Letter From Laos and Larrakia Country

Jane Sloane - © Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I recently travelled to Laos to join The Asia Foundation’s country representative there, Nancy Kim, to visit local women artisans and some of the other work supported by the foundation. My colleague and filmmaker, Whitney, accompanied me to capture the stories and voices of the women we visited.

When we arrived in the villages near Savannakhet, the women brought out reams of exquisitely textured fabrics that had been created by women in their villages. We were supporting some of these women to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market this year. We heard from these artisans that this opportunity would allow them to keep their daughters in school this year, and that increased economic security would likely provide greater protection from trafficking.

If sales and buyer connections went well, the flow on benefits would provide more work opportunities for young women from their villages, so that they are not forced to go to Thailand to do low-wage work. This opportunity would then contribute to the renaissance of artisan power in Laos and their outreach to the world.

Two of the women in the villages we visited in Laos shared their stories.

This is Tui’s story.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

Our village has continued the same tradition for generations…we know how to do natural coloring of fabric as it’s our tradition. In the past, our village’s main job was rice farming. But during the dry season, women weaved, made blankets and mattresses for families, and took care of children.

I started weaving in 2000 and organized our weaving group. Everyone did their own weaving – if that person had finished two, I bought two, if another had five, then I bought five.

Some local community people knew how to produce weavings, but they did not have a market to sell their products and had no idea how to sell. Therefore, I buy their products at a reasonable price, and then find markets to sell. Then women have work to do and increase their income to support families.

The way of our practice is, everyone has different knowledges. I give everyone chances, if they had, I bought, we discussed and agreed.  I’m also proud to see them have work to do and gain some income. I can sell our products because the price is reasonable. We really focus on quality. With customers, we always tell them that our products are made with real natural color.  

Our community has changed (since I started weaving). Many women can earn income, women are stronger and have equal rights to men because women can earn money almost every day.  It was different in the past.  After finishing rice farming, women took care of children and waited to use money given by husbands. Today, women are stronger, a woman can earn money and that makes me proud to see women and our community gain more income.

In the past, men were always presented in the front of families while women were always behind. Now, family in our village has been reorganized. In some families, men support their wives to produce materials, they could make color for example, they become wife’s assistants and they are also proud of their wives.  And our women get more respect.

I buy almost all products from local people. Like what you saw over there.  Then I must find markets to buy those products. I usually send to market every three days. Some orders 50 and some orders 100 pieces; and some may order up to 200 pieces. I buy every day from the weavers, by this person and that person, depending on if they have products. I sometimes owed them because market did not pay me and I had no money to pay; but not more than one or two days so I had to inform them that tomorrow they could come to get money, and they came back.

I am so proud that our products will be known by the world and reach America. That will give us income and other benefits.  I would also like to encourage some of our young people working in Thailand to come back and work in our community when we are strong enough. I hope young women will return to the community to work here, produce traditional materials, making nature colors, planting and doing anything here. Many young women have left our village to work in Thailand at low pay.

My expectation is that in 10 years I would like to see the change of women and they have better livelihoods. I will be proud to see that happened and my family business will increase too in the future.

One of the other women we met, Lae, also shared her story.

© Whitney Legge - The Asia Foundation
© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

I’m proud to be able to do weaving. In the past, my parents taught me how to do weaving and I like doing it.

I started weaving in 2000 when I was about 16.  I also helped my parents doing farming as it was the only job in the community. I finished only secondary grade 2 at school. When I saw my mother gained income through weaving I followed her as her assistant. After a while my mother stopped working, so I  continued working. I started looking for customers until my village organized the weaving group. I applied, and have worked together with Mrs. Tui doing weaving and my own design.

There are about 10 women the same age as me that weave. Some of them also continue study. But most of them are just weaving. Some of them who left school went to work in Thailand in a factory.

If there are more markets, it would be good for us and it will help our community to have more work and people will have more income to support their family. I’m very happy and proud to have a chance to go to Santa Fe. Of course, I have a lot of hopes.  I expect to have more customers and more orders of our product; that would help to develop our village. I would like to thank Facebook and WhatsApp as they make me fast in trade and communication, comfortable and easy in conversation. When buyers need products, they can send the order. It’s easy and I’m happy.

My husband is happy with me. I married him in 1999. Since we married, he never disagreed that I work on weaving and it helps to increase family income, although my husband does not help me because we have divided our tasks: husband does farming and raise the cows, and I do weaving. But we discuss and support each other.

I hope that in the future, our work will be bigger. I expect we can sell more, especially through export.  I would like to do better than this and to have more customers.  But we have come a long way. When I started with my mother, we had no technology. It was very difficult for communication and transportation. If we needed something, we used letters and or communicated through public transportation like bus. The bus could service us only once per week, but some work requested was urgent.  Then we used radio to help communicate. Travel was also very difficult because of the quality of the roads. if it rained, we had to take tractor to help transport us to the main road to catch the bus. It was very difficult at that time, however, it’s comfortable now.

© Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

While in Laos, we also visited the Laos Women’s Shelter, led by visionary director, Madame Virith Khattignavong. The Asia Foundation was instrumental in helping to create the shelter and supporting its early work. The shelter is located on a large tract of land, which was provided by the government on long-term lease, surrounded by gardens and market produce. The shelter takes in girls and young women who have been affected by violence, and it provides them with access to formal education and apprenticeships in hairdressing, hospitality, textiles, and horticulture.

The girls and young women go to school each day and return to the shelter as their home and community. For those young women who want to gain livelihood skills, they can learn these skills within the shelter grounds. The shelter has also have developed a network of employers who employ the girls and women who have completed their studies or apprenticeships. This integrated approach ensures that there are sustainable livelihood opportunities for girls and young women who arrive at the shelter, providing increased freedom from violence and pathways to prosperity. Others can access scholarships and continue their study at college or university.

@ Whitney Legge – The Asia Foundation

The grounds themselves are lush and spacious and we visit a community garden planted out with vegetables and fruit and herbs that are abundant and inviting.  The gardens are well tended and provide an important outlet for the girls and young women to learn about nutrition while also testing their skills as cooks and horticulturalists.

I listen to some of the young women talking and laughing, then we visit one of the training areas where it is very quiet as these women concentrate on their work, and from time to time glance over at us. I’m as curious as the young women, and I’m struck by the quality of their work and their composure.

What’s essential in this work is supporting girls and women to be safe and free from violence and connecting them to pathways to education and employment so that they have the economic security to pursue their potential and passions. I think back to the women artisans we met and to the real joy they expressed in their art and work.

While in Laos, I also had time to discuss with Nancy the potential of creating an artisan market in Asia, drawing on the success of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market that has been going for 14 years and which attracts more than 20,000 buyers each year. What if we could create the opportunity for a similar market in Asia that would provide women artisans in Asia the opportunity to be connected to more buyers and markets, and to build year-round sustainability of their products? That is some of what we’re exploring at present in our discussions with buyers and artisans.

Several of my colleagues traveled to Santa Fe to join the women artisans from Laos, Bangladesh and Timor Leste whom we’d funded to be able to participate in this market. My colleague, Whitney, was also there to capture on film the journey these women had made and their experience of the market and the outcomes for these artisans.

I couldn’t be there as I was flying to London to take up a non-residential Atlantic Fellowship with the Inequalities Institute at London School of Economics. This fellowship is one of several across the globe funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and is designed to support a corp of global practitioners working to address inequality in its many forms over a 20-year period. I’ll be sharing more about this experience in future blogs and this program inception was a powerful start to develop our thinking and action in relation to the inequalities we were focused on through our own work, for me most especially gender equality.

While I was in London I went to the Tate Modern and picked up one of the books written by Louise Bourgeois – one of the most provocative, creative and arresting sculptors and textile artists of this century. It was Bourgeois who said “Art is restoration: the idea is to repair the damages that are inflicted in life, to make something that is fragmented – which is what fear and anxiety do to a person – into something whole.”

She also said “I am not what I am, I am what I do with my hands…” This resonated with me since it had been a few months since I’d taken time to draw, paint and dance. It was a reminder of not subsuming work and other commitments to the creative impulse to express and explore. There’s beauty and fire in taking up that invitation to enter another dimension by dancing, sculpting, painting, writing, filming and other creative forms.

After two weeks in London I was finally back on my boat. What joy!

A day later we held an event and pop-up shop in San Francisco for the artisan entrepreneurs who had traveled from Bangladesh, Laos and Timor Leste to Santa Fe so that we could welcome them to the Bay Area before they returned to their respective countries.

The color and energy these women brought with them through their textiles was contagious. The event we hosted was a riot of color and activity as guests exclaimed over the quality of the textiles and tapestries, and then went into a buying frenzy to purchase some of the gorgeous garments and crafts the artisans had for sale.

A year ago, this was just a dream. To find ways to get some women to the Santa Fe event, to explore a sister event in Asia and find donors to help make this a reality. Now it feels like we’re on our way.

On the other side of the world, in Darwin, Australia, enroute from Timor Leste to Sydney via Darwin, I recently interviewed a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women textile artists about their own work and art for an article in AQ: Australian Quarterly magazine.  One of my friends, and a great Australian leader, Lenore Dembski, who created the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s fund (ATSI women’s fund) brought these women together at Paperbark Woman, her Darwin based outlet to showcase these textiles.

June Mills holding one of her hand designed and pained skirts
June Mills @ Paperbark Woman

One of the women, June Mills, is a musician and a member of the famed Mills Sisters group, as well as a gifted artist.Here’s what she said, as an excerpt from the interview when I asked her to share more about what painting her dreaming on clothing and creating other art meant to her:

June: It’s cultural maintenance, cultural knowledge. You know, we’re in a dominant culture, which suppresses our cultural business, so there was a definite need for me to make clothing that is representative of our culture, our tribal people.

That skirt of mine that I made, that you fell in love with, is the major Dreaming for the Larrakia people… And you’ll see the sea eagle, another major Dreaming. The sea eagle flying over Casuarina Beach. So that, to me — calling up our Dreaming — is giving our children strength in the knowledge of whom they are, their identity… With each generation, there’s less and less cultural knowledge and all being passed on. And so we really have to fight against that, push against that. Assimilation and integration is still going on in this country … to make us like every other Joe Blow. Well, no, we’re not. We are people of the land and that’s what my art is about.

