The YWCA: not just a fitness or social club. Emphasis shifts toward self-help projects for third-world women

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ASK someone you know to explain the purpose of the YWCA. You can imagine this response: ``Oh, yeah, my sister does her workouts there. The purpose? To keep people fit, I guess. To hold those social luncheons and handicraft classes.'' It's not likely that your friend would launch into a lengthy discussion of refugees, peace education, health care, the environment, and human rights. But in fact, those are the official priorities of today's World YWCA based in Geneva - priorities that are a well-kept secret to many people in this country.

``The image persists that perhaps the YWCA is involved in only fitness activities or in recreational activities or [providing] hostels,'' says Doreen Boyd, director of the World YWCA's international development projects. ``I believe we could have a stronger image in general of being more progressive and activist.''

This month Ms. Boyd, who is from Jamaica, and some 700 other women from 72 countries met at the YWCA's quadrennial meeting in Phoenix. It was the first such meeting ever held in the United States; the last meeting was in 1983 in Singapore. On Sunday, the women concluded 10 days of discussions on how the YWCA can best serve the needs of the estimated 6 million members across the world - particularly in developing countries.

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The focus and level of social action of YWCA programs varies greatly. In some countries, the YWCA is still viewed as a social club with folk art and handicraft classes. Other national YWCA associations are characterized far more by grass-roots political action.

The YWCA of Fiji, for example, is credited with spearheading the Nuclear Free Pacific campaign. And in Papua New Guinea, YWCA members marked Human Rights Day (last Dec. 10) with a strongly worded statement calling for action against racism, sexism, economic injustice, and especially against rape and domestic violence against women. ``Because of our understanding and commitment, we cannot be silent,'' the statement said, concluding: ``We are called to take action with those who cry for justice.''

But perhaps the most striking example of the YWCA's emphasis lies in its shift toward more development-oriented projects, and in the accompanying insistence that those projects be managed and controlled locally.

``We want them to decide what they want and what is best for them - not for the outsider to come in and say, `This is good, this is best,''' says Tapati Das of Bangladesh, World YWCA's secretary for self-reliance.

From local control, YWCA leaders believe, can come self-reliance. A ``shining example'' of this philosophy, says Boyd, is in the Madras region of southern India. There, the YWCA helped fund a mill to grind wet rice into a mush that in turn is mixed with spices and baked into the dosha and idley breads that are community staples. The project, which was run by 15 or so village women who previously had to grind the rice by hand, rapidly became economically self-sustaining and saved the women many hours of labor. Some of the women used the extra time to take literacy classes sponsored by the local YWCA. ``One woman said to me,'' Boyd recalls from a recent visit to the area, ```Now, when I go to town, I know which bus to take.' Another woman showed me her bank book. And she can write her name.''

The implications for a program like this, believes Boyd, include self-esteem and dignity. But she also believes a project like the Madras rice mill can lead to other development programs. ``What was really gratifying,'' she says, ``was to get word the other day that these women were now at a point where they wanted to support another group of women, both financially and with their own technical advice.''

YWCA members acknowledge that the emphasis on local control and self-reliance is relatively new. ``There was a period,'' says former World YWCA general secretary Elizabeth Palmer, ``where people thought they could help them only by giving them something. We're not saying that people don't need to be helped. But just deciding that somebody needs something and then giving it to them does not in the long run help their condition.''

This shift in emphasis has not come without discussion about the YWCA's purpose - discussion that continues today. ``We are really a middle-class organization,'' one member said. Many ``never saw it as their role to empower the women and to make sure the supervision of all of the programs goes into the hands of the people. That's the struggle which we have been going through.''

Despite this struggle, characterized by the internal debate and intense political differences of women from 80 countries, even some veteran members strongly endorse the organization's more activist focus. Ms. Palmer, who began working for the YWCA in New York City during the depression, says, ``Our understanding has grown over the years, to get at the root causes of poverty, of injustice, or racism. If women are convinced that there are certain structural problems within their society, they can eventually make a difference.''

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