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UGANDA

JUNE 2008 Grace is a widow and a mother of five children. Her husband was killed when the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) raided her village. The LRA and the government-supported Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) have been fighting for the past 23 years in what is Africa’s longest ongoing war. Had her children been home the night of the raid, the LRA would have kidnapped them and forced them to be soldiers. For more safety, Grace and her children moved to a camp. Though the violence is subsiding, fear remains rampant. Grace’s people, the Acholi, are farmers, but they are reluctant to return to their homes. Mercy Corps is providing seeds, tools, and training to keep the Acholi’s connection to farming—and their farms—alive. Each day, Grace walks an hour to her former home to work her land, growing nuts and beans in anticipation of her eventual return to rebuild her house and send her children to the village school.

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CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

SEPTEMBER 2009 The Central African Republic ranks as the fourth-poorest place on earth, according to the Human Development Index. Though the government is quick to point out that women have rights under the country’s constitution, one in seven has been raped in the past year and approximately 67 percent of females are illiterate. Most people don’t have radios or electricity, and there are few ways for most women to even know what “rights” are. In 2008 Mercy Corps started its Women’s Empowerment Program. An initial survey showed that about 50 percent of men thought it was bad to abuse their wives, but more than 80 percent of women didn’t see a problem with their husbands beating them if they failed to do something like sweep the floor.

Marie Christine Ndarta is the president of the Bambari Women’s Lawyers Association, a local organization that works with Mercy Corps to assist women in accessing their rights. Some of the biggest obstacles to obtaining justice in the country for women are illiteracy and poverty. Say you were raped: You would have to find some way get from your village to the police department. Then you’d have to fill out a report—a difficult task when you can’t read. And, if you wanted an investigation, you’d have to pay for the police time and gas. (The police don’t have any money either.) Marie Christine and her colleagues pick up women in the village and bring them to the police. They stay with them to fill out the forms. They take them to the doctor for an examination. They sit with them in court. She and her colleagues have scooters that they ride in their dresses all around the region.

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CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

SEPTEMBER 2009 Assantou and Hussenatou are twins, age 25. Assantou has three kids, Hussenatou, two, and both are widows. Under Mercy Corps’ village microfinance program, they took out a loan to buy eggs to sell. They walk 25 minutes across the Cameroon border, where the eggs are cheaper, and then bring them back. They lost money the first month because the eggs rotted due to a lack of electricity and, therefore, refrigeration. So they began to boil eggs and take them to worksites to sell to the laborers during lunchtime. These were illiterate women who, until they became widows, had little interaction with the society outside their family compound. Education in the Central African Republic costs money. Assantou and Hussenatou made enough to each send their older kids to school.

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DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

DECEMBER 2009 As the ethnic war between Hutu and Tutsi has shifted into a prolonged conflict over Congo’s vast natural resources, nearly 100,000 people continue to live in displacement camps in grinding poverty, a concentration that wreaks havoc on the surrounding environment. Mercy Corps started a program to teach women to make specially designed fuel-efficient stoves and biomass briquettes to reduce the wood needed for cooking and to give the women something they can sell.

This is Kahindo Mingano. As the violence has shifted between regions, she and her family have lived in three different displacement camps over six years. After hearing about the Mercy Corps program, Kahindo showed up, telling us, “You have to hire me to do this—I have five kids and a husband in a wheelchair.” Nobody could turn her down. She is hugely responsible for stove- and briquette-making going viral.

Helping to curb deforestation is the program’s primary purpose. But for the women—who have to go into the woods to collect firewood—the stoves and briquettes mean a little more safety. The forest is where they are most often threatened or attacked by roaming rebels.

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GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

December 2009 Goma is the capital of North Kivu, an area that is still feeling the effects of many years of war. These students have homes but are extremely poor. They don’t have electricity or running water, and most families live on less than one dollar a day. There are schools for boys and girls here, but the girls tend to drop out when they start their periods. There are no toilets available, so they skip school during that time because it’s uncomfortable. They miss a few days, get a little behind, then a few more—and then during the course of that year they drop out. Mercy Corps built school toilets and rain-catchment systems for hand-washing and cleaning. Charity and Collette are both 14 and, now, are staying in school.

