Mercy Corps is working with women in Niger, Ethiopia and around the world to help them overcome challenges, become leaders and drive lasting change in their communities. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
Souabayahaya sits on a wooden stool in her village in Niger and pours water into four metal bowls resting on the dusty ground. A small crowd of mothers sits in front of her watching intently, their children balanced in their laps.
“In our tradition, we make porridge, but this porridge is different from our traditional porridge because it contains some nutritious elements,” she tells the women as she mixes the water into powdered millet and roasted groundnuts, two locally-grown ingredients. “You can see that now that you’re giving this kind of food to your children, your children are not falling sick easily. They’re always in good health.”
She finishes mixing and hands the kids the porridge. “It is a bodybuilding food,” she says. “I mix it so the children can be well.”
In many places, traditional gender roles often restrict women to the home. Globally, women spend up to 10 times more time per day caring for children and the elderly than men do, and up to three hours more per day doing housework.
Mercy Corps sees the opportunity to empower women around the world with resources and knowledge, so they can make positive choices about their homes — what they eat, when they go to the clinic, how they spend their money — that make their families healthier and their communities stronger.
In Niger, a country where the adult literacy rate is 15 percent and 44 percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition, we’re helping women like Souabayahaya lead the way to improved nutrition, health and hygiene in their villages.
We train “leader mothers” like her — Souabayahaya has seven children — to teach other village women important lessons about diet diversity, hygiene, infant care and cooking. Armed with knowledge, the women who attend the small group demonstrations share what they have learned with other mothers in the village, creating a network effect.
“[Before] they didn’t know that a porridge could be made from our crops here,” Souabayahaya says. “They didn’t know about exclusive nursing. They didn’t know about family planning. They did not know about mosquito nets. They did not know how to look after children. But now things have changed. There’s been a great, positive change.”
Another leader mother, 27-year-old Balkissa, agrees. Thanks to the leader mothers’ work, she says that more pregnant women in her village get regular health checkups and fewer children fall ill.
“Before this activity … you would find more than 50 women in a health center who had just taken their children there because they were sick,” Balkissa says. “But now you see things have gone far and everything works now. I’m very happy.”
Balkissa just completed a house inspection for Aichatou, a 27-year-old mother in her group. As she checked Aichatou’s house, constructed from wood thatching and mud bricks, she noted the firewood needed to be moved away from the house.
“She needs to take it away because mosquitos can go inside and hide, and at nighttime they can come out,” Balkissa says. And more mosquitos means an increased chance of her family contracting a mosquito-borne disease, like malaria.
Otherwise, the house looked good; Aichatou passed the inspection, which was a relief. She has seen the benefits of Balkissa’s teachings, and she was eager to demonstrate that she fully grasped them.
“Before, my child was sick from time to time,” Aichatou told Balkissa during the inspection. “But now, for months, he has never been sick.”
We’re helping women step up to lead their communities and build healthier families not only in the areas of nutrition, sanitation and infant care, but also finance.
In southeastern Ethiopia, 15 women aged 20 to 50 gather in a small shed just off the main road through the town of Kebribeyah. Surrounded by bags of wheat, the women circle up in front of a lockbox, which requires three keys: one each for the cashier, the chairman, and the secretary.
When everyone is present, the women turn their keys and open the box. Inside? The pile of money they’ve collected over the past several months.
The women meet once a week to save money through the savings group Mercy Corps helped them organize. This week, everyone in the group contributes an additional 15 birr (around 65 cents) into the pool, from which the women can take loans.
Access to even this small amount of money can be life-changing for these women and their families. By working together and pooling their money, they build themselves a financial safety net to cope with emergencies, and even fund new livelihoods.
Sahara, a 50-year-old widow and mother of seven, has been a member of the finance group for almost a year and a half. She borrowed 5,000 birr for two months to purchase bulk wheat and butter, which she resells in smaller quantities to support her family. She repaid the loan, and now the money is available for another woman to borrow.
“I was better off taking the loan,” Sahara says. “It increased my income and the quality of life of my household.”
Across Ethiopia, women who see such positive, immediate results from working together are motivated to step up and help their communities overcome other challenges, too.
Halima, a 19-year-old who lives with her son in a rural area outside Dire Dawa, began holding her own cooking demonstrations shortly after attending a Mercy Corps leader-mother demonstration in her village.
At home she began cooking porridge with oats, vegetables and beans for her baby, instead of the sugar water and butter mixture that is common, and she has seen first-hand how nutritious meals can improve a child’s health.
“Since I got a good benefit, I had a desire to share the information with other members of my community,” she says.
“I was inspired, so I started to take the lead to cook the food for the public and demonstrate cooking to the community. My next plan is to share the information on how to cook for my neighbors and other villages as well.”
Around the world, the training and resources women like Halima, Sahara and Aichatou receive through Mercy Corps are allowing them to improve their families’ lives and create change in their communities.
Now, they can begin to realize the future they may have only dreamed about. Sahara sends her children to school. Aichatou hopes that her children will study to become “health agents.” And Halima aspires that her son will grow up healthy, and become an engineer.