Jane [interviewer]: June, do you see a connection between your music and your art?

June: Well, my friends here are saying it’s all about making yourself happy. I was thinking about [how] for a long time with my sisters we just sang [as the Mills Sisters] what everyone else wanted us to sing… But then, at some point, I started to make my own music that had much more cultural relevance to me… My music is very much a mixture of cultural business, healing business and fun business… One of the things I did as healing business was I wrote a song for my grandmother who was taken away from her country when she was only three years old and taken to Warrnambool to be a slave there — until she was too old and then she was sent back to the territory. But there was no record of where she came from, or of her family — nothing.

Miraculously, she found her way back to country because she remembered one word. And that word was her birth name, Kilngaree. She had her name changed five times and yet she remembered her birth name. She sung her way back here before she died… So I wrote that song, ’Sweet Child of Mine’, which has in it the line, ‘remember your name’. But that name… Kilngaree, means ‘a stream system’ in Larrakia, and so Kilngaree took my nanna right back to her birthplace. She had to ask around and people knew the language and said, ‘This way’. I finally found my own voice and I wouldn’t even say that it’s fully developed today.

The women speak about their need for support systems for these textile artists. Ideally an ATSI textile artist business incubator and manufacturing cooperative for women sewers and designers who can share facilities and lay out their work, and then a pop-up incubator in more rural and remote communities.

Another Aboriginal designer, Colleen Tighe-Johnson, whom I also interviewed for Australian Quarterly has had invitations to New York Fashion Week and Cannes International Film Festival.  In the article she said, “Our people are hurting; our people are dying. They need the connection to community and economic opportunity that will give them hope and focus.”

Colleen also dreams of creating a similar cooperative in Redfern in Sydney to provide pathways to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to be supported in developing their skills, designs and access to markets.

My own struggle and question, from the time I spend with the women in Laos and the time spent with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women artists, is how to connect these women to the funds and power they need to transform their lives.

Individual and institutional donors have so much money. The world is awash with money.  And yet so much of it bypasses those who have demonstrated time and time again the potency of their own work and potential to catalyze change in their countries and communities. As donors seek to aggregate their funding to reduce administrative costs, those at the frontline of change within their communities get left out.

The renewed focus and fascination with innovation frequently rewards those who are already well placed and positioned to receive the funding, further widening the divide with those on the margins.

We need a genuine commitment to funding grass roots groups, especially those led by women, and to ensuring they are included in policy forums and key places of influence – where their work on the ground can influence policies and laws and ensure an enabling environment for their work and creativity.

Funding these groups is important and yet inadequate if this funding isn’t combined with a commitment to support women leaders to assume power and influence in policy and legislative decision making and arenas. Without paying attention to the policy and legal factors that create an enabling environment as well as the social norms that sustain inequality, there’s a danger of ‘spinning wheels’ – i.e. getting the funds to groups without addressing the systemic and attitudinal factors that inhibit transformation.

[symple_testimonial by=”Diane Mariechild” fade_in=”false”]A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.”[/symple_testimonial]


Back in Sausalito there’s a buttery yellow moon slung low over the water. I’m back again! So now, full circle, I return to the flowing tide of my boat life to draw from the energy and power of nature’s rhythms, and the sweet beauty of home.

Jane Sloane

Letter from Uganda

I’ve just been in Uganda in East Africa, a country bordered to the east by Kenya, to the north by South Sudan, to the southwest by Rwanda, to the west by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to the south by Tanzania.

Jane Sloane / PWABC - Uganda


This is a country that has the distinction of being the world’s second most populous landlocked country after Ethiopia. It is home to a substantial portion of Lake Victoria, one of Africa’s Great Lakes and once thought to be the source of the Nile.

It’s also a country where less than 10% of the land that can be owned in this country is owned by women. According to a report by The Forum for African Women Educationalists, (FAWE), Uganda tops the list in Africa of the number of child marriages with 40% of girls marrying before the legal age for marriage which is 18 years. A report by the Population Secretariat states that 300,000 girls get pregnant prematurely each year.

One of the groups supported by Global Fund for Women is Pastoral Women’s Alliance to Break Cultural Chains (PWABC) which was established in 2003 in Kiboga District in northwest Uganda. With a membership of over 2,000 women organized into 13 village groups, the network advocates for pastoralist women’s socio-economic and political rights by reforming cultural practices and traditions that discriminate against women. The group works with male community leaders and elders to advocate for women’s rights and cultural reform at the community level. It also mobilizes and trains members on women’s rights and links members with lawyers, law enforcement and local government departments to shift attitudes and change laws.

One of our advisors in Uganda, Debbie Serwadda joined me on this trip and we left Kampala to travel a few hours through rural villages until we arrived at PWABC’s office.

As we gathered with core members of the group in their office, I remembered Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee’s words at the African Grantmakers Network forum in Tanzania a few days earlier, when she said “The ten year old African girl, rural or urban, is who we need to focus on.” If we don’t pay attention then these girls’ lives play out in a depressingly similar trajectory.

