Tag: Empowering Mothers

Empowering Motherhood

A growing trend in international development is to invest in women and girls. This is a smart strategy and reaps impressive rewards for women, families and entire communities as those women invest in those they care for. More and more girls and women are being supported in receiving education, micro-finance, family planning and other services. All of these are great, we are in full support! The international development field uses measures like delayed marriage and birth and fewer children and these are powerful indicators for the success this woman will have – again we are in full support. However, how about empowering women in one of their most important roles in their lives, that of being mothers?

Being a mother is an almost certain role a woman will have and being a mother in most societies earns a woman a new level of respect, praise and status, it is a role most communities celebrate. So, it can be limited when a woman in a remote village in Bangladesh is celebrated by her community for becoming a mother, while the international development community groans a collective sigh of defeat. Isn’t it possible to empower women in their role as mothers?


Hands to Hearts embraces a full circle of women’s empowerment. Education, marriage, childbirth, and parenthood mark a natural course of life. HHI believes motherhood can and should be celebrated. We recognize and are now working to fill the gap in women’s empowerment, and the gap that goes with this in the healthy development of children. HHI provides mothers with practical and applicable education about early childhood development (ECD) and we let women know their own power in creating their child’s lifetime foundation for health, learning and societal participation. According to a 2006 UNFPA study, one-quarter to one-half of the world’s girls will become mothers before reaching the age of 18 – who supports them as they cross the threshold of motherhood? New, holistic approaches of addressing motherhood are needed.

If parenting workshops were a standardized within development agendas, women’s empowerment would progress in full circle by targeting women at every stage of life. The role and responsibility of motherhood should not be disregarded in the exploration of female entrepreneurship, innovation, and empowerment. In fact, commemoration of this powerful capacity of motherhood could further magnify the acknowledgement of women’s potential in the economic, social, and domestic sphere.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan most aptly stated, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, or improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and eventually, whole countries.”

To embrace an encompassing empowerment model, Hands to Hearts International is striving to supplement international projects surrounding health, education and micro-finance programs with early childhood development workshops for the communities of caregivers and mothers. The mothers and the babies are eager and enthusiastic recipients of HHI’s education. The outcomes are empowered mothers, who are then able to better their children’s health, development and relationships for a lifetime. HHI believes these benefits ripple to us all.

"They received a healing"

It is Hands to Hearts’ goal to serve the most disadvantaged people, living in the most dire of circumstances. With this always at the forefront of my mind, when we recently needed to conduct some practice HHI trainings in the northern city of Lira, Uganda, I asked if we could train within the women’s prison. We drove past this prison everyday on our way to work with our colleagues at Medical Teams International and after learning that a number of the women here have their babies in the prison with them, I became slightly obsessed with making HHI available to them.

Since HHI only shows up by invitation, we began by letting the prison management know who we were and that we would make ourselves available to the women and children in their care. The officials were very enthusiastic and quickly extended an invitation for HHI to show up to lead a short training for the mothers.

Our national Master Trainer, Mukisa Lydia, led a small training team to the prison, where we expected to work with the 10 mothers who had their babies with them. But, as often happens, more of the women wanted to participate. What began as one training for only 10 women, quickly transformed into two trainings for all of the inmates and even the guards showed up and asked to participate. The women almost desperate for information, they were eager learners and asked lots of great questions. The women were so interested in the lessons that they convinced the guards to postpone lunch and extend the time the HHI Trainers were allowed to stay.

The end result of that first day was that over 40 women and 10 babies participated in several HHI lessons. The outcome was that the local HHI Trainers, via Medical Teams International, will continue to go to the prison regularly to meet the request to provide the entirety of HHI’s lessons.

Lydia put it beautifully as she described, “they received a healing”. I can only imagine the babies felt the same way.

Teaching & Learning with the Mothers

A few weeks ago I introduced you to the amazing women of Locan Rebe, in Kampala, Uganda (see 2 entries down, Uganda ~ Courage, Survival & Inspiration ). Their history would give them labels such as “victims” and then “survivors” – of war, of refugee camps, of rape, terror and poverty, or they could have the labels of “slum dwellers” or “HIV+”… but I now feel I know them and these are not the words that come to my mind to describe any of them. (And just as a side note, I do not think I have ever seen anyone “dwell” in a slum, I have seen them work tirelessly, struggle, overcome unthinkable daily obstacles, unite, battle, collapse and rise again, and yes, I see them “survive”, but never have I seen them “dwell”).

Last week, HHI led our trainings about early childhood development in Kampala, teaching the mothers of Locan Rebe about how every day they can and do make a dramatic difference in their child’s health, nutrition and development. As usual the women reveled in the opportunity to learn, to listen, talk and interact. They soaked up the information and engaged deeply in learning how to observe and understand what the babies were communicating.

It was fascinating to see that some of the mothers, and the grandmothers, who have raised over 10 children, initially were not able to identify the different body language of a happy/snugly baby, versus the slightly annoyed, upset baby. Many of us think these signs would be obvious. In the US we are flooded with baby books, baby DVDs and shows, and most US parents are hyper-attentive, potentially even obsessive, to every nose scrunch and wiggle, but this is not the case in many places of the world. Consider an environment where there are no book stores, let alone bookstores with entire baby sections. Environments where schooling is a privilege that is hard to come by, hours of everyday are consumed by a long walk to a community water pump where you stand in line under the scorching sun, to then turn back around and haul this precious, though extremely heavy treasure back to your home. These are places where hunger is a daily issue and being able to serve your children one meal a day is a triumph, while at night you wrap your children’s group bed with a mosquito net (if you have one), which make the night even more hot and stifling, but keeps them alive. By now you might have a slightly better understanding of why theses mothers may not have spent their time taking careful notes about their baby’s moods and communication.

