take chances. It also became clear that she would be denied the opportunity to work alongside partners and produce the interviews, photos and profiles that make our fellowships doubly rewarding. Anna managed to celebrate her birthday with Emma and Victoria, two inspiring partners in Uganda, (photo) before heading home. This was a huge disappointment.

Anna's return has forced us to regroup and re-assign projects. After being been repeatedly caught off-guard by COVID-19 we will also keep a close eye on the pandemic in Vietnam, Nepal, Mali, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe where we support partners. All seven countries are ill-equipped to respond to the new wave. None of them manufactures vaccines, and their health systems are fragile.

Marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable: when we asked girls in poor neighborhoods of Harare to describe their experience of COVID last summer, their stories were all about police brutality.

There is a limit to what The Advocacy Project can do, but we are collecting first-hand information from partners and hope to make a noise about the scandalously slow rate at which vaccines are reaching the Global South. This is a massive moral failure by the North.

Expanding Support for Start-ups

The pandemic may have led to reduced opportunities for graduate students, but it has also opened up exciting new possibilities for our Fellows here in the US and even enabled us to invest in more projects abroad.

First, a little about the Fellows. We have received around 35 applications this year and accepted 19 so far. The Fellows are, as always, wonderfully diverse. Three are first generation Americans, whose families came from Vietnam, the Ukraine and Cape Verde. Seven were born abroad, in Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, Turkey and India. Our youngest Fellow, Nina, 16, is still at High School. The team is managed by Abby (just graduated from the University of Illinois) and Delaney (University of California San Diego). Both joined AP as Fellows and got hooked.

This large and talented team represents a wonderful resource for our partners, and of course with the pandemic surging the need is greater than ever. These seem like two good arguments for doing more not less, and we are currently supporting 18 start-ups in 10 countries. So far this year, we have transferred around $31,000 to partners, of which $16,000 came from donors and the rest from our own core funds. This is far more than last year.

Here’s how it works. Once our team approves a request, we will help the partner to develop a plan and budget for 3-6 months and invest between $500 and $1,000. A Peace Fellow will be assigned to the project and asked to meet with the partner on Zoom or WhatsApp every week to review progress. If the start-up meets its goals, we may help the partner to develop a long-term plan and seek larger funding, as we did with Children Peace Initiative in Kenya and Women Advocacy Project in Zimbabwe.

Only two of our grants this year have been emergency hand-outs. The rest are funding some of the most innovative start-ups we have ever helped to launch. They include the first-ever composting project by women in the informal settlement of Kibera, Nairobi; a program to conduct COVID-19 testing and improve access to vaccines in 60 villages in Nepal; the purchase of a fishing boat in Bangladesh that will improve the nutrition of River Gypsies; and training for the parents of children with albinism in Kenya.

Several of the new start-ups will use embroidery to tell stories which – as we noted above – is empowering for survivors of trauma and can make a powerful statement. The first squares to reach us this summer have been made by the women in Uganda who survived sexual slavery. Our Peace Fellow Anna almost broke into tears when she saw them.

Parallel to this, Fellows have also helped to take our program of advocacy quilting in exciting new directions. Over 200 artists from Zimbabwe, Nepal, the US, and Kenya have told their story of COVID-19 through stitching. We recently displayed their art at the first-ever digital exhibition of quilts.

These activities and projects would have been a lot more difficult without the help of our Peace Fellows in the US.

Encouraging  Creativity

As well as assigning them projects, we also give Fellows tasks that match their skills and interests.

For example, Nina, 16, is working with friends from her High School in Georgia to make Clean Girl soap like the girls in Zimbabwe: any profits will help the Zimbabwe girls complete school. Beliz (photo) is using Tik Tok, while also supporting the composting project in Nairobi. Grace, 18, was featured on PBS for making face-masks during the pandemic in the US (photo); she is now advising Mama Cave, a tailor with limited mobility in Uganda who also makes her own face-masks. Miriam, in New Haven, is indulging her passion for Canva by designing a catalogue of advocacy quilts. We are proud that AP can encourage such creativity.

But working remotely in such a large team with partners all over the world has also strengthened AP as an organization, by making us all more disciplined about communications and respectful of other team members. The first prize should probably go to Delaney in California, who rises at 6.00 am on most mornings to attend meetings with partners from Asia and Africa. Some of us are on Zoom for more than five hours a day, five days a week.

Looking back, it’s hard to think of a summer when so much good work was done by our team in the US. This cannot substitute for personal contact in the field, but it does mean that when international travel fully resumes – as it will – we will be well placed to provide great back-up.

Your support helps to make it all possible. Thank you again.

We'll be back in touch early in the Fall. In the meantime, please stay safe and enjoy the summer!

