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Empowering women is the secret to ending much African misery

After the water washed back into the sea, aid continued to pour into the countries bordering the Indian Ocean that had been devastated by the 2004…

After the water washed back into the sea, aid continued to pour into the countries bordering the Indian Ocean that had been devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

While millions of hands began to pick through the rubble, world-renowned Canadian diplomat and UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS to Africa, Stephen Lewis, began asking difficult, and unpopular, questions.

The world mobilized on an unprecedented level for tsunami relief, which killed upward of 230,000.

Across the AIDS-ravaged continent of Africa more than 200,000 people die of the disease every month.

Why does no one care about Africa?

One group in the Canadian Northwest heeded Lewis’ call.

Last weekend in Whitehorse, the Yukon Development Education Centre along with aid organizations based in Victoria, Nelson and Kelowna, BC, hosted a conference to mobilize Canadians to action.

Called Harnessing the Wave: Community Action for Africa, the question at the heart of the summit was how to direct a tsunami-level wave of support to poverty-stricken countries in Africa.

To move Canadians into action, the organizers flew Zambian human rights worker Norman Chavula to the territory.

Over the Friday afternoon din of a downtown coffee shop, Chavula said the problems of Africa are so overwhelming, people don’t know where to begin.

If you don’t start, though, nothing will change, he said with a broad and easy smile.

“Even if the problems are too big, you have to start somewhere.”

The non-profit organization Chavula works for, Women for Change, was founded by Canadians.

“They left because they felt like they weren’t having an impact, because the impact was not felt,” he added.

“That’s because they were covering the entire country.”

After the Canadians locked the doors and headed home, local Zambians took over the organization, giving it a fresh direction and a new goal: Achieve change one community at a time.

Big changes happen in small steps, according to Chavula.

“It is a gradual process,” he said.

“Although the poverty levels are high and quite overwhelming, we think that you can only achieve something once you start.”

The group began by targeting the most marginalized communities in the landlocked country.

Implementing external change, however, is not part of the organization’s philosophy.

Instead, workers teach Zambia’s poor to define their own problems and create their own solutions.

“Our methodology is that we work with the community, empower them and then move on,” said Chavula.

Because we live in one of the most prosperous and comfortable countries on the planet, we may find it difficult the comprehend the degree of poverty found in sub-Saharan Africa

More challenging still, is grasping the idea that people who have grown up in abject poverty often don’t realize how bad their situation is, said Chavula.

Realizing a better life is possible is the first step for a community that hopes to achieve change.

Where education and literacy are unattainable luxuries, it is important to explain a concept like development to people in ways they can understand.

The organization does this by calling on images people can relate to their everyday lives.

“Under the tree the people don’t know what’s going on around them,” he said, telling the story he would relate in a poor community.

“Now people are looking up the tree to see that some people are climbing, that some are at the top there, while others are falling.”

The people at the bottom of the tree start asking each other questions and planning ways to get up the tree together, said Chavula.

“Those at the top have gone through the (development) process and are reaping the fruits, so to say.”

This kind of story is an organic tool, loose enough that each community can apply the image to its own circumstances.

People living in these vulnerable communities tend to have similar problems though, said Chavula.

Poverty, HIV/AIDS, human rights issues and gender disparities plague most communities in a seemingly endless cycle.

“They’re all intertwined,” he said.

Without basic human rights from the government, gender inequality continues to thrive, said Chavula.

This means women are left out of the development picture, which slows the process, thus increasing poverty.

It’s a vicious cycle; HIV/AIDS is exacerbated by poverty, while poverty grows in communities debilitated by disease.

In Zambia an estimated 20 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, including many people in their most productive years of life.

The complex social problems do not intimidate Women for Change, however.

“Women are the custodians of the family,” he said. “Men, they do the work and nothing else.”

Change starts with women and ends with empowering children, families and Zambia as a whole.

When the standard of living is raised for women, they tend to put those resources back into their families, added Chavula.

“If you empower women you find that their interest is not mainly in socializing and all those things, but to look after their family much much more than men would do.

“Once women are empowered, once they’re controlling resources, the first thing they look at is taking their children to school, looking at the welfare of their family.”

These kinds of local, family-based changes are what will help ease endemic poverty in Zambia.

“(Women) always want to take their children out of the poverty cycle,” he said

“They want to prepare their children to be much more productive and to be involved in the development process.”

And the program is working, according to Victoria International Development Education Association executive director Lynn Thornton.

Also in Whitehorse for the weekend, she said the differences amongst communities are stunning.

“We saw profound differences while we were there,” she said.

“We didn’t even need to get out of the car to be completely bowled over by the change”

When they drove in, the Canadians were met by a group of “strong, proud, loud” women, who participated in community talks and played soccer with their children.

“It was visually such an profound picture,” said Thornton.

“In the other communities it never would have happened.”

Those are the kinds of changes the symposium encouraged Yukoners to help achieve, by harnessing their own wave of creativity, determination and compassion.

“It’s the beginning of something,” said Thornton.

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