On International Day to End Obstetric Fistula, we asked Brooke Sulahian, Founder of Hope for Our Sisters, to help us learn more about this tragic injury and the ways in which it might be prevented, treated, and healed.
During a recent children’s sermon, our pastor asked a dozen elementary students: “What do you like best about your mom?”
This past March marked the 7-year anniversary of the war in Syria. It is a grim anniversary, marking seven years of loss, suffering and displacement for millions of people across the Middle East.
In January, World Relief co-hosted a consultation on “Development, Gender, and Christianity” with Wheaton College and the Imago Dei Fund.
It's International Women's Day!
This year, we say “Thank God for Women” not only with our words but with our commitment to create a better world for women—a world where every woman and girl has the dignity, opportunity and security she deserves.
We’re incredibly grateful to author and spoken word poet Amena Brown, who wrote an original piece entitled For The Women. We invite you to watch and share this video as widely as possible, inviting others to join the dance and fight for justice.
“2018 will be the year of women,” states the title of a recent opinion piece on CNN. “Women are rising,” “harnessing their outrage,” and more “engaged, energized, and resolute” than ever before.
The Formation of The Sewing Program
In 2016, World Relief conducted a focus group with recently-arrived Afghan families in Seattle, WA. In it, we discovered that while many of the Afghan men are well-educated and fluent in English, most of the women, like Fatima, are pre-literate, meaning they cannot read or write in their own language. In Afghanistan, where women are culturally bound to stay at home surrounded by friends and family, this presents few issues. Isolated and alone in a new nation, and unable to communicate with others, however, this tradition was hugely damaging to these newly arrived women who were clearly suffering, and in some cases even struggling with depression.
Husbands in the focus group identified this isolation as an insurmountable challenge and sadness, and wanted an opportunity for their wives to participate in activities with other women. As we brainstormed solutions together, the group raised the idea of sewing. As we talked through the potential of a vocational ESL and skill-building sewing program, we realized that not only would it give the women the opportunity to learn new skills that are prized culturally, but that it could also pave the way for them to learn English and join together in community with other refugee women, supported by one another.
The barriers to developing a sewing program however, seemed insurmountable. Where would we find volunteer teachers, sewing machines and adequate space to provide a sewing class for this especially vulnerable group of women? How would we address the issues of transportation and childcare?
Enter Jeanine Boyle.
Jeanine attends Hillside Church, a partner of World Relief Seattle, and is also a national educator for the Singer Sewing Machine company. Three years earlier, Jeanine had felt strongly about starting a sewing class for women. She asked her company for some donations and received ten sewing machines for her class at a local non-profit, yet sadly the logistical issues did not work out. Consequently, Jeanine had 10 machines sitting in her garage.
With the help of Hillside Church and other volunteers, we cleared out space at the church that could be used for a sewing classroom, with an adjoining room for childcare. Two retired members of the church with carpentry experience helped to build four beautifully designed cutting tables, saving several thousand dollars. Our English (ELS) teachers at World Relief helped design the English portions of the class. And Jeanine, with her vast sewing education experience, developed a sewing curriculum. Volunteers came from churches all over, and in February 2017 we enrolled our first cohort of students.
For many of the volunteers this would be the first time they had ever interacted with refugee women, especially Muslim women. Even Jeanine herself had deep reservations about this new experience.
“My life did not include any contact with anyone of the Muslim faith. I had a lot of apprehensions about starting this whole journey. I had a fear of what I did not know. But teaching this class has been a life changing experience. I love these women.”
For highly skilled volunteers like Jeanine, this service is a sacrificial labor of love. Jeanine owns an interior design business and has to juggle her extremely busy business schedule to spend time teaching and preparing for the sewing classes. Yet Jeanine is motivated by love, and by her desire to help bear the burdens of these women, coming alongside them in support.
Debra Voelker, Missions Director at Hillside Church, also volunteers by managing the day-to-day operational details of the class. Debra drives over an hour to volunteer each week.
Like Jeanine, Debra realizes the burden these women face and seeks to ease it through love. She drives long distances and coordinates the many time consuming details each week in a tireless effort to foster and preserve the gift of life-giving relationships for these women.
“I’ve realized that women are women - wherever they are from. Our life circumstances are vastly different, but we have the same concerns – wanting to create a loving home for our families, wanting to provide for our kids, the joy of being in a safe community, and sharing with like-minded women,” Debra says.
The impact of our sewing program has been transformative. Many of the volunteers, including both Jeanine and Debra, have been invited into the homes of the participants and have reciprocated in kind. The sharing of food and friendship outside of class has formed lasting bonds. It has been a beautiful and mutually transformative journey for all the women involved.
Several weeks ago, I ran into Fatima at the local grocery store. She called out my name and we enthusiastically greeted each other in the bulk section. She asked about my children, my husband and my health. We compared our carts and asked each other what we were going to cook. We hugged goodbye and I got a little teary eyed as I reflected on the power of a simple conversation, which wouldn’t have been possible even five months before without the investment of amazing volunteers like Jeanine and Debra.
Yet our sewing program is just one example. Whether it be in the classrooms of Hillside Church, in local community gardens, in hospital waiting rooms, in social security lines, or simply in our living rooms at home, the loving relationships between our volunteers and newly arrived refugees and immigrants has been a joy to witness.