The AP team

Turkish team: Beliz and Saliha take some time off
Turkish team: Beliz and Saliha take some time off
Anna celebrates her birthday in Uganda
Anna celebrates her birthday in Uganda
Matthew meets with Ebola survivors in Liberia
Matthew meets with Ebola survivors in Liberia
Grace, 18, was profiled on PBS for her maskmaking
Grace, 18, was profiled on PBS for her maskmaking
Anna in Uganda with hosts Victoria and Emma
Anna in Uganda with hosts Victoria and Emma
May 7, 2021

Soap Empowers Girls in the US and Zimbabwe

Trish, Constance and the Epworth team sell soap
Trish, Constance and the Epworth team sell soap

This report is being sent to 67 friends who have donated $5,698 to our partner Women Advocacy Project (WAP) in Zimbabwe since 2019. Thank you!

Your donations have helped 80 girls to make and sell soap, and in so doing resist the pressure to marry early. This remains WAP's primary goal. But the pandemic has also reshaped WAP’s work and taken it in directions that we never expected. This report explains how it happened and where it could lead.

2019 - Clean Girl soap makes an entry

WAP’s program rests on a slippery foundation of thick, gooey liquid soap which comes in green plastic bottles and carries the bold name (chosen by the girls) of Clean Girl.

The project started in 2019 when McLane, a graduate student at the Fletcher School (Tufts), volunteered at WAP as a Peace Fellow. McLane accompanied Constance, WAP’s dynamic founder, to underserved neighborhoods of Harare and met with girls who had sacrificed their education – and sometimes even their health – to marry young. One third of all girls in Zimbabwe marry before the legal age of 18.

The biggest problem was poverty, which forced parents to seek out a wealthy husband for their daughters. Constance and McLane concluded that the best way to halt this was to empower girls and put some money in their pockets.

They turned to soap for help. WAP had already established clubs for girls in several poor neighborhoods, headed by girl “ambassadors.” Constance started soap training for two of the clubs in Chitungwiza and Epworth that were led by dynamic ambassadors, Evelyn and Trish.

During the second half of 2019, WAP sold around 6,000 liters of soap for $4,365. Half went to the girls and the rest was invested in WAP's soap program. Almost as important as the money was the girls' sense of accomplishment. Nothing is quite so empowering as selling your own products!

2020-2021 – The years of pandemic

Soap production came to a grinding halt in March 2021 when the pandemic struck. But WAP had stockpiled soap and materials and Dickson (WAP’s program manager) continued producing soap at home. Constance made over 1,000 facemasks.

WAP’s international friends, including AP and Rockflower, offered emergency funding which Constance and Dickson used to assemble care packages with masks, cooking oil and soap. These were distributed to health centers and poor families by the girls, along with a strong message about hand-washing and social distancing.

This impressive response to the pandemic persuaded two major donors, Action for World Solidarity in Berlin and the US-based Together Women Rise, to fund WAP to the end of 2022. WAP’s budget this year stands at $44,000 and this has enabled WAP to train 40 more girls in two new neighborhoods, Mbare and Waterfalls. It has also strengthened WAP’s planning, monitoring, money management, website, and photography. One result: a delightful video film that captures the high spirits of the young soap-makers (attached).

Soap-making got off to a slow start this year because of the continuing lockdown, and the need to train the new girls. But they learned quickly and were producing high quality soap within 2 weeks. As of May 1, WAP has sold 5,022 bottles and is confident of meeting their target of 16,000 bottles by year’s end.

All of the elements of a strong business are in place: a quality product; a well-known brand; a motivated team; and strong demand from consumers and retail outlets. This comes across in the video, where Mr Example, the owner of the Example Trading store in Epworth, tells the WAP team that their soap smells “almost like sunlight.” WAP has also received a government certification to use a bar-code and sell in supermarkets.

Meanwhile, the main goal is being met. If they can indeed sell 16,000 bottles the girls will share $8,000 this year and that would make a difference. “It has really helped,” says Miriam, one of the soap-makers from Chitungwiza. “We are now managing our own pocket money, buying our needs like sanitation and even helping our parents to pay school fees.” None of the girls has married since the program began.

Telling the story of COVID – and building friendships in the US

WAP’s program is proving its worth in other ways, by helping girls in the US and Zimbabwe to cope with the pandemic.

In the summer of 2020 we offered the WAP girls a creative outlet for their frustration. Several had enjoyed telling the story of child marriage through an advocacy quilt in 2019, so we suggested that they turn their skills to stitching the story of COVID. They responded with 12 powerful squares. One of the strongest designs, from Vimbai, described how domestic violence has increased during the lockdown. (Photo)

After the squares reached us, we sent them to Colleen, a skilled quilter in Wisconsin, to be assembled into an advocacy quilt. Colleen’s quilt was recently exhibited in public for the first time in Wilmington, North Carolina, where it was much admired.

