women-force-usha-rai from fineartamerica.com

This week’s contributor: Magdalena Brand

Too often, women living in extreme poverty are relegated to the category of “victim,” because their capacity to revolt and resist is not recognized. It is apparent that these women are victims of both gender inequality and of extreme poverty, but when we fail to recognize the active role they play, we continue to perpetuate the myth that submission and inferiority are somehow innate in the lowest-income communities. Certain social welfare institutions in Europe and North America, as well as certain development programs in Africa or Latin America tend to see women in extreme poverty as passive, indifferent and even unaware of their oppression, tolerating a situation that no better-off woman would tolerate. This attitude is based on the idea that women living in extreme poverty are only victims, incapable of acting on their own behalf.

Women living in extreme poverty are more often than not considered as bad mothers or bad workers, yet they constantly make sacrifices to fulfil both roles. They are often obliged to choose between working to earn a livelihood or staying with their children to protect them from the violence of extreme poverty.

“I’m not going to hire a child minder who does not stay with their own children.” What Mrs. Vicky W. from Luxembourg is told at a job interview expresses the extent to which the work of very poor women is discredited by women of other social backgrounds. She was not hired as a child minder because she does not live with her children; her own children were taken into foster care because she and her partner did not have secure housing or income. Now that she has found housing and hopes to be reunited with her children, she is criticized for not having an adequate income to look after them.

Women living in extreme poverty carry out undervalued and sometimes shameful work, in employment fields where they are considered interchangeable, or in self-employment where they are unprotected. They work in informal or unregulated sectors, without health insurance, a fixed salary or paid leave. The differences in work and income between men and women are less important than for people in other social backgrounds, and most women work outside the home, often alongside their partners. Others are often the sole income earners in the household and it is often the young girls who become household heads. As well as their work outside and inside the home, women living in extreme poverty have to travel long distances or wait for hours in offices to access support from institutions or charitable organizations.

Social welfare policies often end up in increased control over low-income women, over their bodies and their relationships with their children and their partners. Because these policies, often intended to protect women, were not thought out in partnership with those living in extreme poverty, their results can be paternalistic, or can turn into sanctions against women.

Access to contraception and abortion are rights which are demanded by women in the Fourth World People’s Universities and sterilization is practiced in a freely consensual manner by many women living in poverty but both, sterilization and abortion, have also been imposed on low-income women at different times throughout history until now, by force or economic constraints, within the framework of family planning policies, looking not to give them access to their rights but to control a population judged as undesirable by controlling poor woman’s bodies.

Taking children into foster care, putting them up for adoption and putting children and young people into group homes, although intended as a means to relieve the burdens weighing on women living in extreme poverty, are too often instead tools used to control and punish a whole social class.

Mrs. Alicia from Peru recounts, to leave I had to pay for my hospital stay. The nurse told me, ‘If you don’t pay; we’ll keep the baby, why would you take her if you’re not able to look after her? If you don’t have enough money to leave hospital, you won’t have enough to feed her.’”

In France, social services call Mrs. Céline Lenand to explain to her that her baby will be taken into care. She flees the hospital to look for her partner, but when she returns her baby is no longer there. He will be placed in a foster home. The reasons, given to her, are her previous stays in a psychiatric hospital and her partner’s recent homelessness.

In Africa, there is a whole context: the responsibility of many sectors creates conditions where the children of very poor people can be considered orphans and adopted internationally. Their parents are considered invisible, because of their lack of means to provide for their children. In Burkina, Awa, a young single mother was offered a training program, if she agreed to give up her daughter for the four years of training. Her older sister Mariam, also living in the streets, told us later that she convinced Awa not to go, telling her “you will never see your daughter again”.

For women living in extreme poverty, as opposed to women from other social backgrounds, family ties and children are a resource against extreme poverty. Many of them struggle to make the home a place of resistance to the violence of extreme poverty that they and their partners have undergone at work and in the street, violence that goes as far as killing their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters.

Their status as mothers and as workers, even if invisible and undervalued, turns them into actors of change for themselves, their family and their community. The lowest-income women, as activists in their own right, have to be at the heart of places where decisions are taken on questions of gender.


Magdalena Brand is a PhD candidate who teaches sociology at the Université Paris 8-Vincennes/Saint-Denis. Her research concerns experiences of oppression and resistance of women from Central Africa who earn a livelihood from providing sexual and domestic services for expatriate French citizens in Bangui. She is an active member of ATD Fourth World and is an activist in feminist groups in Paris, France.


By Diana Skelton (United States)

In New York City in the days following September 11th, 2001, we saw an outpouring   of volunteerism and fellowship. New Yorkers, who are so often criticized as being rude and unfriendly, came together for candlelight vigils, to feed and encourage the heroic rescue workers at 3 am, and simply to look strangers in the eyes with mourning as we walked among flyers describing the thousands of people still considered “missing”. In those days and weeks, the city was also blanketed with American flags, hastily printed in tabloids and cut out to tape to every window, flags woven or knitted and sent to school-children from as far away as Japan–and flags displayed by immigrants in the taxis they drive and on the cash registers of every tiny 24-hour convenience store they run.

“Jingoism,” said a Tanzanian friend of mine. His word surprised me. In the face of such a massive terrorist attack, in the face of the deaths of people of every social and ethnic background and religion, the flags at first seemed like an affirmation of the desire to live in a pluralistic society, one where the Twin Towers represented many things: not only the place of work for talented financial wizards and working-class people in the service industry, but a place hosting many free cultural performances open to all, and also a place of worship where Muslim prayers were held regularly in some of the stairwells. But the past decade has proved my friend overwhelmingly right. The wars the United States has waged in Afghanistan and Iraq and an ever-more polarized political dialogue have turned the US into a place where the idea of building a community center and place of worship two blocks from the World Trade Center site led to nationwide fear-mongering, simply because the community involved is Muslim.

How can the anniversary of 9/11 be an opportunity for us to move past jingoism and fear-mongering? In the Arab Spring, we have seen many brave people rise up against repressive governments. While admiring their courage, some Americans are worried that religious belief is a source of inspiration for some of the protesters. But seeing religion as one source of organizing for social protest should not look unfamiliar to us:

  •  When 19th century slaves were forbidden to congregate, the only way for them to speak together of freedom was in their own religious observances where their spiritual songs could take inspiration from Exodus and Moses.
  •  In the 1960s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was an important step toward civil rights.
  •  Many different religious groups helped organize the protest movement against the Vietnam War.

Anthropologist Saba Mahmood, whose work focuses on Egypt and the Middle East says, “There is a desperate need to challenge the current way of framing things, as a civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West. This way of thinking is not only dangerous but also unsustainable […]. I believe that we have the historical language and analytical skills to think differently, to imagine a future in which Islam and the West are not locked in some zero-sum game.”

Looking back on these past ten years calls to mind Langston Hughes’ 1938 poem, “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”) […]

O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!

On this anniversary of that day that changed everything in America, may we work toward the America built on volunteerism and fellowship, the America with equality for all in the air we breathe.



Some people chose to work toward equality for all in the Fourth World Volunteer Corps. Witnessing the courage and hope shown by people suffering extreme forms of discrimination inspires Volunteer Corps members to invent a wide range of innovative actions, projects and partnerships to combat poverty:


Author: Nina Yuson (Philippines)

Photo acknowledgement: The Developing Foundation

I have been postponing my article for the english blog for many reasons. I can’t pinpoint what would make me want to write an article. That I’d have to be very strongly agitated to write. And there are several things that do make me agitated these days. I know that these are part of the fibers of life that I have to deal with. This includes the controversial Reproductive Health (RH, in short) bill that is being heatedly discussed in our Philippine legislature and should either fail or pass the Lower House or Congress, which have congressional representatives from all over the country and the Upper House or the Senate. What makes this bill stalled is the strong opposition from the Catholic church. As you know, our country has a strong and opinionated Catholic church especially if it has to do with ‘morality’. This RH bill has become their ‘moral’ issue as they claim that the contraceptive pills and educating people about this is like aborting life. The rationale they give is that we are teaching our kids too early in school (grade 5) about ‘sex’. The pro-RH advocates have shown through medical studies, United Nations World Health Organization statements and even some opinions from more vocal catholic priests that these contraceptives are not ‘abortifacients’ and that life in fact will be saved. Think of the hundreds, thousands of infants born daily to mothers who have over 5 children and can no longer feed or care for the newborn. These are the many poor whose lives are greatly ignored by the Philippine government. The bill in effect is not for those who can afford to buy contraceptives over the counter and these are the ones who live in gated communities (about 20% of the total population). It is the poor and the poorest who cannot purchase this contraceptives because they would choose to buy food for their family – a fish costing a pack of pills. And many of the poorest still do not know how to do ‘family planning’.