Take, for example, Sylvia Nalwada who had her first baby at 15 when she was a fifth grade primary school student in Kayunga District, Kampala, Uganda. The father was a 27 year old man. Sylvia’s parents reported the case to the police and the man was arrested. Then the man’s parents visited the police station and convinced the police to release their son after a few days. Sylvia was left literally holding the baby, single and in deep poverty, while the father ran free. In other cases girls are kidnapped and forced to marry.

PWABC is working to change this trajectory. The group started in 2003 by working with elders and convincing them of the reasons why the practice of forced marriage and girl kidnappings had to change. The group’s Deputy Director, Dusabe Teo, shared the organization’s genesis with me and showed me photos of herself with a smashed face and black eye that was inflicted by her husband when she started PWABC with some other women.

“Men were working to break our character and to undermine our rights as women and we women wanted to change that. A man talks once and if you don’t listen to him and he talks again then you know you will be beaten. We wanted to change a situation where a woman kneels for the man as God and serves him chicken and eggs and everything nutritious while she is denied this. We wanted girls and women to be valued rather than treated as slaves.”

In Western and Central Uganda many marriages are by abduction. Even if a girl is under 14 and a man is 70 or older the marriage can take place as long as he has cows to pay the bride price. Also cows trump education. Given that cows are regarded as infinitely more valuable than a girl and her education, a girl is often required to forgo an education in order to tend the cow.

In the beginning with PWABC it was ten women who started sensitizing other women, and soon a man joined them in this work. “It was not easy,” said Dusabe, “since many people said ‘you young girls, what are you doing! Just because of some education you have an idea that we’re doing bad things.’ These people in the community thought we had been brainwashed and they were furious that we were challenging their traditions. Most elders and other men first looked at us as becoming unruly!”

The women ramped up their work by engaging girls and women to ‘sensitize’ them of their rights and men to the law and the impact of their behavior. The women in the group started supporting young women who were at risk of being kidnapped and also sensitizing men who wanted to marry girls, including men who practiced polygamy and men who were HIV positive. PWABC wanted to address the reality of girls forced into marriage and forced to pleasure multiple sex partners, then having a high risk of becoming HIV positive.

These PWABC women also worked to support women who had been violated and to challenge men’s belief that it was their right to buy, batter, rape and violate women. Mugabe Herbat Jordan, a teacher, also joined the group after continually witnessing his mother being beaten and after his sister was abducted. “I felt a pinch in my heart, and that we were all diminished by these cultural practices and I wanted to work to change this.”

“Now,” Dusabe says, pointing to a man in the group, “my husband is one of our advocates. He too has changed…It’s not easy for male leaders and community members to join us as these harmful cultural practices run deep. But they could see the effect our work was having in our community and so they decided to support us.”

Today, a whole infrastructure of processes is in place to ensure that girls’ human rights are upheld. This includes an oversight committee that deals with any charges or instances of domestic violence or forced marriage or polygamy. It involves custodians of culture, elders, teachers, paralegals and men in positions of authority being strong advocates for girls’ and women’s rights. In this community this includes a police commissioner who has put in place a process to hold government officials to account for ensuring that they enforce the laws of protection for girls and young women and with harsh penalties for negligence and bribery. It includes the election of young men to counsel other men and tell them the benefits of girls staying in schools and also about their accountability to the group if he or any member of his family seeks out a girl for sexual activity. Young women are also elected to mobilize other young women to be aware of their rights and the power of education.

“Global Fund for Women made this possible,” said Dusabe. “You were our first funder. You gave us our second grant. You gave us our third grant. It wasn’t until after our third grant that the group was able to attract the interest and support of other funders both within Africa and globally. Now we have eight paid staff including a security guard, a counsellor for HIV positive women and children, an accountant, three project officers, an administrator, a paralegal lawyer and many volunteers. Our focus remains on the girl child in the very poor rural villages of Rukoola Bushland, Kisagai and Nsala Nsozi “Mountain” areas, Kasejjere Forests and other villages that are difficult to access and where harmful traditional practices have deep roots.”

20150717-Jane-Uganda IMG_20150616_081838256_HDRWe left PWABC’s offices and headed down a dirt track toward one of the villages to meet some of the community members involved with PWABC. One elder joined us in our vehicle. He is the embodiment of accompaniment and he is there to give his support, as much in presence as in voice. He has been convinced by this work and is a strong advocate for it. “We need the vital confidence of elders,” says Dusabe. “When elders talk, people listen. When elders listen to girls, people listen to girls.”

This dirt track was the only track leading from the village to the nearest hospital. Beyond the violence of early marriage, many girls and young women have problems giving birth because the hospital is so far away and the very basic facilities don’t allow it to cater to complications.

20150717-Jane-Uganda IMG_20150616_070208806One of the women elders spoke of the consequences of this situation. “My sister died in childbirth in 2012 after she went into a complicated labor at 2:00am in the morning and she died enroute to the hospital.” PWABC secured some funding to create a ‘People’s Ambulance’, a contraption similar to a motorized pedi-cab with a mattress attached so the woman in labor can position herself in the most comfortable way possible. She is then transported to the hospital on the deeply rutted tracks that serve as the tributaries to these communities.