Meanwhile, others have followed the example set by Vimbai and the other WAP artists. They include nine students at the Wakefield High School in Virginia who had originally hoped to make their own Clean Girl soap and send the proceeds to WAP in Zimbabwe. When this fell through in March 2020, they decided that they too would tell their COVID stories through embroidery.

Headed by two coordinators, Layla and Stephanie, the Wakefield team have made nine beautifully crafted squares about their COVID fears and explained their designs in podcasts. Early in 2021, their squares were assembled into a quilt by Beth, a well-known quilter, and exhibited alongside the WAP quilt in Wilmington on April 22. Four of the young artists attended. (Photo)

Layla and Stephanie tell us that this whole experience has been profoundly empowering. It has also brought them closer to the WAP girls in Zimbabwe. The two groups meet by Zoom every Saturday morning, and this has led to some hilarious encounters. (Photo) Zimbabweans have never seen snow, and the WAP girls watched with amazement as the Arlington team showed video footage of a recent snowstorm in Washington. Layla and her friends were equally surprised to see video of Constance and the girls singing and dancing before meals.

The two teams plan to bring their mothers into the next Zoom call, rounding off a remarkable crosscultural conversation.

Reaching out to American women

WAP's grant from Together Women Rise stipulated that WAP would meet with TWR chapters in the US throughout March. The time difference made it impossible for Constance to meet in person, so AP took on the task. We were joined by Stephanie, Layla and Kate from the Arlington group, who are close to the Zimbabwe girls in age and have done so much to expand WAP’s horizons internationally.

These stimulating discussions have produced plenty of good ideas. For example, several TWR groups expressed concern at the amount of plastic that is used to make Clean Girl soap in Zimbabwe. We put this to Constance, who agreed that customers should get the chance to refill their bottles. That would be a win-win for consumers, for WAP and for the environment – and another example of how this project is building fruitful partnerships between women and girls.

Looking ahead

While these unexpected outcomes are exciting, it is important to remember that goal #1 is to put money in the pockets of girls in Zimbabwe. This is happening, and there is every reason to expect that it will continue through 2022.

The question is what happens after 2022, when current funding comes to an end. WAP will have to find new money from increased sales or new donors, and that could be difficult if the pandemic persists and the economy remains stagnant. But Constance and her team have shown great resourcefulness during this difficult period so far. If anyone can adapt to new challenges, they can.

Here in the US, a new Peace Fellow will join AP next month to help coordinate our work with WAP. We will continue to promote WAP, look for new funds, and explore new ways to encourage the girls.

We have every reason to be optimistic. If this project has taught us anything, it is that new opportunities lie around every corner!

Thank you for making it possible!

The AP team

Making soap in Epworth during the pandemic
Making soap in Epworth during the pandemic
Constance sells Clean Girl soap in Chitungwiza
Constance sells Clean Girl soap in Chitungwiza
Sketching out a COVID story for the quilt
Sketching out a COVID story for the quilt
Vimbai describes a spike in domestic violence
Vimbai describes a spike in domestic violence
Stephanie and friends with their COVID quilt
Stephanie and friends with their COVID quilt
Saturday Zooms unite girls in US and Zimbabwe
Saturday Zooms unite girls in US and Zimbabwe

Links:

Dec 7, 2020

Embroidery Offers a New Way to Confront COVID-19

COVID-19, as seen by conflict survivors in Nepal
COVID-19, as seen by conflict survivors in Nepal

This report is sent to 354 friends who have donated to our appeals on GlobalGiving for relatives of the disappeared in Nepal. First among you are 15 generous individuals who gave $1,690 towards our Tiger bag project this past summer. Your combined donations have allowed us to send $19,995 to 27 women and their families since 2015. Thank you!

The Stakeholders

Let me start by re-introducing you to our stakeholders in Nepal. If they seem familiar we make no apologies. They are among the most remarkable people we have worked with since AP was established 20 years ago.

All are members of the Network of Families of the Disappeared in Nepal (NEFAD), and all lost close family members during the conflict which convulsed Nepal between 1996 and 2006. They are led by Sarita, who lost her father when she was eleven. We have told their story in depth on our website

This partnership has produced deep friendships. The Bardiya women have mentored five of our Peace Fellows since 2016. They also hosted Bobbi, an AP Board member and distinguished American quilter, during an emotional visit in 2019 which we described in this video. If you have not watched it, please do! You will be moved.

Story-telling Through Embroidery

We first sought funds for the Bardiya group as part of an appeal for victims of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal in 2015. Our reasoning was that vulnerable people always bear the brunt of “natural” disasters. This certainly applied to wives of the disappeared in Nepal who had lost their homes and were ill-equipped to navigate the bureaucratic government response to the disaster. Our 2015 appeal yielded almost $10,000 for the families.