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NYANZALE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

December 2009 Nyanzale, North Kivu, is full of hot spots. Someone is killed almost every night by roaming militia and gangs making night raids for supplies. The DRC is really beautiful and mountainous—everywhere you look there are bursts of flowers. The rare flat spots are filled with towns and farms, so displacement camps are built on the slopes. It rains a lot, so the trails turn to mud slicks. Most of these people don’t have shoes.

Before the war, Kuze Muhawe had land and a house. She fed her family three times a day. Now she has to make a precarious trek from her hut five times a day just to fill her jerry can with water. (A jerry can full of water is heavy. I can carry it about five feet.) It used to be even worse: she had to go all the way down to the river for filthy water that gave her kids diarrhea. Mercy Corps built toilets and a community water point, and now we truck in clean water to the camp twice a day. When you’re there, it’s hard to imagine how the camp’s residents get through every day, and yet they do, and they smile.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

January 16, 2010 By the third or fourth day after January’s earthquake that killed about 230,000 people, the communities really rallied to try to get the humanitarian assistance they needed. Everywhere you saw these signs—often in English so that more international aid workers could read them—spring up with the name of the community, a phone number, and a list of what was needed. Mostly, they asked for water and food. But in some cases, there were specific things, like epilepsy medicine. The Haitian people were good at communicating pragmatically. Residents of destroyed neighborhoods would band together and set up camps in parks or any patch of open land they could find. Someone had a mobile phone, and they would organize themselves despite all of the chaos. They have a long journey to rebuild ahead of them, but with some help I am confident they will make it.

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI

January 19, 2010 This is Jolisa in what is left of her house. Her mother, uncle, and brother are buried in the rubble. It was the seventh day after the quake. She and her family were just trying salvage anything that survived. She found a notebook from college and flipped through the pages. She was in a complete trance. Things that two weeks ago were normal—“Oh, this is my notebook”—now drew blank stares. She had been a member of the upper middle class. She was going to the college. The earthquake leveled society. Everybody lost loved ones. Nobody could access any money. Everything—including the banks—was destroyed. Nothing was left. Rich or poor, everyone suffered.

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BAM, IRAN

JANUARY 2004 Iran is mainly Shi’a, a denomination of Islam. After the 2003 earthquake in Bam, virtually everyone had a relative who had died. It is Shi’a tradition to mourn the dead by crying for them. It’s part of their healing, and it goes on for more than a week. So much of what you hear is this screaming and hysterical grief. It was all around us as we were distributing emergency aid supplies. Then one day, I spotted the woman standing above—you’d think she was the mayor of Bam. She was looking to the future: We will rebuild. People gathered around. She was such a powerful icon. She gave us all hope.

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AFGHANISTAN

SEPTEMBER 2003 After the latest war in more than 30 years of conflicts, Afghanistan was working to rebuild. The Taliban’s short time in power had left the school system in tatters, particularly for young women. Female educators like Aisha Bibi (“bibi” is a term of respectful affection), the headmaster of Shigi Girls School in Khewa, were playing heroic roles, giving Afghan girls—many for the first time—the opportunity to learn to read, write, and perform simple math.

During the early months of the post-Taliban period, I started a small nonprofit organization to rebuild schools in eastern Afghanistan. I thought I would be welcomed for whatever I could do, but Aisha gave me a stern education in what was expected. Any school had to have good bathrooms and a high surrounding wall so the girls would have privacy. Otherwise, she said dismissively, don’t even bother. Once we began, if the bricks were not of the proper standard, or the window glass wasn’t thick enough, I heard about it from Aisha, even when I was 16 miles away in Jalalabad—this in an area with almost no working cell or land phones. In the end, hundreds of girls enrolled in my first school with their families in full support, even though the area is extremely conservative. In this photo, she is lecturing—not the students, but me—about how black paint on a wall doesn’t make a satisfactory chalkboard. She demanded a proper one. And she got it.