It turns out that the component Hands to Hearts’ teaches about understanding a baby’s communication is one of our most popular and life altering. It gives mothers a whole new insight into what their baby wants and needs and it then allows them to better meet these needs, thus improving their ability to care, soothe and nurture their children – the bonds of trust and love grow stronger, in both directions. As one mother from this training group put it, “this has reminded us of what we have forgotten as being the best of mothers to our children.” Another reported in her training evaluation, “this has changed my life, I will never be the same.”

This returns me to how I now describe these women. The words that come to mind are “inspiring”, “loving”, “committed”, “tenacious” and overwhelmingly “generous”. They left HHI’s trainings with powerful new insights into themselves and their babies, and they left me humbled, inspired and more determined than ever to bring Hands to Hearts to mothers and caregivers around the world!

And, lastly, I will echo the same sentiments, “this experience changed me, I will never the be the same”.

See all the pictures from these trainings on our FaceBook page – click

Tribal Village ~ Time Travel

I have spent the last week visiting HHI training sites in the state of Tamil Nadu. It has been an almost indescribable experience, India at times gives you the feeling of traveling through time. The first site I visited here with Sujatha, HHI’s local trainer, was a tribal village of 20 families. This group was living in a cave on the side of the mountain until about 3 years ago, when the government built them a modest, and semi-modern village at the base of the mountain. The motivation from the government was that at the top of this mountain is a sacred temple and is therefore a significant and increasingly trafficked pilgrimage site. They now have cement homes, a nearby school (which some of their youngest are now attending as the first generation to receive a formal education), they also have running water, and satellite dishes for TV.

So, 20 families lived in here… likely hundreds of years.The space is as small as it appears, though there was a small upper chamber that I didn’t wish to venture into barefoot (my shoes were held at the bottom of the mountain, as I was considered to be on sacred ground).

The mommies here are as young as 13-years-old and they are married most often to much older men and polygamy is the norm, with each man having 3-4 wives. They are very eager to grow their tribe and each woman has 2-5 children. This group was a fascinating glimpse into a completely unknown world to me. I was very curious about what they learned from HHI’s training and what of that did they choose to apply. With the help of Sujatha translating, I was able to learn that they had understood some of HHI’s core lessons, mostly in regards to hygiene. Previously the babies were not so much toilet trained, as left alone to soil the floors of the cave and now more recently the houses. The mommies reported that they now understood the health and sanitation issues that this caused and they were more attentive, taking the young ones outside and encouraging toileting there, as well as cleaning them after.

Other answers were about the women keeping themselves and their children cleaner, particularly for the hygiene of breastfeeding, but again ensuring improved hygiene for all the children with more regular bathing, which was demonstrated behind me by an older brother while I was speaking with the mothers.

The whole concept of attending a training was a very new idea to this group, as none had even attended any formal schooling, nor any type of training before. They were a lively group, preferring movement to sitting and activities to lecture – luckily HHI is designed with these ideals firming in place and they had a very positive first experience.

My compliments to Sujatha for her work with these mommies and also, my compliments to these mommies for being willing to learn and try new things in effort to provide their children with better health.

Gypsy Mommies Love Their Babies & HHI

Over the last several months Sujatha, HHI’s Master Trainer in India, has been working with a local non-profit whose mission it is to prevent female infanticide. Female infanticide is an unfortunate reality in India, particularly in rural and deeply impoverished areas, it is the intentional killing of baby girls due to a variety of reasons, but it mostly boils down to girls are still often seen as a financial burden and of little value to their families. Sujatha has joined forces with the female infanticide prevention program by invitation, with everyone recognizing the power of educating mothers and building the bonds of love between mother and child, knowing that the benefits will ripple far beyond that woman and baby.

Last week Sujatha conducted trainings in the remote tribal areas of Kathirvelpuram and Periyakulam. Here she led two trainings with mothers and grandmothers from the gypsy community. And, it was interesting and heartening that the fathers and grandfathers also attended, but they sat outside of the women’s group and did not wish to have their pictures taken – a beautiful first step! In this community of 150 gypsys, the mothers are all very young, few have had any access to formal education, but they obviously love their children. To attend an HHI training, they are all willing to fore go two days of wages they earn in the fields, instead they choose to learn. HHI’s training teaches them how important the earliest years are for child development and how they can improve their own baby’s brain development – this is how happy they to participate!

I am particularly humbled to see these mothers and grandmothers. It is clear that their training site may only a dirt patch, they do not have any fancy toys, books or almost any other resource but their own intelligence, thirst for new knowledge and their love! (And the beauty of HHI is that this is all that is required.) They are eager learners and they are proud to be given a training that is just for them, this is something they consider a huge privilege, regardless of the training facilities, and it causes tremendous pride.

Sujatha (wearing the blue top in this picture) is now known throughout this entire region. She travels on the local buses throughout the area to give these trainings and she has now trained 100′s of village mommies in the importance of early childhood development via HHI. It seems that she has become something of a local celebrity, all the pregnant women and the young mothers, and even the grandmothers find her on the buses and want to sit with her, talk with her, tell her their stories of how they are using their knowledge and how their babies are learning so quickly. The women are so proud and they are eager to share and to learn more. The power of education at its finest!

I just traveled to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family and for me that was something to be thankful for. But, when I see the beauty of what Sujatha, HHI and these women are creating in the most remote and deprived areas of India, I somehow feel that I move beyond thankful, I have the experience of being deeply, profoundly humbled.

See all the pictures – click here.

Also, this training for the gypsy community was so significant, as it is so unusual for such a resource to be available to this community, that the local Tamil Newspaper came to cover the story.