Jeanine and Debra’s story is one of so many, and it’s hard to put their dedication and sacrifice into words. We have volunteers who have sacrificed friendships and even jobs as they’ve embraced God’s call to welcome the stranger, put their love into action, and lighten the burden of others. Oftentimes they are fearful. Oftentimes they are reluctant. Oftentimes it just seems too difficult. Yet they listen, they trust, and the fruits are transformative not only for those they serve, but also for them. It is an example that inspires, and one that should encourage each one of us as we think about how we might continue to live lives of love in the year ahead.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2
Tahmina Martelly serves at the Programs Manager for World Relief Seattle. Originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tahmina lived in Yemen before arriving at a farm in Idaho. A registered dietitian by education, Tahmina has worked with refugee and immigrant resiliency projects for the last 25 years. Most recently, she taught at the University of Utah, division of Nutrition and developed and taught computer literacy classes at the Utah Refugee Education Center. Tahmina has been with World Relief Seattle since 2017 overseeing the new resiliency project multiplier and managing state-funded employment and case management programs.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
Listen, women. It’s been a particularly difficult year. The assaults, insults, and violence towards women in this country and around the world have been devastatingly awful.
Yet, the power, strength, beauty, and creativity found in women continues to rise. I’ve noticed women all around me, called by God, for purposes beyond themselves can’t be contained or shut down. Pastors, politicians, musicians, athletes rising, rising, rising, as they add love and justice and peace and beauty into the world.
Earlier this year, I started a new church — it’s called Sunday Supper Church — because I had heard from God that this is who He made me to be, and that it was time for me to lean into my calling, and follow Him as He made something great. I felt unqualified, insecure, and scared. But God’s gentle voice reminded me day-after-day, that we were in this together, and that because He had made me to do this, He wouldn’t leave or forget to help me.
Because when the call of God is clear, you can’t wait to start. You can’t wait for the day you don’t feel scared. You have to start scared. You can’t wait for permission, or for the negative internal voices to be silenced. You have to start without permission, while the doubtful voices continue to shout inside. You have to create and lead as God intended, because the world needs you and your unique, one-of-a-kind offering.
Women, the world needs us to lead as God intended, specifically in this difficult time, to lead with strength and wisdom and compassion. To stand tall and proud while doing our thing, unwilling to turn back.
As women, we might never have full permission to engage: in church, in our communities, in politics, or in the corporate world. But we’re going to lead anyway––overcoming withheld permission and our internal fears––because our permission to engage and lead comes from our Father. The one in whose image we are equally made.
Because that’s the thing about women.
They are brave and unstoppable, resembling their Maker.
I thank God for this unquenchable, courageous spirit in women.
If God has called you to do something—start a new church, open a business, start a family, travel the world, argue cases in court, train to be an elite athlete, do it! If you’re waiting for the right moment, enough money, everyone’s approval, the system to change, you’re going to be waiting a super long time. Don’t wait. Do your thing.
I thank God for women. Strong, brave, creative, unstoppable women.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
My mother was raised in a religious family. She taught me and my three siblings the basics of Christianity and taught us to love people around us. When my father died on the battlefield, my mother was there for us, uniting us as a family—loving and caring for each other even though we had hard times. As a single parent, it was never easy for my mother to provide everything but she made sure we had what we needed.
For many years, my mum worked endlessly to see that my siblings and I got the best education, all while looking for jobs that would sustain us as the needs of our family increased. We always had people from different backgrounds staying with us, and my siblings and I couldn’t understand why. As time went by I came to realize that my mum was always friendly and hospitable to everyone that came by. She wanted to give the best of her time to them.
After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi occurred, my mother and I moved from Uganda back to Rwanda (where she was born) to get a more stable life—my siblings stayed behind to finish school. For 6 years, we went back and forth between Uganda and Rwanda to visit my siblings because I missed them. I once asked her why she had brought me alone along with her and left my siblings behind. She told me that “I love you so much and your siblings can’t be with us now, but I love them very much too.” It wasn’t long before we were reunited with them for good. In the meantime, my mother had found a job as a nurse at a clinic in Kigali. The school I went to was close to the clinic and after school, I would meet her at work and we would walk home together.
The nature of my mother's relationship with me was not only of a child and a parent but also of a friend and confidant. She encouraged me and made me feel important to her. This made me a very confident person.
Along the way, my mother found salvation and she found new meaning and purpose in life. Life as a single parent was never easy for her, she was constantly striving hard to make ends meet—the weight of that was often heavy. With Jesus in her life, she was so much happier and full of hope because she had found faith.
In 2002, my mother started working with World Relief Rwanda, which at the time was helping people to understand and accept living positively with individuals who were HIV positive. She endeavored to get to know and establish relationships with them, so they could trust her and accept her teachings. As a result of her counseling and spiritual mentoring, these individuals were able to reunite and live in harmony with other people, which wasn’t the case before because a stigma had isolated them. The more she worked and the longer she stayed with them, the more my mother got closer to the most vulnerable.
The more I saw my mum go every week to spend hours and days with suffering people, the more I learned from the stories she shared about her experience. She always reminded me that even if it doesn’t feel like you have enough to give to the most vulnerable, physically being with them, praying with them and socializing with them provided relief and community for them. For over 15 years, she has always been an advocate of the most vulnerable, and most especially for women in the community.
In 2007, I joined a program called Choose Life at my high school to receive training to then train my peers in the community. I was excited for this opportunity because I was able to reach out to my fellow youth, and because of the stories my mother would tell me about serving the most vulnerable.
I thank God for my mum and her lifelong impact. Because of her I went on to study Computer Science in college where my passion to serve the vulnerable grew stronger and led me to pursue my second degree in Community Work and Development. She has influenced me to pursue the work I am doing today.
Bob Allan Karemera is World Relief Rwanda Strategic Partnership Officer for more than 4 years. In his role, he coordinates relationships with with seven church partners and donors, connecting and engaging them in meaningful ways to WR Rwanda’s work. With a degree from Mount Kenya University in Kigali in Social Work and Administration, Bob further developed his passion for community work.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
After living and working in South Africa and Zambia, Courtney O’Connell came to World Relief in 2011. With a master’s degree in International Development from Eastern University, Courtney took on the role of Savings for Life (SFL) Senior Program Advisor, supporting program staff in the nine countries where World Relief implements SFL. She loves living in Rwanda, close to where Savings for Life is being implemented, and when she's not working, Courtney can be found running and biking throughout Rwanda's beautiful countryside. Recently, Cassidy Stratton, World Relief’s Marketing Coordinator, had an opportunity to catch up with Courtney to hear how she’s seen World Relief’s Savings for Life program empower women around the world:
Cassidy Stratton: You noted that you had already lived in Africa for 3 years. How did you specifically get connected to World Relief?
Courtney O’Connell: When I was job searching, I knew I wanted to do economic development in Africa with a Christian organization, and so I just went to some of the big names that I could immediately think of. World Relief actually had my current position posted, so without even thinking, or even proofreading, I submitted my resume. And, by the grace of God, I got it.
In my previous work overseas, I had seen organizations that claimed to be Christian on the website, and when I went to the field to see their programs, there was actually nothing Christian about them. And I was not sure if World Relief was like that since I had not seen them overseas. So I reached out to a professor of mine who was writing a book for which Stephen Bauman, the president of World Relief at that time, was submitting a chapter. She forwarded me Stephen’s chapter, which was all about working with the church and the heart and soul of what World Relief is about. As I read it, I said “Man, that sounds really good! And if they are who they say they are then I would totally be in..”
As I left the U.S., I thought, “I’m not selling my car until they prove that they are who they say they are.” Not that my car was nice; it was my Grandma’s hand-me-down Buick. Well, I moved to Rwanda in July of 2011. And I immediately, I fell in love with the way we do our work. Everything Stephen wrote about was true. There truly is a partnership with the local church, and the desire is to see the local church shine, not the organization. And to really infuse and integrate biblical beliefs into programs. To me, that was so unique. I was, and still am, thrilled to be a part of an organization that cares for the vulnerable in the way we do.
CS: Can you tell me more about your current position?
CO: I am the Savings for Life Senior Program Advisor—a program that forms community-based savings groups, where people pool their own money together in order to give loans to each other, charging interest. And after a set period of time—approximately 9 - 12 months—everyone takes back the savings they had put in, plus the portion of interest that they earned. So then it’s a very useful amount of money that a family can use to pay for school fees, invest in their farm, start a business, repair their house and the like. The best thing is that it is all their own money. It’s not like a loan from a bank. And when they go home at the end of this cycle for savings, they have in their hands probably the most amount of money that they’ve ever had at one time. It’s such an empowering program, and it’s great to be a part of it.
World Relief is running this program in 10 countries, and my role is to work alongside the program managers and field staff that are actually running the program. My role is to support them, help set strategies, prepare proposals, and make sure they have all of the tools to run a successful program. It’s cool for me because I get to be pretty close to the action, and I get to walk alongside the staff, the real heroes who are doing the work. Sometimes I feel like a cheerleader, cheering the programs along and helping teams to see what’s possible.
CS: What role have you seen women play in the Savings for Life Program?
CO: In most of the context where we’re working, the women are the glue of the society. They are the strong one’s in the family who make things happen. Unfortunately in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the traditional gender roles are that the men are the ones who make all of the important household financial decisions and are the controllers of the money. The women are the ones who are tasked to provide for the family on a daily basis, yet they don’t have a lot of authority or even their own money to make things happen.
We hear a lot of testimonies from women saying that it’s embarrassing because they have to go and—they use the word “beg”—their husband in order to get money to buy salt, buy oil, etc. in order to prepare food. If she can’t prepare food then she is not doing her gender role. But in order to do her role within the family, she actually has to ask her husband for help. So it’s this huge power dynamic struggle.
The Savings for Life program worldwide is 80% women. And we see that women are the ones that benefit from this. They say now they do not have to beg their husbands because they can provide for themselves. They have this glow about them—this empowerment, this hope—because they feel like they are now doing the role that they are designed to do. Not only that, but they are also starting new businesses and paying school fees for their children, all things that had only been a dream before.
CS: Can you recall a specific success story of a Savings for Life group?
CO: I remember visiting a savings group at the beginning of their savings cycle, and they said to me, “We’re just poor people and can’t save, so can you give us money?” And then I actually went to visit that same group 9 months later when they were having the day of distribution. They literally had a table mounted with money. You could just see the joy, the hope, the empowerment, the confidence beaming out of them. And they were able to say, “This is our money, and no one helped us do this.” To me, this is what we’re here for. That’s the success. When people say that we can set our own goals and no one else has to do it for us.
CS: Is there a specific woman that has impacted your work?
CO: Another story I want to tell you about is about a woman named Adele. She lives in Burundi, one of the poorest countries where we work. It’s a beautiful country and has a lot of resources, but it also has a lot of poverty and corruption. Adele lives way out in the middle of a village, and Savings for Life comes that way, and she decides that she is going to join. During her first cycle of savings, she was able to buy a goat. This was the very first goat that her family owned. A goat out in the village is first a huge status and second a long-term savings. She was so happy to buy this goat. And by the second cycle of the savings program, she was able to buy a cow. Her family was able to use this cow to plow their fields. The savings group was impacting multiple areas of her life.
A few years after she joined the savings group, the community staff member approached her and asked if she could be a volunteer for Savings for Life, and she accepted. She got trained on how to be a volunteer village agent, and then she went out and started other training groups. Now she’s working in her own community and neighboring communities, helping to teach other people about this program that has been so impacting for her.
CS: How have you seen the savings groups also serve as support groups?
CO: The social aspect of the groups really help. There was a woman in a savings group that became a widow. She ended up moving back to her family, but she had a lot of relational problems and it wasn’t healthy for her stay in the household that she grew up in. And so her savings group actually built her a house. It was their own initiative. World Relief was not part of it at all. It was that this group of women cared for each other so much that they saw their sister in need and did something about it.
To me that is just really powerful how the social aspect of the savings group helps the women walk alongside each other to achieve their goals financially. And to just have social capital and strength. It helps relationships go way deeper.
CS: Have there been any women in your life that have influenced your work and the way you engage with women around the world?
CO: The small group that I’m a part of. There are women here in Rwanda that we meet on a weekly basis to walk through life together. There are challenges of living abroad, and being away from your home culture, and sometimes there are just frustration of life, and to be with other people who you know want the best for you and care about you and ask how they can help you. I have been impacted by that and have found a lot of solidarity and strength from these women.
I liken that to the solidarity and strength other women can get from their Savings for Life group.
CS: Why do you Thank God for Women?
CO: I thank God for women because I see the strength that they provide for their families and the hope that they provide for their children. Women are the ones in the family that are able to change course. Their family might have been living in poverty for generations and generations, but if a woman has hope, and has the confidence and the empowerment, then she can change that course for the generations to come.
And I think the real strength in rural communities, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, are the women who are holding everything together, making changes for their families and their kids. I think women are the changemakers in our world.
Give today to create a better world for women.
No one in their right mind would apply for a job that had no vacations, no pay, and a workload that more than doubles around the holidays—especially a holiday in your honor. More than any other holiday, Mother’s Day evokes the full range of emotions in people.
The propensity for a vast pendulum swing of sentiments is both deep and wide when it comes to Mother’s Day because mothering has so many different stages and phases.
There are the mommas that are in their first few moments of mothering. They are new to the journey and deep down inside they are wondering will I ever sleep again.
There are those in the trenches with little ones that wear the badge of food stains and puke on their shirts wondering, “will I ever take another uninterrupted shower in my life?”
There are those wading in the choppy waters of the testing years of motherhood. You have colored many grey hairs and your knees are wobbly and skinned from praying that your children would find a path that leads them to wholeness and freedom.
There are the single mom’s that are more than deserving of adorning themselves each morning in a super woman cape as they shoulder the responsibilities of being both parent and provider outside of a partnership.
There are those rejoicing with vibrant and fulfilling relationships with their children.
There are those mourning in the grief of a miscarriage, failed adoption, or loss of a child.
There are those walking the desert road of infertility. Feeling alone and discouraged choking back tears at every other woman’s baby shower and birth announcement.
There are the adoptive moms, foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms that pull children into their hearts and homes and love them as their own.
There are those who experience disappointment, heartache, and distance with their children and this day highlights and underscores the ever-present ache that you carry.
There are those who lost their mothers…and the missing of their own Momma vibrates through their being.
There are those who experienced abuse at the hands of their own mother—and they feel conflicted, challenged and even confused as to how to hold their range of emotions within their being.
There are those who are single and long to be married and mothering their own children and they try to hold their head high on this day when their heart feels tender with unmet desire.
There are step-moms, maneuvering their way through the intricacies of blending families together.
There are those who placed children up for adoption that still hold that child in their hearts.
There are those whose nests have become emptier and they are now steering a new ship with less cargo and the shift in weight has left them feeling unbalanced and uneven.
There are many more categories and complexities and certainly not enough sections in the card department for all the different “mothers” in this world.
Today on Mother’s Day, where we celebrate a job well done, a job that is often thankless & profitless and rarely deposits resources into our retirement funds.
Let’s choose to celebrate one another instead of comparing one another.
Let’s choose to delight in one another and the distinct ways in which we mother instead of disregarding our differences.
Let’s sprinkle praise and blessings and encouragement on all mom’s everywhere instead of remaining silent and secluded.
Let’s see and celebrate our children…. All children that we have the privilege to mother as sacred teachers sent from God that bring with them a spiritual curriculum to grow our souls to deeper levels of perseverance, character, hope and love.