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

September 16, 2002 In 2002, the Chelsitoon neighborhood of Kabul was in terrible shape. It was one of the hardest-hit areas during the battles between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and it continued to deteriorate during the US-led invasion in 2001. The few buildings left standing were riddled with holes from bullets and rocket-launched grenades. There were also many, many widows. In Afghan culture, the dead husband’s family is supposed to take in the widow. If she is really lucky, a surviving brother will marry her. But more often, widows become a kind of domestic slave with no respect.

Mercy Corps started a program targeted at widows and poor women, to help them learn skills so they could earn an income and provide for themselves. In fact, the head of Mercy Corps’ Afghanistan program at the time wanted the women to actually build the Chelsitoon Women’s Center, and then have classes in it. The Afghans thought she was nuts, but it turned out to be a brilliant idea. We found a couple of highly respected, skilled craftsman to bring on as mentors. But one of the Afghan women, Fatima, became the leader. People called her “The Lion.” In 2002 they completed a four-story building, where they continue to hold training classes for women today.

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PAKISTAN

OCTOBER 2006 In the mountains of Pakistan, near the epicenter of the 2005 earthquake in a village called Jabori, the basic livelihood is livestock. You raise animals to feed your family, and, if you have a little left over, you barter or sell it. Women care for livestock, making them the primary breadwinners. Most are illiterate, but because they have animal husbandry skills passed down through the generations, they have a lot of power within the family. When the earthquake killed nearly 80,000 people in the region, much of that knowledge was lost.

This is Lubina Masud. She could read and write. She had raised her own animals. She lost many relatives and animals in the quake. She began teaching animal husbandry classes that Mercy Corps set up. Everybody had to bring their cows for vaccinations, and she had her students do exercises on healthy ways to milk them.

You just don’t expect this in the mountains of Pakistan—you feel like you could run into Osama Bin Laden up there. And here is this woman in a bright pink outfit, milking cows and making cheese, and talking about business opportunities.

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IRAQ

AUGUST 2003 Bushra Lateef Skail had built the Al Kut Women’s Cooperative (pictured) for women to come together to sew and sell their wares for a profit. They made school uniforms, hospital gowns, and other high-demand items. She had been through hell and back to build the cooperative the first time under Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated Baath Party flagrantly discriminated against the Shi’a.

The looting at the “end” of the war in April 2003 took everything. But she didn’t shed a tear. All she could think was, “If I don’t get back into the market now, people are going to find a procurement route from Kuwait or Iran and I’m going to be neutralized.” Mercy Corps gave her a grant to restart and buy supplies, with the agreement that her factory initially make garments at cost for the local hospital, which had lost all of its surgical and patient gowns. She and her 35 other cooperative members—all widows—got back to work in their homes until the factory could be rebuilt.

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ACEH, INDONESIA

June 27, 2005 Meulaboh, Aceh, was a huge rice-farming area. Rice was the people’s livelihood and their primary source of food. After the 2004 tsunami, all the international agricultural experts came in and said the rice fields had been ruined with saltwater. No one, they said, would be able to grow anything there for at least decade. The soil would have to be cleaned; the system, flushed. But one day a fellow came into our office with a watermelon that had grown in the rice fields. Someone cut it open: it tasted good. Well, if you can grow a watermelon, everyone said, you can grow rice. Mercy Corps gave them seeds and tools to try. This picture was taken six months later, during the first harvest after the tsunami—that year turned out to be a bumper crop.

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INDONESIA

JANUARY 2005 Immediately after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Mercy Corps was distributing emergency supplies in camps for the people who had lost their homes. But there was one group that wasn’t really interested in being refugees. They wanted to go home. Mercy Corps decided to support them with supplies and tools. I went with them. What had only days before been a 20-minute drive to their village had become an arduous two-day journey, climbing hills and fording rivers up to our necks.
This is Fifi with her child, on the long walk home. They originally had built their village right next to the beach. And as we approached it, you could sense the anticipation. When villagers saw that it was now nothing but toothpicks—nothing—they sat down and cried. But within minutes, they organized themselves with leaders and tasks and got to work rebuilding. Two weeks later I went back, and you wouldn’t believe it was the same place. There was a restaurant and a store. It was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

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