The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

What’s fair about fair trade?

This weekend I will be celebrating World Fair Trade Day on May 13 and Mother’s Day on May 14. The combination seems very appropriate, as it was my mother who introduced me to the world of fair trade over 40 years ago.

In fact, the woman who started the fair trade movement in North America was also a mother.

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was an MCC volunteer and mother of two who, while accompanying her husband Joe Byler on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, visited a Mennonite Central Committee project that taught women living in poverty to sew.

Recognizing the need for a new market for their beautiful lace products, Edna Ruth agreed to purchase some of their work to sell back in the United States, using the money from those sales to buy more products. Eventually, her work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which is now the oldest and largest fair trade retailer in North America.

In some ways, it feels like fair trade has always been a part of my life, as for many years my mother sold fairly traded products out of our home. This was a time when SELFHELP Crafts of the World, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, was just becoming established in Canada, and there were few stores and festival sales, so the organization depended in large part on volunteers who sold product out of their homes. People would invite neighours, friends, family, and acquaintances to their house to learn about fair trade and to buy a gift.

My mother explained to me that selling the jewellery, cards, baskets, wooden boxes, ornaments, candle holders, tablecloths, napkins and other items handcrafted by people from countries around the world—and stored in our guest room—would help children in those countries go to school.

As someone who loved school, I couldn’t imagine a life without that opportunity. When the boxes were opened for people to shop, the guest room was transformed into a magical place where beautiful items were passed around and interesting stories were shared.

Ten Thousand Villages logoThanks to the creativity, initiative, and hard work of Edna Ruth Byler, the option to buy fair trade handicrafts has been available to North Americans for over 70 years. And today there are far more fair trade products, including food and clothing, available than ever before across North America and Europe.

I sometimes wonder, though, how most of us understand the concept of fair trade. What makes it fair and why isn’t all trade fair?

Fair trade is a both movement and a business model. It is defined as trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries—fair prices that adequately reimburse producers for the cost of materials and time spent making or growing the product.

The ten principles of fair trade focus on dialogue and building long-term relationships. They talk about transparency, accountability, capacity building, respect for the rights of women and children, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. In comparison, other trade and business models seem to be mainly about the rights of corporations and are concerned more with profits than people.

Rabeya Akter, Shuktara Handmade Paper Project, Bangladesh

Rabeya Akter at Shuktara Handmade Paper Project in Feni, Bangladesh.

However, people are at the heart of fair trade, and most of the producers or makers that Ten Thousand Villages works with are women, many of them mothers.

For those mothers, employment with a fair trade organization means income for regular meals, sturdier homes, school fees for some or all of their children, and access to medicines if someone falls ill. Flexible hours also mean mothers can be home with their children rather than spending twelve or more hours a day working outside the home. Women are provided with training opportunities, encouraged to participate in savings programs, and be financially independent.

This weekend, as we celebrate our mothers and the ways they have shaped us, we can also help to shape a better world through our consumer choices. Indeed, economic practices that place people first are a powerful way to change the world.

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office. 

Savings groups “leave no one behind”

This week’s guest writer is Allison Enns, Food Security and Livelihood Coordinator for MCC Canada. She visited Kenya, Ethiopia and Cambodia in fall 2016 as part of a Canadian Foodgrains Bank tour to learn about savings groups.

Makueni County, Kenya – One by one, women come to the front of the circle and call out the amount of money they will be saving. In unison the group calls back the amount— “500 shillings!” —as bills and coins are dropped into a communal pot. Each woman does the same until all members of the group have announced how much they are saving this week. The total is counted and stored in a cooking pot, while amounts are meticulously recorded by the secretary.

This is a typical scene for over 12 million members of savings groups around the world. Savings groups are community groups that meet together regularly to save money, provide small loans to one another, and support each other financially when an unexpected cost such as illness occurs. Members create the rules and regulations for how the group functions, and manage the accounting entirely on their own.

