Monday 8th March is International Women’s Day, as I’m sure many of you are aware. But did you know that its beginnings date back as early as 1908? I didn’t!
There is a different theme to each year’s International Women’s Day, and this year’s is #ChoosetoChallenge, because with challenge comes change.
That’s definitely the spirit that many of the woman I’m featuring today embody.
For a couple of years now I’ve been following two not for profit initiatives – one in Rajasthan in India and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa – quite closely. It’s about time I shared them with you.
Read on for what I hope will be two inspiring profiles of two incredibly inspiring projects, followed by a snapshot of some other fascinating women-led projects and news from around the world.
Jaipur and Udaipur, India: The Pink City and Lake City Rickshaw initiatives
The eco-friendly electric pink rickshaws wait in line in Jaipur. Credit: Wild Frontiers
- What’s it about?
The Pink City Rickshaw Company is a sustainable, travel-focused initiative that champions women living in Jaipur to become tour guide rickshaw drivers with a stake in the business itself. This is alongside a sister initiative, The Lake City Rickshaw Company, in Udaipur. Both cities are hugely popular on the tourist trail in India’s Rajasthan State.
The Pink City Rickshaw Company empowers over 200 women from low income households to challenge stereotypes in what is a male-dominated environment, giving them a career that provides for them and their families while also introducing more environmentally-friendly transport onto the roads in the form of electric rickshaws.
This initiative is part of the not for profit organisation called ACCESS Development Services, who run projects across at least nine states in India, from partnering with the UNHCR to help refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma) and revitalising the loom industry to running various farming initiatives (increasingly important work, if you’ve seen recent news of protests over controversial new agriculture laws proposed.)
- What they say
Experience the medieval mystique of the walled city in these unique and custom designed, eco-friendly rickshaws driven by smart, enthusiastic and well trained women. The well planned tours of the important tourist attractions of Jaipur and the novel circuits provide you the best sights, a chance to soak in the local culture and give you an experience like none other.
Help our Pink City Tour Hostesses discover their new found economic independence.
Credit: Pink City Rickshaw Company
- What I love about this
I first heard about the project at a Royal Geographical Society event in early 2020. It was a star-studded fundraising event run by the travel company Wild Frontiers, whose Foundation raised enough money from the event to fund two new electric rickshaws.
This initiative is clearly lifting women up to become breadwinners in their family, challenge male prominence on the roads, promote sustainability and seek to show different sides to two well-trodden and popular cities — needless to say I left that lecture hall hugely inspired. I planned to write a feature on the women of the Pink City Rickshaw Company, but Covid had other ideas.
The women’s main income stream is tourism and so, like many other small-scale tourism businesses and operators, the pandemic has hit them especially hard.
- Renu & Lalita
In August last year the Pink City’s Rickshaw Company launched a fundraising campaign to help the 200+ women left without work in Jaipur and Udaipur. One of the Jaipur drivers and tour guides, Renu Sharma, shared her worries:
‘I used to earn a good amount. With the tourist industry being badly impacted, we have no income and our families struggle even for two square meals!’
I hope that that call out, and Just Giving campaigns from Wild Frontiers and others has given them some financial relief, and that visitors can return soon. I’m keener than ever to meet some of these women, when it is safe to travel internationally again. Including Lalita:
Before the world was turned upside down, the Wild Frontiers Foundation interviewed Jaipur rickshaw driver Lalita about life after joining the initiative:
‘I am now giving my children a good education. I am fulfilling their needs and I am saving some money as well. My husband says that I work with him “shoulder to shoulder”. He likes it [and my] kids are happy too’. Not only is Lalita a driver and tour guide, she is also on the company’s board, something that she says has given her extra confidence.
What wonderful women!
- How you can get involved and support the project
The aim of each tour isn’t to give you a history lesson but a unique experience, going behind the scenes and avoiding tourist traps. Early morning tours in Jaipur are designed to show you the city before everyone is on the roads, or their food tour takes in Jaipur’s old town flower and vegetable market, with its crates of bright citrus fruits, open bags of chillies, tubs of peppers and baskets of herbs.
In Udaipur, the Old City tour is their most popular, but the cooling Lake City tour of Fatehsagar Lake gets my vote.
The Democratic Republic of Congo: Virunga National Park’s Sewing Workshop for the Widows of Fallen Rangers
A Virunga widow using one of the sewing machines. Credit: Virunga National Park
- Why they are widows
Virunga National Park in The Congo (DRC) is the oldest national park in Africa, established in 1925 primarily to protect mountain gorillas — work that continues to dominate the mission of the rangers who guard the park’s 3,000 sq mile range.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, Virunga is home to more mammal, bird and reptile species than any other protected area on the planet, and the only site on earth to be home to three species of great apes: the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla and eastern chimpanzee. Thanks to Virunga National Park and surrounding conservation efforts, the mountain gorilla is the only great ape in the world whose numbers are increasing.
