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Women who shoulder the world's burdens with grace

By G. Jefferson Price III / April 10, 2006


On a blistering day last summer, in the Kawa Fako community of Niger, where people were starving to death, an important man dressed in billowing blue robes and an Arab headdress stood before a crowd of people waiting for food and said:

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"Make sure the women take the food."

The women! I thought. They are not usually even allowed out of the house in the daytime, though on this day they were all out, dressed in marvelously colored clothing, some struggling in the shadows of the trees to suckle their emaciated infants.

The men of the community were all lined up, waiting to take the emergency food supplies that had been brought to the village by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a humanitarian relief agency based in the United States.

"If the men keep it," someone explained, "all the food would not get to the families. Too much of it would be bartered for other things the men want, like beer."

There are many good men in places like Kawa Fako, where during chronic droughts people barely survive on weeds and berries until aid organizations like CRS arrive to offer food and supplies.

In the world's harshest places, men struggle, as women do, to help their families survive. But the heaviest burdens often fall on the women, whose children are with them throughout the day as they work in the fields or do domestic chores.

CRS, the relief and development agency of the US Catholic community, is only one of the scores of United Nations, government, and nongovernmental organizations striving around the world to bring food and other means of support to the world's most vulnerable people. Among others working with equal diligence are CARE, the International Red Cross, Oxfam, and World Vision.

But CRS is the agency I've spent most of the past year with. It is the organization that brought me face to face with the women who toil with extraordinary grace and dignity - even a sense of humor - in circumstances of unimaginable hardship.

In Kawa Fako that hot August day, I met Binta Amadou, a mother of three children, one a hungry infant named Hayizu struggling to get milk from his mother's breast. "I have not much milk," she told me with the help of an interpreter.

"We had anza but now there is no anza," she said matter-of-factly about the bitter pea-sized berry that grows on desert bushes. It is softened and boiled into a bitter broth, often the only sustenance in a land chronically devastated by drought. In Niger, 1 of every 4 children dies before the age of 5 - the second-highest mortality rate for young children in the world.

Binta Amadou's day starts early. She rises at dawn to cook whatever she has, awakens the children, and washes them with water that is brought to their small hut from a nearby well. She helps her husband prepare for his day and then she forages for whatever food she can find to cook. When there was no more anza, she said, "we boiled leaves from trees and weeds."

In these circumstances, one would expect cries of bitterness or the groan of despair. But here, the women of Kawa Fako are serene and smiling, awaiting their delivered bounty: 220 pounds of millet, 33 pounds of beans, three gallons of cooking oil.

"Tonight we will have a feast," Binta Amadou said, laughing. "then we will save the food to last us for the next 40 days."

My travels over the past year have brought me to many women like Binta Amadou. I have met them in remote villages of Angola and Madagascar, on the sunbaked reaches of desert in Darfur, Sudan, where they have fled marauding militiamen who murder and rape and plunder. They exist in northern Uganda, where antigovernment rebels kidnap children and force them to become murderers and sex slaves. I have met them in the remote villages of India, where some 300 million people live below the $1-a-day poverty line. And I have met them in places closer to home, like Haiti, the poorest land in the Western hemisphere, and in Colombia, a country also struggling with decades of conflict.

There is no hall of fame for these women. But in the lands they inhabit, these women are the indispensable backbone of society, the glue holding their families together.