I have marched with these women who voice their rights. The last one I joined was about 3 or 4 years ago. We were rallying against the grievous corruption in the government led by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The women’s groups are from the poor sectors, made aware through a lot of meetings and discussions on the need to speak out. This was an opportunity for our own group of women to be in solidarity with them. Our motley group of women came by car and joined the bigger crowds at the meeting point. We walked through the districts of Manila in the blazing mid morning sun until we reached the rally stage in front of a big church. It felt good to be with these women, knowing that they came to the venue by walking or taking public transportation. Many of them live in crowded ‘informal’ dwelling areas in Manila.I didn’t think I could last the rest of the day, listening to speakers on stage, so I hailed a taxi and went home. I fell asleep and woke up a few hours later realizing that I hardly moved, my whole body ached. Think of those women who had to return home by walking and still had to wash clothes,cook and feed their families…if they had food on the table.

It is a daily awakening here. You drive and see pockets of poverty all around. Children running and playing scantily clothed, men just sitting outside doing nothing and the women pregnant and carrying her baby or washing clothes by the streets. Many of them are originally from a province and have come to Manila, hoping that they could earn a living. Many are unemployed. A saving grace is the compassion they have for one another, sometimes sharing whatever they have, though little it may be, with each other. But how far can this go?

If a member of a poor family finds a job, everyone depends on him or her. Those who are luckier and have jobs abroad (they mostly work in construction sites, are domestic helpers or caregivers or sea farers) are able to help their families here. They faithfully send home their earnings to their families here. These ‘remittances’ is what keeps our country afloat. The biggest setback of our overseas filipino workers is the loneliness they experience, being away from their loved ones. There are also reported cases where the filipino women are abused and raped by their employer, a few have returned to our country in a coffin. Is money the answer to happiness, one asks?

I ask myself, who can help our filipinos? So many have tried, including ATD in Manila. Poverty will remain, as long as we are too busy to notice it and do something, even small to help raise awareness that something needs to be done, not tomorrow, but today.

image from portal.unesco.org

Author: Matt Davies

I’m just back from the United Nations in Geneva where over 100 representatives from Members States, United Nations’ bodies 2011 discuss ways in which to take forward the work on Draft Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The basis for the meeting’s discussion was the progress report produced by the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The meeting represented an opportunity for stakeholders to take part in a formal consultation exercise to feed into the drafting process of the Guiding Principles.

The Draft Guiding Principles, set to be adopted by the United Nations in 2012, is the first attempt to bring together accepted human rights norms in one text and offers action-orientated steps for practitioners and policy-makers to follow in order to ensure people in extreme poverty can claim and enjoy equal enjoyment of rights, thus furthering the fight against poverty and exclusion.

I was there re representing ATD Fourth World, alongside Florence Tissières, an activist experiencing poverty herself, who is involved in supporting families in the Geneva area who struggle to have their rights respected. She had been invited by the organisers to take the floor and explained that what was needed from the point of view of people in poverty was to look than only the financial aspects. “All the consequences that emanate from surviving against poverty should be taken into account – illness and poor health, debt, exclusion etc. A comprehensive approach is necessary if we want to fight poverty effectively.” In conclusion she stated that, “The global fight against poverty never moves fast enough. We expect States to take this report seriously as its content represents a potential step forward for those who are furthest from claiming their rights.

During the two days discussion, participants discussed what needed to be improved in a final text of the Draft Guiding Principles and what was missing that should be incorporated into a final version. Topics addressed ranged from the right of each country to have the means and resources to develop, the effects of corruption on people in extreme poverty and the conditions to be considered in order for the poorest in society to participate meaningfully in anti-poverty strategies.

These kinds of discussion often risk becoming highly technical and forget who the intended beneficiaries of their work. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the floor and recall the participants present of the words of doña Silvia Velasco from a very poor community in Peru, who after the consultation in Geneva in 2009 stated that, “We have sown a seed in the ground so that in the future, our children no longer live in the same poverty as us and so we can reap the fruits of this seed, because they represent the world’s future.