We finally arrived at the local community and many women, men, girls and boys were on hand to greet us. We walked up an incline to a meeting place where there were drummers and dancing. The kind of dancing where everyone is jiving. The beat was infectious and, to the delight of the community, Debbie and I joined the group in clapping, turning, bumping and singing. After some time everyone quieted and Debbie and I were given seats for the formal meeting to commence. Then some of the male and female elders of the community spoke including another Jane, Ms. Jane Kacuiculi, Chairperson of the Board and Mr. Mugabe Herbert Joram, field Coordinator and Paralegal Lawyer.

20150717-Jane-Uganda IMG_20150616_091601951_HDR“We are a strong community of women and men who came out to fight and transform practices that defile girls and women and deny our human rights,” Jane said. “Men have joined hands with women to reform culture and affirm girl child rights. We have worked to end cultural practices that marginalize women. These practices include lack of access to land and ownership of land, sexual ownership of girls and young women by men in the community, and a belief that girls are unimportant and must be submissive to male desire and need.”

“In our culture, whatever a girl or woman has is for the man, whether it’s cows, goats, money or land. When you are about to give birth you are sent back to your father’s home so that he can send you back both with your child and with a cow for your husband.   Women become like children in their own homes, as they are passed between husband and father who determine their behavior and their rights. Women become commodities for their husbands to dominate and order as they please. Instead of a girl studying at aged 14, she is locked into a bride price. She is forced into marriage and often gets pregnant soon after which often causes complications and sometimes death.”

We then heard testimony from women and men as to the level of change PWABC had helped to make possible.

20150717-Jane-Uganda IMG_1279One of the men in the group was a man called Teddy Kyeye, a Government Official who had previously said “Sex is like a Cup of Tea among us pastoralists. There is no way a girl can reach the age of 16 before having sex.” He added that sharing a wife is considered normal in pastoralist culture. One pastoralist confessed that he had sex with the wife of his son shortly after their marriage as he wanted to see what the bride price had bought his son. Kind of like testing the stock after purchase to ensure it was a good deal. Except in such cases it is an old man raping the girl who has been forced to marry his son. Now Teddy Kyeke and the other men at the meeting no longer do this and they are strong advocates for cultural change. He has joined other men in the community who are standing up for women, no longer beating women, no longer controlling women, and advocating for the rights of women and girls.

PWABC has been focused on shifting attitudes and behavior and it has been equally focused on increasing economic opportunity and security for girls and women. “We have many practical ideas about what we can do to generate income and we need capital to make these ideas a reality and, in other cases, to access to markets to connect the creator to the buyer.” The group established Balissa House to provide training in business skills and PWABC also established Balissa Farm as a demonstration farm to be able to support women to become self-sufficient through access to small plots of land. Women are now using milk from cows to make ghee and cheese to generate income and with the hope of creating social enterprises. They are also involved in group savings programs to invest in group projects.

And there is the desire to diversify and increase income streams in the time ahead. As Dusabe explained, “These women also make beautiful textiles and handicrafts and we’d like to establish a handicraft selling center in Kampala so that this could be a base for income for women. We know we could have even greater impact if we have more access to funds and resources to support women to become self-sufficient.

Dusabe also said that many women would also benefit from simple hand tools to improve the backbreaking work on the land and from solar power to support their work at home, if they could afford the installation cost. Having access to land was key to girls and women having dependable income and becoming economically secure. This would open up options for their children to be educated, and for access to transport that would also mean they were mobile in sourcing potential markets and buyers for their work.

Another woman was fiercer and more direct in her advocacy. “Let the harvest belong to women and not be owned by men. Let the woman have her own harvest!” There were many feisty women in this community, old and young. Yes, they were engaged in powerful healing work and yet they were also impatient for change. These women were determined to hold their men to account for their collective behavior and attitudes, and to assume the leadership needed for the level of change sought.

Jane Sloane - Uganda - Nyabare SalaIt has been this vigilance at every level that has resulted in an increase in the number of girls attending school. I was transfixed by one girl in the meeting, Nyabare Sala, who was a 7 year old girl in the community who is attending school and hopes to complete her education. She is one of the direct beneficiaries of PWABC’s work. A few years earlier it was girls only a few years older than Nyabare who were being kidnapped on the way to school as they have to walk many miles down that isolated dirt track and they can easily be scooped up by motorcyclists or stopped by cars and taken into a life of sexual slavery. It’s also why some of the money PWABC received from Global Fund went toward buying a motorcycle to intercept such abductors and to not lose another generation of girls while PWABC was doing the work to ensure long term attitudinal change and legal protection.

“What would you like to do if money was no object?” I asked the group. We would like to become a national network and bring this work and approach to every community in Uganda,” said Dusabe. We know this approach works and we just need the funds to make this possible.” This would be a way of democratizing many communities across Uganda and engaging them in a national public dialogue on conflict resolution, gender equality and community building. The work in each community would start by winning the trust of the elders and then other leaders in the community, and then conducting sessions with all members of the community regarding rights of girls, establishing community committees and introducing all other elements of economic support.

Later, I reflected on the strength of this idea of creating a network when I was talking to a friend and mentor, Michaela Walsh, founder of Women’s World Banking. “The idea of bigness in this world is wrong!” she said to me. “Supporting women in their countries to assume their own leadership and adopt a network model of working is what will really make a difference.”

When it came time for me to speak to the group I said that girls have the right to the same opportunities given to men and boys, and girls have the right to dream as boys do dream. There is a quote by the philosopher, Goethe, that boldness has genius and magic in it, and this community has demonstrated its ability to be bold and the result is a kind of alchemy and magic. There would be no Global Fund for Women without groups like this one. And this community also has the power of Global Fund backing them – the power of hundreds of thousands of women who are a voice of conscience and invoking the power of witness as much as activism for change.

I said that the profound healing the community had been practicing was inspirational as much as transformational. “Your community may be experiencing economic poverty, however, many people in the west are suffering from spiritual poverty whereas your community has been through a spiritual transformation and renewal.” I said that while this community was expressing its gratitude for the funding made possible from Global Fund for Women, they needed to know that there were many donors themselves experienced profound change as a result of giving to women’s groups such as PWABC. “I have met donors who have themselves experienced violence, isolation and discrimination, and when they have seen the powerful outcomes achieved by the groups they have funded it has healed something deep in them and instilled in them a strong sense of hope, and belief that change is possible.


A few days after I returned to the United States I received an email from Dusabe profusely thanking me for visiting the community.

Oh dear Jane it was a day of joy to host you at our PWABC Office and most importantly thank you for your time to share with our beneficiaries on grassroot in the rural Communities. You mean much to us women/girls of Kiboga and the whole World Jane!…Indeed with you we shall break these chains further more and even reach out to other communities in and outside Uganda to also open the eyes of our fellow women/girls harassed sexually and generally marginalized by their own cultures to stand up, break the chains too by reforming their cultures too…We enjoyed you Jane and the community people enjoyed you so so and so much. Thank you for that parental love! Your visit left us empowered the more spiritually Jane and God bless you. Faithfully yours in the campaign of our rights as women/girls of Kiboga.

As someone who has often grieved the fact that I haven’t been a parent it felt like a precious gift to be thanked for my parenting.

A day later Jane Kacuculi, the Chairperson Board of Directors, PWABC wrote to me:

the best we can do is…STRONGLY ensuring that women/girl child rights are observed, recognized and respected socially, economically and politically through our initiative of Reforming Cultures to eliminate negative harsh and dangerous Practices/Beliefs here in our rukoola communities and take the initiative to other communities where women/girl child(ren) are equally suffering and marginalized because of their own cultures…

What can we say about your love and support? We wish all Donors had your appreciative…character then most grantees would be psychologically strengthened in the important work they try to do. To be honest Jane you left us Psychologically strengthened and feeling important in our work …We therefore credit your visit as a turning point for our advocacy…

20150717-Jane-ChookGift-DSOnce formal business and speeches had ended the drums started again and this time as we danced a live chicken was lifted up and held out to me, “a great honor,” Debbie whispered to me as I dubiously opened my arms to receive the squawking squirming chook. And so we danced, that chook and I, and the community erupted in laughter and clapping and stepped up the beat until it became a throbbing sea of bodies and ululation, or udhalili, as it is called in Swahili. It reminded me of being in Arnhem Land, Aboriginal land in Australia, and experiencing the incredible energy of the Chookie Dancers as they created their own version of Zorba the Greek.

I reached out to Nyabare to shake her hand and say goodbye. Her mother was with her and they both smiled. I would not forget her. The ten year old African girl is who we need to be focusing on, Leymah Gbowe said. Nyabare was a little younger, there was still time to support this extraordinary group and their dream to become a national movement. Perhaps it would be Nyarabe leading it.

The warmth of many hands and hearts farewelled Debbie and I as we drove off in our vehicle and headed back down the rutted track from which we came. We were quiet, each lost in our own thoughts after what to me seemed akin to a spiritual experience, such was the force of the people and their mission for change.

Suddenly I heard a squawk from the back of the vehicle. It was the chook.
We may have left the community but the chook was here to stay.

Jane Sloane




Letter from San Francisco #14

Peter Buffett’s deeply thoughtful OpEd piece in the New York Times (July 27 2013) has been on my mind for weeks.  I read the letters to the editor and the posts of those scrambling to respond and I also noted that 95% of those responses were from men.  Where were the voices of women?  And how did gender factor into the equation of both the original piece and in the responses?

In his article Buffett states that, as the son of Warren Buffett, early on in his philanthropic journey, he and his wife became aware of a phenomena they dubbed ‘philanthropic colonialism.’ Here it seemed that the donor was attempting to solve local problems rather than allowing local communities to define the problem and determine the response and then receive the funds to make this response possible. In addition, often their philanthropic dollars were contributing to NGOs working to address issues and problems perpetuated by the company’s corporate business or investment.  Buffett notes the massive size of the not-for-profit sector, with its growth outstripping that of the business and government sectors.