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The weekly meeting of an all-women savings group in Kenya. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach.

One of the most profound impacts of savings groups is that they provide an ability to save and obtain loans for communities who lack access to banking services. Membership is targeted to those who are the most vulnerable and marginalised—those who aren’t eligible for loans from Micro Finance Institutes and those to whom local moneylenders are reluctant to loan money. Instead of relying on these outside resources that charge high interest rates and cause deep debt, savings group members are able to use their own resources to save and access loans that can help them start small businesses, buy livestock or seeds, support their families with food during hungry seasons, and send their children to school.

Savings groups not only provide financial support; they can also contribute to changes in attitude and perspective. Group members are most often women, and many express how when they first joined the groups they did not think it was possible to earn their own money, and had no say within their homes regarding household spending and other important decisions. In fact, most of their husbands were not supportive of them joining the groups.

One woman in Ethiopia tells her experience of joining a savings group and explains how, when she first joined, her husband teased her and thought nothing could come of such a group. Despite this, she persisted and continued to save, eventually being able to take out a significant loan to buy livestock and earn an income. When there was a particularly difficult time of year, she took out a loan to buy food for her family. Her husband was shocked at the strength of his wife during such a difficult time, and speaks emotionally about how, as a result of his wife’s involvement in the group, he didn’t need to ask for a loan from a moneylender. “Going to a moneylender is like telling them your secrets,” he shares, “my wife saved me from this shame.”  He is now supportive of his wife’s involvement in the savings group and has even joined one himself. Unlike before, they now make important household decisions about spending together.

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A savings groups in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Joanna Beach

Last week was International Development Week, a time when there is a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities of working to support development in Canada and abroad. The theme of this year’s International Development Week—“leave no one behind”—expresses the global goals laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

What does this call to “leave no one behind” really mean?

When I hear this phrase I am encouraged to think about how the most vulnerable and marginalised within communities can have opportunities to support themselves and their families. Sometimes new initiatives or technologies that are meant to help the poor aren’t actually accessible for the most vulnerable; they can’t necessarily afford to take the risks associated with something new and unknown.

The community-driven approach of savings groups, on the other hand, targets the most vulnerable and offers a low risk way to access capital. Those who face extreme poverty don’t need to be “left behind” in access to banking, and women don’t need to be “left behind” in earning an income and making decisions about household spending.

Edna Hunsperger’s witness against war

This year MCC’s Peace Sunday Packet – a resource to help churches commemorate Peace Sunday – focuses on the theme Women as Peacebuilders. This reflection is written in the spirit of that theme.

Edna Hunsperger was a trailblazer. Most young women growing up in the 1930s in a rural (Old) Mennonite community in Ontario anticipated early marriage, child-bearing and life working on the family farm. But Edna wanted an education and she wanted to serve others. She persuaded her parents to allow her to enter nurses training in Kitchener-Waterloo. She graduated as a nurse in 1937, the first Mennonite from her community to do so.

Two years later Canada was at war and in a short time there was a call for nurses to enlist in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp. Several of Edna’s friends responded to the call. They encouraged her to do the same. But Edna identified with the nonresistant convictions of her church community and knew that she could not enlist. At the same time, she did not want to be called a “yellow belly” or a coward–charges often aimed at young Mennonite men who sought exemption from military service as conscientious objectors (COs).

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MCC workers in England 1945, L-R: Ellen Harder, Sam Goering, Edna Hunsperger, Peter Dyck, Elfrieda Klassen Dyck. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

An invitation from Mennonite Central Committee resolved Edna’s dilemma. In 1941 MCC had begun a war relief program in England, and it wanted two Canadian nurses to serve in convalescent homes. Almost as soon as she heard about this need from her minister, Edna said yes. She saw this opportunity as a way of meeting human need, while also serving her country. Arriving in England in 1942, she remained until the war ended, caring for seniors and children affected by the devastation of war.

Edna, and her companion Elfrieda Klassen, were the first two Canadian women to join MCC’s emerging international relief service program.  And they were on the forefront of women’s involvement in MCC service as a witness for peace.

MCC’s relief service program–later known as voluntary service or, simply, service–emerged as a direct result of the war and the alternate service required of Mennonite men who registered as conscientious objectors. Even before the war was over, some people began to suggest that service offered voluntarily through MCC should continue after conscription ended.  After all, if Mennonites said they were about preserving life rather than taking life, they needed to demonstrate this at all times. Indeed, engaging in service was a way of giving an authentic witness for peace–something which simply refusing to go to war could not do.[1]  One leader put it this way:

“If our nonresistance is something only on paper it has no real worth. Our task is not only to not shed blood, but to preserve life and to help those in need.”[2]

During the war, women in Canada and the U.S. were not required to do military or alternative service by the state as men were. Nevertheless, many felt an “inner compulsion” to share in expressing their own commitment to peace and to preserving life.[3]  From the outset of the war, women’s groups were actively engaged in sewing garments for relief purposes.  But many wanted to do more–they wanted to actually serve in contexts of suffering and need.

In 1943 a group of Mennonite women in the U.S.–calling themselves “CO girls” — requested MCC establish service units for them at psychiatric institutions, as it had for men.[4] MCC did so, with some reluctance.[5] This initial experiment evolved into MCC’s summer service and voluntary service programs, which expanded rapidly across the U.S. and Canada.  At the same time, a growing number of women joined the relief service program overseas, caring for victims of war, poverty and disaster in many parts of the world.  Indeed, in the first decades of MCC’s service program, almost twice as many Canadian women served as men: 604 to 341.  Moreover, in 1950 alone, a full 40 percent of all MCC’s U.S. and Canadian service workers overseas were single women, twice as men as single men.[6]

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Edna Hunsperger worked for the Victoria Order of Nurses after the war. Photo/Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Historians have offered a variety of reasons why women chose to join MCC service in such significant ways.[7]  There isn’t room here to explore those. Suffice it to say that in response to the conflagration of the Second World War, many Mennonite women eagerly embraced MCC service as their way of resisting war and embodying peace. That contribution has not been adequately recognized.

Times have changed since Edna Hunsperger left for England in 1942. Canada has not had conscription since the Second World War, and so pacifist Christians have not been forced to uphold their convictions in a wartime context for decades.

 Additionally, within MCC the strong link between service and peace–the idea that one engages in loving service as a way of resisting war and embodying peace–has waned. Peacebuilding has taken on different and more specific meanings today. Moreover, the opportunities for service–that is, giving several years of one’s life to tending to human need with little to no financial reward–are no longer there as they were in the post-war decades.  MCC is also more conscious of the downside of service:  service can, for example, feed impulses that are colonial and paternalistic and build on a foundation of white privilege.

There are some good reasons for the shifts.

And yet, despite the changes, Edna’s question is still worth asking, especially in the context of Remembrance Day:  “If my friends and neighbours are prepared to do military service to defend the country, what will I do to witness to another way?”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, public engagement coordinator for the Ottawa Office

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[1] A 1945 MCC document put it this way, “The peace doctrine of the church requires a program of active relief work to be properly understood.” M.C Lehman, The History and Principles of Mennonite Relief Work: An Introduction. (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1945), 38.

[2] David Toews, as quoted in Esther Epp-Tiessen, Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013), 48.

[3] Harvey Taves used the phrased “inner compulsion” to describe women’s commitment to MCC’s relief program.  See Lucille Marr, The transforming power of a century: Mennonite Central Committee and its Evolution in Ontario (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003), 99.

[4] In the U.S., MCC administered the Civilian Public Service program; in Canada the federal government operated the Alternative Service Work program.

[5] Rachel Waltner Goossen, Women against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1941-1947 ( Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Pres, 1997), 101-111.