The results of this experts’ consultation seminar, as well as the written contributions that have been received, will be submitted for revision to the Human Rights Council in March 2012 and will inform the Special Rapporteur in her submission of a final version of Draft Guiding Principles to the Council for adoption in September 2012. In her closing remarks, the Special Rapporteur recalled that, “The timeline must be looked at from the perspective of people in extreme poverty – we must avoid further delay.”

In his closing statement, the Ambassador of Morocco said that, “Wherever there is extreme poverty, dignity is swept aside: it’s a black zone, without rights. We have lost enough time – 20 years ago ATD Fourth World introduced this idea, and I thank them for it. It’s taken 10 years for us to elaborate these Guiding Principles. The essential has been done, we have to finalise them and put them into practice.

It’s up to us as civil society organisations to not let States off the hook and see that his words come to fruition

(from Matt Davies’ personal blog: Lifting the poverty curtain) http://povertycurtain.blogspot.com/2011/06/potential-step-forward-for-those-who.html



Author: Anne-Sylvie Laurent ( Manila, Philippines)

If it was my first time to attend a NGO cultural activity held at a Manila public cemetery, I may meet Analyn, a four-year old girl who lives there with her family. I will surely notice that she wears worn-out clothes with some dust on her skin that has left some dark traces on her face. I will notice she is shy and sometimes looks lost. But I have to go beyond these observations.

So if I manage to become a regular attendee and have the chance to interact more often with Analyn…

I will still notice the worn-out clothes and dust on her face. But now, I will observe the following: During the reading time, she will sit on a mat and will grab a book about animals. The book’s pages filled with pictures of reptiles like snakes, frogs, and lizards; in many shapes and colours. On each picture, she will turn her face to me and will comment with an expressive awe: “”Wow, a big frog! Wow, it’s all green!”

It is not every time that Analyn expresses herself with a wide smile.

Also, I will be able to share this story. One day, I received tickets to a Metro Manila park for an outing. I asked Analyn’s mother if her daughter could join the outing. She agreed and gave her permission. On the day of the outing, I went first to Analyn’s house to see if she could come since it was not always easy for her to join a group.

Half an hour before the departure time, Analyn sat next to her mother. She wore a beautiful dress with her hair neatly brushed and her backpack filled with snacks. Analyn went inside the jeepney; waiting for the other children. During these moments, her mother came at least three times to check if she was fine. She affectionately told her: “Don’t be shy. You’ll tell them if your stomach aches.”

From the evident love and care that Analyn’s mother has shown to her, I strongly realized a thought: I don’t say there is nothing that could be improved by Analyn’s family for her to have less dust on her skin when she joins our activities. But whether I like the idea or not, I have to keep in mind that when I go to this cemetery, I actually enter into their community and their neighbourhood. Their houses are small and the Philippines is a warm country. Therefore, children spend a lot of time outside.

And what do children do? They play. They climb trees. They run. They sweat.

And they don’t wear their Sunday dress while doing these activities.

They own their community. And well, it’s a long time that I haven’t climbed trees.

Author: Diana Skelton (Pierrelaye, France)

“Competition breeds excellence” is a mantra I heard growing up. But excellence at what exactly? Some of the most competitive business schools in the United States have trained finance wizards to gamble on the value of basic human necessities, like food and homes, winning huge profits for themselves, while bankrupting many others. In the weeks following the Haitian earthquake, we saw many distributions of food that were unannounced and took place in a very short time period, creating brutal competition. When people must continually compete for their very survival, how can we ever hope to end violence?

At the same time, many of us are learning that more innovative paths toward excellence can draw on the wisdom of groups. Collaborative learning that truly leaves no one behind can enable an average group of students to achieve extraordinary results.[1] Crowdsourcing has developed resources like Wikipedia that may be imperfect but are self-correcting, multi-lingual and continually updated in ways that no printed encyclopedia could ever hope to match. In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki shows how the diversity of a crowd can increase its knowledge so that it can make a more informed decision than any single member of the group could have.