Empowered by her experiences, Halima is confident that the work she and other women do will continue to improve lives.
“If I demonstrate and take the lead, the community is eager to learn,” Halima says.
How you can help
You are an important part of the solution. When we work together, we can help even more people stay healthy, support their families and forge ahead to a better, stronger future.
Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc on rural and coastal communities, blowing over crops, flooding fields and homes, and making life more difficult and dangerous for many. With teams already living and working across the country, Mercy Corps was on the ground before, during and after the hurricane, ready to assist those that lost homes and possessions in the storm. All photos: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.
Hurricane Matthew made landfall on October 4th with 145-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain, causing flooding and severe damage to homes and fields. The storm blocked or flooded roads, limited communications and washed-out bridges, leaving already vulnerable communities inaccessible in the days after the disaster. As the winds fell and the rains ceded, we saw widespread destruction to roads and buildings, and crops and livestock were wiped out, which the majority of Haitians depend on to survive.
Haiti is the poorest country in the northern hemisphere, and many families were still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced nearly 2.3 million more. Around 60,000 people were still living in displacement camps when they were battered by Hurricane Matthew last fall.
In Arcahaie, one of our program areas, approximately 80 percent of banana crops were destroyed by winds and seawater flooding. These crops supported some 20,000 families.
The majority of Haitians rely solely on farming for food and income, and they have been hit hard: Hurricane Matthew came on the heels of the country’s worst drought in 50 years. Even before the hurricane, many people had not yet fully recovered and lacked access to the food they needed to survive.
Additionally, with many families lacking access to clean water in the aftermath of the storm, the spread of cholera is a serious threat. The country has already experienced high rates of the waterborne illness — and the significant flooding and rain brought by Hurricane Matthew significantly increase the risk of it spreading.
Mercy Corps’ emergency responseWith 32 team members already on the ground in Haiti, our team had been bracing for the storm and preparing to respond, including organizing assessment teams to deploy to hard-hit areas after the storm passed. Before the hurricane arrived, Mercy Corps team members were worried about how few people knew there was a storm coming, and reached out to farmers associations and community groups to spread the word and encourage people to seek shelter. As soon as planes were cleared for landing, our emergency response team joined their colleagues in Haiti to assess the damage and immediately begin providing clean water and other items to those in need.
Three months after the storm hit, Mercy Corps continues to address the immediate needs of people affected by Hurricane Matthew. Since October, Mercy Corps has been providing water to people in need and we are now reaching five communities. We are also shifting our focus to rehabilitating water systems to replace the water trucking to create a permanent solution to water needs and to reach a broader range of communities. To prevent the spread of cholera and other waterborne diseases, hygiene promotion is an ongoing activity and hygiene kits are now being distributed to reach 3,000 households with soap and safe water treatment solutions. Messages are tailored to address Haiti’s specific needs, including proper hand washing, latrine usage, and how to treat and protect water to ensure the long-term health of the community members.
Mercy Corps is also gearing up for cash distribution to over 20,000 families before the end of January. The equivalent of US$60 will be distributed to the families identified as the most vulnerable, providing each recipient with the dignity to make their own decisions and choices about what they need and when. Additionally, the cash is spent within the local economy - typically with small businesses and market traders who have also faced incredible setbacks in the wake of the hurricane. Not only will people be able to prioritize their own needs, but they are also participating in their own recovery - infusing funds into their local economy is empowering and it allows community members to take ownership of their rebuilding efforts.
Your support is making a differenceDespite the strength of the hurricane and the extent of the damage, Haitians are ready to continue the rebuilding process with clean water, healthy families, cash transfers and working markets. With so many people losing their homes, land and belongings, your support is critical to helping them recover and build back stronger.
After more than five years of war in Syria, 13.5 million people are in need of aid. Mercy Corps has one of the largest humanitarian operations inside Syria, helping families get the food and urgent supplies they need to survive. All photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.
The constant bombing and shelling around their home in Aleppo city, the epicenter of Syria’s years-long civil war, was suddenly too much. Fearing for his family’s survival, Amir* grabbed his wife and seven children, and fled with them to the nearby countryside.
There, a local village took them in and helped them find a shelter. But Amir didn’t stop worrying.
Goods and services are both expensive and hard to come by in many war-battered areas in Syria. And Amir had just left what remained of his community and livelihood behind. How would he feed his family?
Amir found a temporary job working for a very low wage in effort to support his wife and children, but he could never provide his family with enough food or bread, a staple of the Syrian diet. They consumed three bags of bread a day before being displaced by the war. With the little money he was making in their new home, Amir couldn’t afford to even buy one.
“When we had no food to eat, we sent our children to borrow from neighbors,” Amir’s wife says.
“Or sometimes, we ate less so that our children could eat,” Amir adds.
That was before Mercy Corps started supplying his family with bread. As one of the largest non-governmental organizations working inside Syria, we help feed hundreds of thousands of people each month by supplying local bakeries with flour to bake bread and ensuring the most vulnerable people have access to it.
This assistance often provides a lifeline for desperate families: With the bread needs of his family covered, Amir can put his earnings toward other things, like formula for his youngest child.