[6] Epp-Tiessen, 63.

[7] See for example, Waltner Goossen; also Beth Graybill, “Writing Women into MCC’s History,” in Alain Epp Weaver, ed., A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity (Telford, PA: Cascadia Press, 2011): 239-257.

Voices of Women for Social Justice

This week’s guest blog is written by Katie Doke Sawatzky, who recently attended an inter-generational gathering sponsored by KAIROS. Katie is a recent graduate of Canadian Mennonite University, a mother, a singer and a writer. She recently moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

It was my first time away from my two-year-old for longer than a day. It felt strange and wonderful to pick up my sister-in-law in west Vancouver and drive up the Sea-to-Sky Highway. We were headed to a place I’d never been before: the Cheakamus River Valley in British Columbia.

It wasn’t exactly a spa weekend. We went to the Elements of Justice KAIROS InterGenerational Gathering (October 24-27), at the Cheakamus Centre, an environmental learning centre situated on 420 acres of ecological reserve. We were among 130 participants from eight provinces and two territories who came together to learn, to share, and to network around indigenous rights and ecological justice. The four “elements” — earth, air, fire, and water — were themes for the plenary sessions, which combined speakers’ presentations with worship. With sessions in the mornings and evenings and workshops in the afternoons, the days were full.

Mildly acquainted with KAIROS, an ecumenical advocacy organization for social change, I came simply to learn from and listen to voices that were passionate and people who were active for social justice.

Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit KAIROS Canada.

Resource people (L to R): Sylvia McAdam, Caleb Behn, and Brenda Sayers. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

One of the first things I noticed after the first day was the number of women present. Two of the three plenary speakers and twelve of the fifteen workshops were led by women, and my guess is at least 70 percent of the participants were women. We had the majority by far. In fact, from what I saw and learned at the gathering, it seems social justice is a woman’s thing.

I know I’m slow to realize this. Idle No More (INM), one of the largest nonviolent movements in Canada’s history, was founded by four women. INM’s vision is expansive, calling for indigenous sovereignty, protection of land and water, and a national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women across Canada.

Sylvia McAdam, one of INM’s four co-founders, was a speaker and workshop leader at the gathering. In her plenary session, “Indigenous World Views and Building Alliances,” she quoted a Cheyenne proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.” With an emphatic voice, Sylvia made it clear that women are key to obtaining justice for her people.

Poet activist Kathryn Lennon led a workshop titled “Communication for Positive Change.” Her spoken-word poem was electric. She had us brainstorm ways to communicate effectively yet justly, especially when telling stories that aren’t your own, which is common in social justice work. Lennon listened more than she spoke. Her voice was inclusive.

Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit KAIROS Canada.

Janelle de Rocquigney leading a drum song. Credit: Matt Dueck, KAIROS participant.

Tessa Terbasket, a young Sylix (Okanagan Nation) youth worker with Canadian Roots Exchange facilitated “The Water Workshop.” She passed on teachings from her elders about women’s connection to water. Monthly cycles, called “moon times,” were considered natural cleansing rituals, times to be respected and even celebrated. The majority of the women in the group were surprised by this and shared the embarrassment they felt over their “periods,” especially growing up. Tessa shared the idea of women being empowered by their cycles, rather than ashamed. Her voice was young and courageous.

The voices of these women were inspiring. They taught me that women are for social justice. I learned that women gather, organize, encourage, and urge. Women see injustice and act, speak and create spaces for others to speak, and refuse to be silent.
By the end of the weekend, inspiration turned into motivation. I considered the ways I use my own voice and how I could use it for justice. I sing, I write, I mother. Could these be good places to start?

I returned home on a sunny, fall afternoon. My partner and son had survived the weekend. I quickly slipped back into routine. But Sylvia McAdam’s words still echo in my mind: “Write letters, go to rallies, be outspoken. Do not be silent. Find your voice.”

I’ll try.