Here’s to you Moms, may you delight in all the beautiful benefits from this crazy job called MOTHERING.
Jeanne Stevens is one of the lead pastors of Soul City Church in the dynamic West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, IL. Jeanne has had the opportunity to teach, pastor and speak in to the lives of thousands of people across the US and around the world. Her passion to develop leaders, encourage people to live from the fullest part of themselves and to live boldly give her a unique voice of hope and challenge. You can follow Jeanne on Instagram & Twitter – @JeanneMStevens and become her friend on Facebook – Jeanne Stevens.
A few years ago, a dear friend gave me a book titled, Women Are Heroes. It is filled with beautiful portraits and stories of women around the world whose very existence is heroic. I flip through it often and I am constantly inspired by the resilience, strength and grace that women posses.
You don’t have to look very far to find disturbing statistics about women across the globe. Women, on average, still make less than men. We are more prone to being victimized by sexual violence. We have less access to education. The list goes on. But somehow, despite all of the data, there are women who continue to defy the odds—fighting for justice in their communities, raising families with inadequate resources, building businesses out of nothing, and striving for educational opportunities to not only better themselves but the people around them as well.
My line of work has afforded me the privilege of traveling all around the world and wherever I go, I am always in awe of the women I meet.
I have visited with women in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Women who have lived through atrocities of war and sexual violence against their bodies. But in spite of all they have experienced, they continue to work towards the healing of themselves, their own, and the healing of other women in their communities. These women speak of forgiveness, hope and peacebuilding in their communities.
I have listened to women in Kenya share how they started a savings group so that they could pay for their kids’ uniforms and school fees. They were soon able to start their own businesses, and then began to pay the school fees for other children in the community who were in need.
I have sat with women from both Israel and Palestine as they shared their painful stories of loss, what forgiveness looks like and how they can begin to lead their communities to understand the narrative of the “other.”
I am surrounded by countless women—many whom I am honored to call friends—here in the United States who have committed their lives to advocate for those who suffer under the oppression of racial, gender, and economic injustice.
When women are not allowed to fully express their God-given potential, it is affront to our Creator and a disservice to all of humanity.
Throughout history, countless women have ignored the limitations that society has placed on them and fought, against all odds, for the opportunity to flourish. Women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai, Yuri Kochiyama, Berta Cáceres, Katherine G. Johnson, Septima Clark, the millions of refugee women around the world—the list goes on. These women have blazed trails, smashed ceilings, fought countless battles so that the next generation could dream bigger, soar higher and achieve things they never thought to be possible.
The fight for women's rights means equal rights for all. Women work for the betterment of families, communities and nations. There is a deep understanding that we are all connected to each other and we all rise and fall together.
So today—and every day—I thank God for women. The dreamers, troublemakers, peacemakers, bridge builders, trailblazers, ceiling crushers, and image bearers of the Creator. The women who see injustice in our world and refuse to stay silent. Those who work to infuse radical love and hope into our world.
Women are heroes and I stand on the shoulders of the ones who have gone before me, and I link arms with the present day warriors. Together, we continue the fight for justice for all people.
Chi Chi Okwu is a Senior Church Advisor for World Vision USA—working with churches and parachurch organizations to build strategic partnerships focusing on community development and relief work globally. She is passionate about issues relating to faith and justice specifically in the areas of race, gender and reconciliation, and enjoys speaking and writing on those topics. Chi Chi currently resides in Chicago and enjoys traveling, cooking, watching sports and spending quality time with friends and family.
Thank God for Women is a blog series rooted in gratitude for the strength, courage, and incredible capacity women demonstrate.
The Village Nearby is an chapter from The Mother & Child Project: Raising our Voices for Health and Hope—compiled by Hope Through Healing Hands’ Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide.
Deborah Dortzbach currently serves as World Relief’s Senior Health Advisor. Her extensive background in international public health has equipped her to oversee maternal and child health, HIV/AIDS, child development, adolescent health, and anti-trafficking programs for over twenty-five years.
In 2015, Zondervan published The Mother & Child Project: Raising our Voices for Health and Hope, featuring personal stories from women around the world—including Deborah’s. Her story covers her work in the late 1970s, and journeys through a time when she was held hostage while pregnant. She applauds the strength of the women who surrounded her at that time. We thank God for Deborah and the work she continues to do to empower women. Here’s an excerpt her story...
I thought I would deliver my firstborn child by myself in a makeshift lean-to on a windswept hill far from a health facility. I was terrified.
There was no one to give me prenatal care. No one to coach me. No one to talk to about my fears. No emergency backup for complications. No one except…soldiers, hovering.
I am a nurse and was taken hostage while pregnant by the Eritrean Liberation Front and held in a remote, desolate location near the Sudan border. One day, as I wandered in allowable short distances, I discovered others like myself in a nearby village. They were Tigre women, clustered around each other as they framed their nomadic huts. Some were pregnant; some had children tugging at their long, faded skirts as they stretched straw mats over simple poles. One woman stood alone. She had no children and looked sad and abandoned.
I went to them, and we chatted, each in our own mother tongue, as together we thrust grass mats over the acacia sticks, bounced babies in our arms, and laughed at each other’s strange expressions. I put their weathered hands on my bulging bump of baby, and they seemed to curiously question, “What are you doing here?”
I have had many years now to reflect on that question. I was eventually released, received good medical care, and delivered a healthy baby boy. But my newfound friends were never freed from the captivity of unsafe motherhood and the future opportunity to participate in decisions about their families and their own well-being. Were I to return to the same hill today, I wonder if they would ask me the very same question, in the past tense, and what my answer would be. “What have you done, for us?”
The Tigre moms and millions like them, let us know that before us is a choice—to improve maternal health, or to actually increase maternal harm through just doing nothing. While we get genuinely interested for a brief season or for some project silos in maternal health, we all know the deeper issues of behavior and structural change take time and perseverance. Our commitments must be unswerving and unending.
Fundamentally, as Christians, we work and strive to improve maternal health because it’s about valuing who a woman is as God made her and treasures her, not because of a role or function, marital status, maternal status, or even because of need, as great as that may be. Needs and resources will come and go—but the intrinsic worth of woman as God sees her, will always warrant our highest efforts to esteem her and fight for her equality and full expression of honor, dignity, safety, and health.
The account in the Gospels of the bleeding woman healed by Jesus demonstrates this. The unnamed woman, bleeding for 12 years, was stigmatized, spiritually ostracized, extremely weak, and economically impoverished. Yet, drawn by the working of Christ in her life, she ventured into a crowded social space and touched Jesus. He cared so deeply and so thoroughly for her, that He allowed her blood-impure status to spiritually defile him. It instantly healed the woman.
What a beautiful picture for us of the spiritual healing soon to come through the defilement Jesus took upon himself on the cross! God chose the body of woman through which to be born (Mary) and now the body of a woman to bring a foreshadowing of His healing power through death. Can there be any doubt He loves, treasures, honors, and redeems women and seeks to bring His redemption and completeness to all humankind in brokenness and suffering?
 Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48
Join us as we support those whose work raises the value of women and provides the opportunities for growth and progress.
As a pastor’s wife in rural Kenya, Elizabeth Ewoton saw glaring financial needs all around her community. She decided to lead by example, using her influence to mobilize 15 local women to join a community savings group at Full Gospel Church in Lokitaung, Kenya, which had implemented World Relief’s Savings For Life back in 2014.
Savings For Life is a holistic, community-based savings and credit program that offers safe and reliable financial services to people who are often excluded from more formal banking institutions. As time goes by, consistent savings allow participants access to appropriately-sized loans, without impossible fees and interest rates. This allows members of the group to take care of daily household needs and to establish and invest in their own income-generating activities.
Prior to Elizabeth's involvement, no one had ever heard of working together as a community to save their own funds. But one woman, Hellen Esekon, caught Elizabeth’s vision and decided to give it a try.
Both women’s families soon benefited substantially from the Savings For Life program, as each gained access to money to pay unexpected school fees for their daughters. Both Elizabeth and Hellen say there is no way they would have been able to pay the fees—which were demanded on very short notice—if it weren’t for the savings group.
Elizabeth, who is now chair of the group, and Hellen have become bold advocates for the Savings For Life program at Full Gospel Church. They have experienced first-hand the transformation and security that comes with financial stability, and they want that experience for others as well!
Give to World Relief to create a better world for women.
Six years ago, I was sitting at a small, unsteady table, in a room that was oppressively hot. Aamiina, a young refugee woman sat across from me. A few months prior to that, the word “refugee” had not really been part of my vernacular, but it was now an everyday term.
We opened the room’s small window to try to let in a breeze, and the cacophony of the streets soon invaded any sense of peace and quiet. Aamiina began to share her refugee journey—a story of sorrow, suffering, and loss.
To this day, I have never been able to repeat what I heard, though I can still remember every detail. I still think of the two daughters Aamiina lost—one to death, and one to kidnapping. I wonder if her daughter is still alive somewhere, and if she knows how her mother longs to find her.
When Aamiina finished her story, she said something that I will never forget: “All the people that did these things to me, they want me to hate. But my act of defiance is to love.”
Amiina’s love and gentleness defied all odds. Despite such loss, Aamiina later took young women under her wing and loved them as if they were her own daughters. Her love changed these women. Her love changed me.
Since that day, I have met many women like Aamiina in some of the most violent corners of this earth. I have connected with mothers from Syria, who have made dangerous journeys across deserts and seas to seek refuge for their children. I have cried with women who have pulled their children from beneath the rubble of destroyed homes, schools, and hospitals. I have witnessed young women who have had to discontinue their education because of conflict, and instead have chosen to invest in the education of children in their communities. I have seen young women return to their destroyed homes, and begin the courageous work of rebuilding, even in the midst of uncertainty. I have seen women volunteer long hours to serve others, even when their own needs were profound. I have watched my friend—after ISIS killed everyone in her family except for her younger sister—work long hours to pay for her sister’s education.
These women inspire and fuel much World Relief’s work in the Middle East. We work with Syrian women who volunteer in Child Friendly Spaces, providing psychosocial, education, and health support to children. We partner with women in Iraq who provide support to children and youth in their communities. We stand with women that are working to rebuild their communities and restore livelihoods to their families as they return to cities in Iraq.
Women are leading, creating, and defining the work that we do across the Middle East. I am profoundly grateful to know these women and to witness the work that they are doing.
The women World Relief partners with and serve have taught me to love courageously. Love is not weakness in the wake of hatred and violence. Love is not passive. Love—like my friend Aamiina shared—is an act of defiance. The love of women across the Middle East is driving out darkness, and making the way for peace.
I thank God for women because women defy the darkness.
I thank God for women because in places of destruction, women rebuild, restore and reclaim peace.
Give to World Relief today.
Together, we can create a better world for women like Aamiina.
Maggie Konstanski has been a part of the World Relief team for over 4 years, and currently serves at the Middle East Programs Technical and Operations Coordinator. With a passion for international human rights, Maggie often uses work-related travel as a platform to tell the powerful stories of the vulnerable families and communities we serve.
Rhona Murungi was born and raised in rural western Ugandan by a single mother—who, Rhona says, was her biggest cheerleader while she pursued an education. After finishing graduate school at Vanderbilt, Rhona was looking to begin her career in economic and country development. With a passion to address the needs in her home country, she was connected to World Relief, where she now serves as Program Officer for the organization’s Developing Countries Unit. Recently, Cassidy Stratton, World Relief’s Marketing Coordinator, spoke with Rhona about her story and her passion for working with women around the world:
Cassidy Stratton: From Uganda to Taylor University, and then to Vanderbilt. How did you get connected to World Relief?
Rhona Murungi: I had just finished graduate school at Vanderbilt, and I was looking for a job! And I knew that I wanted to do development work. I knew that I wanted to do work that was in some form or fashion directly connected to Africa, because that’s where I’m from. That’s what I know. That’s what I’m passionate about.
I got this email from World Relief, looked it up and got really excited about the Program Officer role and applied. The rest is history.
CS: Could you tell us more about your work within World Relief?
RM: I was a Program Officer, stationed in the U.S., working for the East African region for close to 3 years. And then I was itching to get back to [Africa]. I had been away from home for 9 plus years. I really wanted to go back home. I wanted to grow and be challenged, and get the opportunity to do this work in the African context. So, when the [Directors of Programs] role became open again, I jumped at the chance to fulfill it and go to the region, and the Rwanda office welcomed me for 2 years.
I’m doing a PhD program at the moment, so I decided to come back to [World Relief’s Baltimore] office so that I could better balance my school work and the service opportunities within World Relief—sort of similar to the Program Officer role, but in the Developing Countries Unit.
It’s really exciting to plug back in. I’m grateful that the role that I’m in at the moment still allows me to have a significant opportunity to support programs in the region. I [now] oversee Haiti, Rwanda, Burundi, and Kenya.
CS: What work have you done with women throughout your time with World Relief or even before?
RM: I could talk about that for ages! Our work, actually, is very heavily focused on—and targets—women. Women and children, in many ways, make up a significant portion of beneficiaries.
CS: Why is it important for our work to intentionally address the needs of women?
RM: If your programs are intentionally involving and welcoming the participation of women (not at the exclusion of men by the way) it’s most likely to not just succeed, but actually benefit beyond the individual woman to the household and entire community. It’s proven, but I can also really attest to that from my own personal upbringing. Women glue the home together.
CS: Could you provide some examples?
RM: For example, one of my favorite programs in World Relief—and to be honest, I have a little personal bias to it—is our Savings For Life work. Seventy-two percent of our beneficiaries are women in this program. Which, in a way, makes sense because women are—at least in the communities in Africa that I’m from and have been exposed to— the backbone of households. And when you target women, when you empower women, when you engage women, and bring them in and allow for their participation, it actually benefits the entire household—not just one individual.
CS: Has there been a particular experience within the Savings For Life group you can recall?
RM: A few months ago, I was doing a field visit in one of our Church Empowerment Zones in Rwanda, and visited a savings group. I shared with these women that this [moment] took me back to when I was little. My mom was part of a savings group growing up—saving a little at a time, investing in setting up a small business, putting food on the table for my siblings and I, and sending us to school. I am, in many ways, a product of this program.
And I tell the women, “Look, I’m a product of what you are doing. And the Lord remain, 15 or 20 years from now, your kids, that are running around your feet, are going to be me—approaching the very work that you’re diligently doing in order for you to feed them, send them through school, and support your family.”
This particular program brings me to tears because it is a full-circle moment—that I have the privilege and honor to approach work that actually transformed my family and my life.
CS: You’re very passionate about the work you’ve done with women, children, and men. Has there been a specific time when your life has been transformed because of a woman’s impact?
RM: There is not two ways about it for me; by far the most impactful woman in my life has been my mother. She is just an incredible example. To be honest, we could sit here for a couple of hours and I would be able to exhaust the stories about my mother and the ways in which she has shepherded our family, and brought us so far and as single mother, too.
CS: You said yourself that “evidence shows that women tend to think beyond ourselves, beyond our own interests—to the interests of others.” That’s powerful. Why do you thank God for women?
RM: I thank God for the resilience of women and the way God has and continues to use women to be the backbone and the lifeblood of many households, communities, and nations—in ways that go both recognized and unrecognized.
You too can make a difference in the lives of women around the world.
Occasionally, in life, we are blessed to experience joy in its purest, most unadulterated form. It can come in a quiet moment of prayer, an incredible experience, or even through a person.
For me, one of these precious moment of joy came in the form of a beautiful wife and mother, named Beatrice, who lived in the Bushenge district of Rwanda. Beatrice is an individual who radiates the love of Jesus. When I think of her, I immediately think of Proverbs 31—clothed in strength and dignity, laughing without fear of the future.
