I must admit that celebration is not the first sentiment that comes to mind when I think of International Women's Day.
When I attended the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, the first in over 10 years, I thought our struggle as women was over. As a young African woman from an underprivileged background, I believed that the Conference marked a new era for women in the developing world. Nearly 15 years later, it is clear to me that women of the developing world have not yet arrived. Our struggle is not over. The struggle for equal opportunity, for justice--which is sometimes a struggle for survival itself--continues.
Perhaps it's that indomitable survival instinct that has enabled millions of bruised and dispossessed women to keep going in spite of suffering and humiliation. All my years of development experience have not helped me to understand how women like Martha*, a woman from a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, can survive, and beyond surviving, emerge as pillars for their communities. Martha, 43, possesses a resilience that defies belief. Like many women in the developing world who have gone before her, she has done more than survive.
The story of how Martha and her two daughters were brutally raped is not unique. Her physical and mental trauma was so horrific that it took her six months to recover her senses and come to grips with what had happened.
What is hopeful about Martha's story is that she made the decision to turn adversity into motivation by committing her life to helping rape victims and caring for children born from rape. Two years later, the group that Martha started has grown to about 100 women. The women are victims of rape, many of them rejected by their husbands and banished from their homes. They rent about 200 acres of land for $300 per year where they grow cassava and yams for food and income.
When asked by my colleagues why she had started the association, Martha said, "We know if we ask you for food then tomorrow we will be hungry, but we have hands and we can work. We have suffered but now we are strong and we are harvesting food. We also have a revolving loan so we can build up a market business and savings for the group. That way we can afford to feed our children and send the children to school."
Martha is currently caring for nine women at her home who were recently raped. They are not yet strong enough to join the association.
In 2006, The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization paid the rent of the land and provided cassava seeds. This intervention generated $600. With the profit, the group bought land for 44 of the women to build huts. They hope to build houses on the plot soon.
Martha is also committed to creating awareness about the effects of rape and equipping women to create groups similar to her own. "Three times a month I speak in communities to help people understand the crime of rape and I teach other women to be helpers in their communities," says Martha.
To celebrate International Women's Day, 30 women from World Vision in eastern DRC joined Martha and her association to spend the day working the land and harvesting crops. World Vision is also presenting them with 100 Congolese dresses, 50 hoes and a contribution to help the group pay their land rental.
Disempowered by lack of education, physical hardship and the psychological onslaught of discouragement, loss and abuse, many women never realize their full potential. As a development worker I encounter women who have been raped, trafficked, tortured and disfigured simply because of their gender, heritage or desire for the civil liberties that you and I enjoy on a daily basis. However, I remind myself that if our foremothers had allowed their challenges to limit their aspirations, we would not be where we are today. Thankfully, the hardships experienced by those who have gone before us - deprivation, injustice, oppression - did not extinguish the quest of women in the developing world for self-determination and a secure existence.
In reflecting on Martha's story, I believe that I found something which I can celebrate this Women's Day: the resilience and interdependence among girls and women that is manifested in their extraordinary capacity to support each other and their communities in the face of incredible odds.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy