This piece was originally published in Women's eNews.
Each year when Mother's Day approaches, I feel a mix of emotions: gratitude for my mother -- the most influential person in my life -- and pride in my children who made motherhood a reality for me.
I am also overcome with awe and sadness when I think about some of the most marginalized mothers around the world, whose stories are seldom told.
As president of American Jewish World Service, an international human rights organization, I have the privilege of working with extraordinary female activists in Africa, Asia and the Americas who are transforming their own communities. Many of these women are mothers. Three of them are Grace, Nimala and Ruby, respectively from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Uganda.
Knowing their stories means understanding that they have endured relentless hardship. But despite the oppression they face, these mothers are resilient women who define their own lives and effect critical change within their communities.
Since advocates for human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Uganda are constantly at risk of violent reprisals, these mothers have asked not to be identified with their real names. Let me tell you about them.
Grace is the mother of seven children. They are Pygmy, an ethnic group indigenous to Central Africa, and they live in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, a country rife with ethnic conflict. Living in the region of Mubambiro, where the local population depends on farming and agriculture for its livelihood, Grace and other Pygmies are considered second-class citizens. They experience acute stigma and discrimination from the neighboring Bantu tribe. Pygmy community members are frequently denied access to farmland and are often arrested or assaulted for gathering food in local forests.
"Like many other Pygmy families, my family does not have land to farm," Grace told me. "My children hardly ever go to school, and we do not have access to medical services. So, we are very vulnerable and live in dire poverty."
To support her children, Grace works as a porter, carrying goods for local community members, a job that yields only a few pennies each week. "Sometimes I venture into a nearby park to earn additional money collecting wood, but that's very dangerous," Grace said. "I can be arrested by the park keepers or I can be mugged by robbers and other bandits. Women are often sexually assaulted when they go to the park, so I need to be careful."
Fortunately, Grace and other Pygmy mothers are mobilizing to fight for their right to land, education and medical services. In partnership with an organization called Hope for Indigenous People, Grace is facilitating dialogues between Pygmy leaders and Bantu leaders in order to promote peaceful coexistence. "It is going to take time for us to break barriers," Grace said. "But we want to control our own destiny and support our children -- just like other mothers."
Nimala is a Tamil woman who lives in eastern Sri Lanka. In 2008 during the Sri Lankan Civil War, Nimala's husband, a local carpenter, mysteriously disappeared and tragically never returned, leaving Nimala to raise two children on her own.
Without an income to put food on the table, Nimala began doing daily wage labor as a farmer. The work took her far from her home and made her vulnerable to exploitation. What's more, she began to experience the stigma of being a Tamil "war widow," facing ongoing interrogation, harassment and violence by security forces. Neighbors spread rumors about her husband's disappearance and community members who had been Nimala's friends refused to associate with her.
Socially isolated and with a weekly income of only a few dollars, Nimala felt ill-equipped to care for her children. She considered sending them away to be cared for by Roman Catholic nuns.
With the help of a Sri Lankan organization called the Center for Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, Nimala soon met four other "war widows" in her community. Their husbands had disappeared under similar circumstances -- accused of supporting Tamil nationalism -- and now, as single mothers, they faced comparable challenges to keep their families afloat.
Motivated to turn their lives around, these women decided to establish their own farming collective. They saved enough money to lease community farmland where they now cultivate onions to sell in local markets.
Today, Nimala's income far exceeds what she had earned before. What's more, her success is changing the Tamil community's perceptions of war widows and of women's economic power.
"Earlier we felt ourselves to be laborers," Nimala said. "Now, we feel we are the owners of production. We're proud of our work, and we are proud to support our children independently."
Ruby is a single mother of two who lives in Uganda. When her children were babies, Ruby needed to find a way to support them. Sex work was the only job she could find that would enable her to earn enough money to feed her children.
Nearly everywhere in the world -- including Uganda -- sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies permit police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. For mothers like Ruby with limited options, sex work might not be desirable, but it's a way to earn a living.
One evening, when Ruby was out working, her 14-year-old daughter became very ill. Ruby was unable to take her daughter to a hospital and, consequently, community members began to vilify her. Neighbors called Ruby names and sneered at her as she walked down the street. They insisted that Ruby had brought shame upon the entire community, and they told her daughter that she should disown Ruby as her mother.
With the help of a Ugandan organization called Crested Crane Lighters, which advocates for the human rights of sex workers who face discrimination, police brutality and sexual harassment, Ruby joined with other sex workers to educate her community about their lives and the abuses they experience. She also helped launch a visibility campaign to ensure that sex workers are valued as community members, not reduced to stigmatized caricatures.
One of the leaders of Crested Crane Lighters said, "We want the world to know that we are mothers who care about our children -- just like every other mother. And we are human beings who deserve respect and equal rights -- just like every other human being."
Grace, Nimala and Ruby represent the ideals of motherhood that I hold dear: tenacity, strength and dignity.
On Mother's Day -- and every day -- I am reminded of how important it is to listen to mothers in the developing world, share their stories and be a partner in their struggle for human rights.
Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.
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