In 2018 we launched the first of three new appeals specifically for the Bardiya cooperative. As with many of our partnerships, it began with story-telling through embroidery. Your donations paid for training, fabric, travel and snacks. The artists did not want a stipend but accepted a nominal fee ($25) for each square to compensate them for time lost on the harvest. We follow a similar approach with other partners who make embroidery.

The Bardiya artists began by depicting  the traumatic circumstances under which their husbands or sons had been seized. Bobbi helped them to assemble their squares into two striking advocacy quilts during her visit in April 2019. We also profiled the quilts on our website.

Tiger Bags

By 2019, the Bardiya cooperative members were feeling the need to use their stitching skills to earn money. They decided to make and sell bags in honor of the tigers that live in the Bardiya national park.

The first year – 2018 – produced exuberant tiger designs, sample tote bags, and even three wonderful tiger quilts. But it was clear that the bags would not sell in the US, so the cooperative members decided to press the reset button. Working with Bobbi in Bardiya they came up with a more contemporary design as seen on these pages. Each bag has been hand-initialled by the maker.

The production of Tiger bags has been put on hold by the pandemic, but we have 25 bags in our possession and will be promoting them when the lockdown ends. At the request of the artists, we will also reach out to conservation groups and see if we can use the bags to connect tiger conservation and transitional justice. Contact us to order a bag!

Describing COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis has taken the Bardiya embroidery project in a totally unexpected direction.

As the virus penetrated Bardiya, the women retreated to their homes. But instead of surrendering to boredom and despair, several decided to use their skills to describe the ravages of the pandemic. This has produced powerful squares that speak of isolation and separation. None is more poignant than Alina’s design, shown below, which shows a dying man and his wife thinking about the mass burial of COVID-19 victims.

These COVID-19 squares are the culmination of four years of growth by the Bardiya artists. Their needlework is precise and their compositions are intricate, colorful and uncluttered. Set against a somber grey background they certainly capture the desolation of the pandemic. But we also wonder if the style could be put to commercial use and have suggested that the artists might use it to paint village scenes for pottery.

Advocating for Transitional Justice

Parallel to these different business and artistic activities there is advocacy. Everything done by the Bardiya artists helps them to remember, and compensate for, the loss of their relatives.

If anything, their anguish deepens with each passing day. This can be mysterious to people who have never suffered such loss and we attempted to explore it through podcasts and blogs on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared (August 30, 2020).

One of our 2020 Peace Fellows, Beth, produced a podcast discussion about disappearances in Nepal with Ram, the founder of NEFAD whose father was kidnapped in broad daylight in 2001. Ram was locked down in Portugal for most of 2020 but at least – as he memorably told Beth - the world now knows how it feels to be forcibly separated from those you love: “Families of the disappeared have been living through a pandemic for the last twenty years.”

Two days later, Iain from AP followed up with a podcast about the disappearances in Argentina with Ariel, the first Argentinian to chair the UN Working Group on Enforced an Involuntary Disappearances. Iain also wrote a blog about the psychological scars left from the disappearances in Nepal and Argentina, which we published as a news bulletin.

All of this is aimed at reinforcing NEFAD’s long campaign to ensure that the needs and rights of family-members are recognized. AP remains committed to this fight. We took one of the Bardiya memorial quilts to the UN in Geneva in 2019, and will help Ram to testify before the UN Human Rights Council in 2021 when the lockdown lifts. We admire his vision and courage.

Looking Ahead

If nothing else, I hope that this report has shown how a simple donation to GlobalGiving can produce a cascade of unintended outcomes!

Embroidery lies at the heart of it all. Your donations have produced more than art. The Bardiya artists tell us that countless hours of stitching together has deepened friendships, given focus to their association, and provided them with an outlet for frustration and grief. This has persisted through the pandemic: even if they have worked separately, they have spent many hours discussing their designs by phone.

They are excited to have made bags that might find a market, and keen to build a sustained business. They also seem mildly surprised to hear their exquisite COVID designs praised as a unique form of art. All of this gives us a renewed incentive to continue working at their side. You will be hearing more about the Bardiya artists!

At the same time, this will be the last of 28 reports to describe how your GlobalGiving donations have been used over the past five years. We thank you for your generosity, but also for your patience!

Stay safe and enjoy the holiday. And may 2021 bring relief to Nepal and the US.

Iain and the AP team

Sarita was one of 30 artists to make Tiger squares
Sarita was one of 30 artists to make Tiger squares
Kancham and Pooja contributed to this Tiger quilt
Kancham and Pooja contributed to this Tiger quilt
Alina and friends sell Tiger bags in Bardiya
Alina and friends sell Tiger bags in Bardiya
Grrrr - One of the new Tiger bags
Grrrr - One of the new Tiger bags
COVID despair: waiting to die, burying the dead
COVID despair: waiting to die, burying the dead

Links:

 
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