“Now I do not worry too much about how or from where to secure bread,” he says. “I know that sometimes it is even difficult to find bread to buy due to shortages in the town, but now I receive bread near to my house.”
Why bread?One of the Arabic words for bread is “Aysh,” which is also the word for life.
Bread has always been a critical staple of the Syrian diet. Before the conflict, it was inexpensive and eaten with nearly every meal. Now, during this very tiring and traumatic time, access to bread helps provide many Syrian families with a sense of normalcy and stability.
It’s even become increasingly important to their well-being: Syrian families not receiving other food assistance reportedly get 40 percent of their calories from wheat, mainly bread. And, when paired with complementary items, like tomato paste, it provides a nutritionally-dense meal.
How does the bread program work?The bread program works in two ways to ensure that vulnerable, food-insecure families in Aleppo Governorate have access to this very important food.
The first part of the program provides flour to local bakeries to help them offset the rising cost of wheat inside Syria. We provide the flour through a contract that guarantees the price of bread for families in the area remains fixed and affordable.
Providing the flour directly to bakeries, instead of families, helps bolster the local economy. It also helps more people benefit from the program, because the burden of producing bread in their own homes would require electricity, gas, fuel, ingredients and other supplies many may not have access to.
Between March and September of 2016, we delivered over 5,000 metric tons of flour to 18 bakeries inside northern Syria. We continue to provide, on average, 660 metric tons per month, which supports an estimated 131,500 people.
Secondly, for vulnerable families like Amir’s, who can’t afford to purchase bread even at a low cost, we are implementing a voucher program so they can get it for free.
These families will receive a certain number of vouchers based on their level of need, which includes family size, which they can trade for bread when and where they need it most.
Why can’t people buy the food they need?Conflict decreases access to and availability of goods within local markets. In many violence-ridden areas in Syria, the movement of supplies and people is heavily restricted. That means vital goods, like food and medicine, can’t safely get in, and people can’t safely get out.
The limited food that is available is too expensive for many vulnerable families to purchase. Around 30 percent of people we recently interviewed stated they are forced to borrow food or buy it on credit, which pushes them into debt.
Additionally, many families have been displaced by violence more than once. Displacement limits people’s ability to earn an education, learn new skills or maintain livelihoods, both because these opportunities are scarce and because sheer survival — finding shelter, food and water — becomes the priority.
That’s why we contract the bakeries we work with to price bread at an affordable rate, so families can allocate the money they do have to savings, household improvements, fuel, medicine and education.
The conflict has also devastated farmers. Aleppo Governorate is a fertile area that was once home to many agricultural livelihoods, including wheat farming, livestock herding and production of bread and dairy products. But in the past five-plus years of conflict, the price of many critical goods, like the seeds and tools required for farmers to maintain their livelihoods, has increased along with food costs.
Without these supplies, farmers are no longer able to produce food for their families or communities.
How are people getting the food they do have?Unfortunately, those who may have had assets before the conflict, like savings or livestock, have been forced to trade them for food.
In northern Syria, most families now rely on the generosity of other family and community members, humanitarian assistance or the small amounts of income they are able to generate, if they are able to generate anything at all.
The situation is also dire in other areas of the country. In 2014, residents of Yarmouk camp, in the city of Damascus, broke into a spice factory and boiled weeds, spices and water into a broth they survived on for months. We’ve also heard reports of people mixing glue from their shoes with flour to make crude, dark bread.
Mercy Corps is currently the largest provider of food aid in north Syria, outside of the United Nations. Many of the families we are helping tell us they have run out of money and we are now their only source of food.
What else can we do?In some of the same hard-hit areas where we operate the bread program, we are expanding livelihood support to help families meet their basic needs and decrease their reliance on aid.
Where possible, we plan to help people learn gardening skills so they can grow vegetables to feed their families and sell in local markets for income. We will also provide farmers with the supplies they need to restart or maintain their livelihoods.
Additionally, we deliver blankets, household items and other critical supplies to help those caught in the crossfire survive.
What is it like working on the ground in Syria?After more than five years, fighting on the ground and bombings from the air continue, with devastating effects on civilians and aid operations.
According to the United Nations, 16.5 million people inside Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and half a million people are living under siege, their access to necessities like food and medicine left to the whims of warring parties.
The country is an active war zone, and humanitarian principles are not respected within its borders. In the past few days, several thousand people were safely evacuated from Aleppo by bus, but according to the United Nations, 50,000 people - maybe more - are still trapped in the city. Over the weekend, Mercy Corps welcomed more than 1,000 people in the first wave of people evacuated from Aleppo to a welcome center outside the city.
Our teams are coordinating with numerous local aid agencies to stock welcome points with blankets, biscuits and water. We are seeing that most people left homes and most of their belongings behind and arrive with nothing. When people get off the buses, Mercy Corps and the aid agencies with whom we are coordinating, work with the new arrivals and determine what they need most right now. As temperatures hover at or below freezing, our first priority is to get people settled somewhere warm.
Our team members in Syria are incredibly brave, resilient and dedicated. And, despite the dangers, they stand ready to assist those in need for as long as it takes.
*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.