Buffett is right. We need a new code and a new approach. It doesn’t work to, for instance, have corporations framing the breast cancer issue in terms of a focus on ‘cure’ through pink-led campaigns without full disclosure that they own the treatments they’re advocating for and that they stand to attract billions of dollars in profit as a result.  Also, in many cases, a greater focus on prevention may be more desirable and effective. In this same spirit of full disclosure, I’d hope this new code would mean those corporations that use chemical compounds in their products that are known to contribute to cancer would ‘fess up that they’re perpetuating the problem with their business practices.

Similarly, it doesn’t work to have mining companies sponsor women’s organizations and events if their business operation and Board composition engage men almost exclusively and result in women being further marginalized and disempowered. Especially as the expansion of mining in many communities also results in an accompanying increase in prostitution and girl brides due to men having more money to further skew and benefit from this power(ful) divide.

We need to be advocating for, and advising, corporations to design policies and programs and budgets that are gender inclusive and that take into account different ways in which gender plays out in a board room, a bank, a war zone, a market, a village, a community.

We need to educate young people in colleges on how to work with organizations, corporations and governments to design and deliver policies and programs that are gender sensitive and to teach them how to create a gender budget.  Young people don’t learn these skills in college. We need to train them to think and to ask the kinds of questions that will open up options for a different world rather than close them off.  This includes encouraging risky, bold and edgy thinking that might lead us to tell different stories and to imagine different strategies and structures.

We need to commit to working to secure at least 50% of women on boards, in local government, in the media, in parliament, in peace building, in senior management.  Now there’s a bold idea.

We need conferences that aren’t just focused on girls but that are organized for and by girls and young women so that they can define the languages, the approaches, the space, strategies and structures they wish to adopt and co-opt.

We need the voices of women from local groups and communities to be lifted up and to be heard at local, regional and global forums on those issues that have such an arresting impact on their lives.  We need their voices to accompany or replace those of many academics from prestigious universities whose perspectives on poverty are more often heard than those with the view from the ground. We need funders to recognize the powerful role of advocacy and informal education in shaping a different world order, one that is just and equitable.

In the many convenings that donors and NGOs organize with people in local communities, we need to ensure we don’t just hear their views but that we have the funds to be able to give dollars to their dreams and allow them to feel that their time counts for more than a report or data capture.  That we will invest in their dreams and breakthrough ideas to address an issue or advance an opportunity.

Rebecca Solnit’s book  A Paradise Built in Hell showed the positive difference local citizens and communities can make after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis when they are given the time and space to do so rather than be swamped by an often ‘one-size fits all’ official response that is often less effective and sometimes even damaging.

We need to commit to intentionally shifting power to those organizations, collectives and groups that want to assume greater leadership and influence in their own communities and in the wider world.  This may include reducing our own staffing and representation and providing the capacity support for those groups to gain strength and diversify their resource base to be able to sustain their work. Or not. These groups may also want to influence certain policies and programs and do themselves out of a job or seed new or emerging groups and share their networks and learning with them.

Other local groups may see benefit in calling on others in the philanthropic world to help them address systemic change.  Joy Anderson, Founder and CEO of Criterion Institute, is working from the ground up and building a global network of volunteers, and pairing those working in social movements with those working in finance and business to imagine initiatives that could shape markets to create social and environmental good.

We need to trust, even if it shatters our own beliefs.  Buffett is skeptical about the role of microcredit in transformational change and yet women in a local community may refocus this language of micro-lending and financial literacy to a commitment to women’s access to bank accounts and health insurance accompanied by a means to earn money.  For many it may mean they can save for education, an operation, a wedding and, by so doing, not be indebted for years afterwards because they had to borrow from a money lender who charged them exorbitant interest and crippled their ability to repay.

Of course beyond this is changing the system where a government in any country introduces a fair and just health care system for all its citizens.  Supporting citizens to advocate for significant funding increases in basic public services including health, education, water and sanitation while also pressuring governments to reform systems that are hampered by corruption, inefficiency and gender blind operation is critical.

While “charitable intervention” alone can’t change the system, it is invariably organizations supported by flexible funds to sustain their work, that help get policies made and changed and secure laws to protect rights. Where I work at the Global Fund for Women, the women led rights based organizations we funded over the last 25 years collectively secured laws to protect over 1 billion women and girls from violence against women in 25 countries.

Leymah GboweeWe need to genuinely listen to people in communities and allow them to decide how best the funds will be used.  Which donor would have provided the funds to a women’s rights organization in Liberia that wanted funds to lead a sustained protest in Liberia?  The Global Fund for Women supported Leymah Gbowee’s organization, Women in Peace-building Network (WIPNET), as part of GFW’s core commitment to trusting women to know the best solutions for their community and providing flexible funds in support of this trust.

Gbowee used funds provided to WIPNET to pay to bus a delegation of Liberian women to Ghana to put pressure on the warring factions during the peace-talk process. She led hundreds of women inside the hotel where negotiations were taking place and passed a message to the lead mediator – that the women would interlock their arms and remain seated in the hallway, holding the delegates “hostage” until a peace agreement was reached. When the men tried to leave the hall, Leymah and her allies threatened to rip their clothes off. In Ghana it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself. The women remained sitting outside the negotiating room during the following days, and the men finally came to an agreement to end the Liberian war, with the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement on August 18, 2003. This women’s movement also helped to ensure the 2005 election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president of Liberia, the first elected woman leader of a country in Africa.