Today more than ever, we need to diversify and increase our collective wisdom in order to cope with the many environmental, economic and human challenges we face. And yet there are a billion people in the world who never have the chance to contribute to the fountain of human knowledge because they live in extreme poverty. In Africa this may mean having only a few years of schooling; in Europe it may mean schooling that is continually interrupted by getting burnt out of one home, evicted from another, and remaining the outsider who is bullied in each new neighborhood.

Despite these obstacles, it is possible for people living in some of the most difficult situations of poverty to develop their own capacity for excellence through innovative projects. In Madagascar, for instance, a group of young people living at a garbage dump and in a very disadvantaged district have made a commitment to helping one another to complete a unique computer training program. The idea that none of them would be left behind became a strong motivation and they went out of their way to work together. They did so well that despite not having completed high school, they have now been hired by a company that considers their work on a par with college-educated computer technicians.[2]

Instead of competing to exploit the planet’s abused resources, we owe it to ourselves to enable every one of the “bottom billion” people to contribute to our collective knowledge, in hopes that one day the human race as a whole will achieve excellence as we find new ways to live together.


Author: Moraene Roberts (London, England)

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is promoting good citizenship through what he terms “The Big Society”, encouraging ordinary people to give time to support individuals and organisations in their communities as volunteers. As the cuts in services imposed by his Government take effect on the most vulnerable, an army of such volunteers will be needed to fill in the gaps and many want to, and already do, help others. This can create confusion when those wanting to volunteer are receiving benefits.

There is an ongoing campaign in the UK of vilifying and criminalizing people who “cheat” the benefit system. We hear and read the phrase all the time, ‘benefit cheats’, and we think we know what that phrase means. Benefit cheats are people, who claim thousands of pounds of benefits while working; who claim benefits by pretending to be injured or disabled while fully fit; who claim benefits saying that they are lone parents while living with a man who works; who deliberately set out to commit benefit fraud. Is this really the profile of everyone who could be labelled a benefit cheat?

What would we call Ian, who often helps his elderly neighbours with D.I.Y jobs that they can’t manage? In return he usually gets a nice Sunday lunch and five pounds to buy a couple of beers – is Ian a benefit cheat or a member of David Cameron’s Big Society? And then there is Rani, whose sixteen-year-old daughter Leah baby-sits for friends and family to earn enough to buy the essential things her mother – who is on benefits – cannot afford. This benefits the parents of the children she looks after and helps Leah develop skills and a work ethic. It also brings undeclared income into the home so, does it make them Big Society members or make Rani a benefit cheat? Hannah looks after her granddaughter while her daughter works which means that Hannah cannot job-seek as often as the benefit rules demand, but prevents both women being unemployed and on benefits, is she good citizen or a cheat? Even volunteering with a charity, a foundation stone of the Big Society can be interpreted as cheating if you are on Jobseekers Allowance.

Of course there are those who set out to cheat the taxpayer, sometimes on a massive scale, but many people fall foul of the letter of the law by not understanding that they are doing wrong. Benefit forms are complicated and the rules are complex. One mother has found herself in thousands of pounds of debt due to overpayments of disability benefits because she took in her homeless son but did not inform the relevant authority that he was living with her. She thought she was doing the right and decent thing, was no better off financially, but unknowingly broke the benefit rules. So who is a benefit cheat, do we really know what stories are behind the headlines?

If you are on benefits but do a little occasional work and get paid, you are called a cheat. What then should we call those on benefits who accept money from the Government to report any other benefit claimant who seem to be working? Are the payments offered to spy on neighbours and to report any apparent ‘work’ they are doing going to prevent people like Ian, Leah and Hannah from helping and supporting others? Should a mother have to consider benefit impacts when one of her adult children needs to move in with her or be homeless? Will this Government’s obsession with cheats completely undermine their ideal of a Big Society – with the result that only those not on benefits will be included and allowed to contribute?

Hello world!

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Blog

Welcome to Voices For Change: a bottom-up experience and approach to fighting injustice

This blog site will be offering its readers keys to understanding today’s world in the light of our experience and thereby to offer new ways of reflecting on the world for new social projects. We hope to participate in the growing  debate amongst citizens on the internet, which has become more and more the means by which ideas are exchanged and by which a common way of thinking is born.

So, there you go! Watch out for more exciting views from our bloggers!