For Beatrice, however, that was not always the case. For years, she longed to repair the broken relationships within her family to prepare her children for their future. Beatrice spoke with a tangible sadness when she explained how isolated she was from her children. “I was too shy to talk to them about their health and their bodies, or to counsel them on difficulties of being a teenager. They were lost, and I continued to build a wall between us, higher and thicker with each passing year.”
As Beatrice struggled to understand how to relate to her new adolescents, she joined a parenting group run by a local church as a part of World Relief’s "Mobilizing For Life” program. She began learning about God’s vision for family, and the opportunity and gift she’d been given in motherhood. Beatrice learned to rise above her embarrassment and enter into discussions with her children around health, dating, sex, and HIV/AIDS. And it wasn’t long before Beatrice broke through yet another social barrier—encouraging her husband, Gracian, to join her.
Less than five years later, Beatrice and Gracian are pillars of inspiration and faith in their community. Today, Beatrice and Gracian lead kids-clubs throughout their community. Each week they spend time with nearly 100 adolescents, counseling them and fostering a safe and open environment where kids from all walks of life can share their struggles and ask questions. And what they have achieved is truly remarkable. In her own words, through a smile that reached ear to ear, Beatrice told us about their work.
“In 2014 we started a kids club counseling youth. We teach the kids the word of God, but we also talk about how to make good decisions. We focus on how to pick good friends, to stay away from drugs and alcohol, and avoid HIV and early pregnancy. We even started hosting soccer games and offering free HIV testing at matches. Last match we had over 80 kids come to play and get tested!
It is truly amazing, and our initiative is only growing. We are fostering an environment of openness where everyone comes to us for advice. We are so happy that we’ve been able to learn and share so much and be a part of change in our community.”
I truly believe that supporting, celebrating, and investing in women like Beatrice is the most effective and impactful way to change lives. To watch a once-struggling wife and mother in rural Rwanda be transformed by a renewed understanding of God’s calling for her life has an unparalleled beauty and power.
To be in her presence is to experience God in a beautiful and tangible way.
Beatrice is why I Thank God for Women each day.
Women of incredible faith, uniquely and purposefully placed to experience and reveal God’s plan for the world in the most unexpected ways and places.
Capable of restoring brokenness with one smile.
Laughing without fear of the future. Rather, embracing it. Transforming it.
These are brave kingdom warriors, beautiful and courageous women of God, stepping out in faith to transform their families and ultimately, their entire communities.
Give to World Relief today. Together, we can create a better world for women like Beatrice.
Francesca Albano currently serves as Product Development Lead at World Relief. With a background in strategic marketing communications, she connects her interests in brand strategy, audience engagement, and storytelling around her passions—children, disaster and humanitarian relief, human rights, and poverty alleviation. Francesca best describes herself as a storyteller, writer, foodie, globetrotter, and humanitarian.
World Relief’s calling does not single out women.
And yet, each year our work impacts around 7 million people, some 80% of them women and children. In sub–Saharan Africa, where the impact of climate change is accelerating and the ravages of severe drought are increasingly common, destroying even the meager livelihoods of the rural farming community, it is women and primarily young girls who suffer the most. In the Middle East, as in many other conflict zones, the violence women have suffered or seen is almost unimaginable. And for those who have courageously left behind all that is familiar, journeying to a new land where culture, faith, language, and economic viability are all unknown, the burden of anxiety—even in the midst of hope—can be crippling.
This picture, the very fodder of non-profit fundraising efforts, tells only half of the story. It does not tell the story of the amazing courage, strength, resilience, selflessness, dignity that I encounter in the midst of such suffering. It does not express the capacity for joy, laughter, and love even in the midst of unspeakable hardship. It does not speak to the role I see women playing in helping transform lives through our savings group programs or acting as outreach volunteers in our Church Empowerment Zones in Africa. It does not speak to the expertise and selfless commitment of our staff here in the U.S.A., the majority of whom are women. Nor does it speak to the fullness of creativity and intelligence that is manifest in our organization when men and women labor side by side in this Kingdom work.
And yet, the reality still stands that we live in a world that continues to give precedence to men and boys over women and young girls. Nothing justifies these injustices nor the denial of equal opportunity to women.
These images give me pause for reflection about the women in my own life and their influence upon the man I am today. I look back on my life and I ask myself: If love is the greatest calling, where and how did I learn to love? Where and how did I come to understand the limits of worldly success, of competitiveness, and of ambition? Where and how did I learn to see strength as Jesus saw it?
I cannot speak for other men, but for me I learned these things because of women.
Because of a mother who courageously brought up four boys on her own after my father deserted us. Because of my wife, Michele, who always seems to access a deeper wisdom than I can—even when I think I “won the argument.” Because of three daughters, each expressing their own uniqueness and joy of life, while all wired with compassion in their DNA.
So, I thank God for the women in my life, unique in their manifestations of strength and dignity, intellect and wisdom, industry, compassion and generosity of heart, gentleness, and care. And for the life-giving spirit they share so selflessly and often sacrificially.
You have taught me.
More than 80% of the beneficiaries of World Relief's programs are women and children. Give today to help create a better world for women.
Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey, and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.