[symple_testimonial by=”~Albert Einstein“]
I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited.
Imagination encircles the world. [/symple_testimonial]

In his article, Buffett, who is a composer as well as a philanthropist, invokes Einstein’s words of not being able to solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it.  What’s interesting is that Einstein spoke of thinking in musical architectures. In a brilliant article by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, they refer to research undertaken by the engineer-composer Robert Mueller.  According to Mueller, Einstein’s friend Alexander Mozskowski said that “Einstein recognized an unexplainable connection between music and his science.” And Einstein apparently told one of the great creators of musical education, Shinichi Suzuki: “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition. My parents had me study the violin from the time I was six. My new discovery is the result of musical perception.”

 albert einstein

The Root-Bernsteins go on to say, “Einstein shows us how it all connects. But what do our students typically get, especially in high school and college? They get math without music. They get science without images, feelings and intuition. They get knowledge without imagination…So much for experiencing space-time through music. So much for working out ideas in images and feelings and musical architectures for which there are no words or symbols. So much for sitting down at the piano and letting the music show the way.”

This of course speaks to the wider role that the arts play in fusing forces for social change and creative new codes. We need to encourage donors, funders and governments to invest in communities that want to use the arts as a tool for social change. We need to allow these groups room for the edgy, the radical, the risk taking that allows for new stories, strategies and structures to emerge. And also old stories that rekindle, recast and reconnect what we’ve learnt and what we need to apply.

Many women I’ve met in villages and communities around the world have used stories, poetry, song, dance, art and writing to express themselves and to connect with others and gain confidence. Especially after being isolated and violated by their husbands or after a major crisis or disaster when they feel crushed or silenced and often with little hope or voice.

Giving women and girls the tools to express themselves is powerful, whether it’s a suitcase radio to gain interview skills, a movie camera for a Girls Make Movies initiative, a musical instrument for breaking down barriers (West-Eastern Divan Orchestra) or a camera to capture one’s reality and change the course of history.

 Peter Dombrovskis’ iconic photograph of Rock Island Bend

Here I’m reminded of my own country, Australia, and the photographer Peter Dombrovskis’ iconic photograph of Rock Island Bend. This became the image that galvanized public opinion and inspired the national campaign to save the Franklin River from being dammed. Dombrovski was accompanied by another artist, the brilliant singer-songwriter Shane Howard, who wrote “Let the Franklin Flow“, which became the anthem for the campaign.  It was released as a single with a B-side, “Franklin River – World Heritage”, written and recorded by Bob Brown who went on to become the Leader of the Australian Greens Party.  With their images and music, these artists captured the imagination of a country and sparked a nation-wide protest that resulted in a High Court ruling that saved the Franklin River.  Citizen action often leads to systemic change.

I’m currently reading the classic book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin who chemically changed his skin from being white to being dark and then travelled the country for two months as a black man in 1959.  Griffin tried to imagine what it would be like to be black and oppressed in his own country, at a time of deep segregation in the south; he wanted to feel human rather than white, and for it to be experienced rather than imagined.  The resulting book Black Like Me sparked a firestorm of activism across the country.  This was a risky undertaking and a donor put up the money for Griffin to do this even as he tried to dissuade Griffin from doing it.  Even so, they both felt compelled by the cause of humanism and the hope that it would change public consciousness.

Lillian SmithGriffin was inspired by another writer, Lillian Smith, who was the director of the Laurel Falls Camp from 1925 to 1948.  Laurel Falls Camp soon became very popular as an innovative educational institution known for its instruction in the arts, music, drama, and modern psychology. Smith ended up publishing a small, quarterly literary magazine as a forum for liberal thought and kept up her advocacy against racism by writing Killers of the Dream, a collection of essays that challenged racist traditions, customs and beliefs, warning that segregation corrupted the soul.

In 1955 she wrote Now Is the Time to call for adherence to the new court decision that outlawed segregation in schools as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court case. Smith called the new ruling “every child’s Magna Carta.” Smith may not be known in the way that Griffin is known and yet her own actions were just as important.  This activism speaks to Helen Keller’s words that ‘the world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.’ In that same way, Einstein observed collective modes involving many atoms all oscillating independently within a cohesive whole.

[symple_testimonial by=”~Lillian Smith “]
So we stand: tied to the past and clutching at the stars! Only by an agonizing pull of our dream can we wrench ourselves from such fixating stuff and climb into the unknown. But we have always done it and we can do it again. We have the means, the technics, we have the knowledge and the insight and the courage. All have synchronized for the first time in history. Do we have the desire? That is a question that each of us must answer for himself.



And so Buffett’s call for humanism is exactly right.  So too is his call for a new code, a new story; a coda — a composition — for a new world.


[symple_testimonial by=”~Emily Dickinson“]
The Possible’s slow fuse is lit
By the Imagination.


Jane Sloane – San Francisco