But it comes with a burden that grieving widows and families bear every day.
Virunga is often called the most dangerous park in the world; the twin, related effects of the First and Second Congo Wars (1996-2003) and increased poaching became a huge threat to wildlife that continues to this day in the volatile region.
Over 200 rangers have lost their lives protecting the park since the 1920s, including most recently on 10th January 2021 when six Virunga rangers were ambushed and killed by a so-called Mai-Mai militia group.
Since 2004 (with a resurgence in 2015) the Kivu region of eastern DRC there has witnessed increased military conflict. Virunga was even forcibly used in 2008 by rebels as a base for launching attacks.
This extreme volatility provides a backdrop to the award-winning Virunga documentary from 2014, which led me to become aware of efforts to support the rangers’ widows through sewing workshops and The Fallen Rangers Fund.
- What they’re about
Some of the women working on the beautiful fabrics. Credit: Virunga National Park
Before the Fallen Rangers Fund was set up, widows and families would struggle financially, with many struggling to live normal lives. When the fund was set up, fundraisers and organisers sought to trace widows and their families from 1991 onwards, committing to provide pension and other support for any widow of a Virunga ranger.
The fund has flowered into a sewing workshop project currently existing in two locations — Rumangabo to the south which opened in 2016 and Mutsora in the north, opened a year later. The sewing workshops give widows the chance to learn sewing, or develop their skills so as to earn a living from their craft. Not only do they hand make items such curtains, cushion covers, handkerchiefs and quilts – even toys – but they also repair the worn uniforms of rangers, which provides an additional income stream.
This project is much more than just learning to sew however; the workshop buildings are also meeting spaces and women can participate in classes on entrepreneurship, health and personal development. One woman recently graduated with engineering qualifications, others are learning to be chefs and chocolatiers. Childcare and educational facilities are available on site and for women who don’t feel able to attend there is at-home support and smaller initiatives such as bracelet making.
- What they say
The ultimate goal of the Widows Sewing Workshop is to help support these women to get beyond bare subsistence. Equally important is to foster a sense of community and strengthen their optimism for what the future holds.
Virunga National Park [is] committed to delivering development initiatives that benefit local people and the wider region, and to working in partnership with local communities to bring peace and prosperity to many millions of people whose lives have for too long been blighted by conflict and the activities of armed groups.
After the tragic loss of a Ranger, a private fund is immediately established to garner support from our community and all donations towards that fund are given directly to the Ranger’s widow.
- What I think is so important about this project
Three women, widows of Virunga rangers, prepare some fabric in the Rumangabo Workshop. Credit: Virunga National Park
January’s attack sadly shows how necessary this project is. The task is a constantly uphill one and the risk involved for the rangers in protecting hundreds of species, including some of the world’s most endangered wild animals, is tremendous.
But when the worst happens for some of the 689 plus rangers and their families, it is comforting to know that there is a sympathetic, empowering project at the heart of what happens next.
As well as the financial and social opportunities the project affords, one of the most meaningful everyday interactions is with the tributes on the walls themselves.
In each of the workshops there is a mural for fallen rangers and the animals they lost their lives trying to protect. With each ranger’s death, a star goes up along with their name — pictured above. It isn’t showy or flashy, but quietly there in the background as life goes on around it.
Grief is life-changing and it never quite goes away, but with the Fallen Rangers Fund and Widows’ Sewing Workshops, the women whose lives have been impacted by tragedy at Virunga can also find solace there, and future happiness.
- Sakina Salambongo & Therese Sangira
The 2016 opening of the Rumangabo Workshop. Credit: Virunga National Park
Sakina Salambongo Masika is one of the Virunga widows. Her husband was killed in 2011, leaving her and her six children behind. She spoke to Sruthi Gottipati at The New Humanitarian from the Rumangabo workshop nine months after it opened.
‘I knew there was little chance that in a ranger’s job he’d grow old [but] I can’t be angry because I know my husband’s job was protecting animals’
24 years her senior, Therese Sangira is a seamstress in the workshop. She lost her husband, who was in park administration at Virunga before he was promoted to be a ranger, in 2004. She tells Sruthi that her nine children often ask her to move south out of the park to Goma, the capital of the Kivu Province in DRC.
‘They tell me, “Come to Goma, we’ll build a house for you in the town”, but I can’t live where there aren’t animals, where there aren’t trees. I want to die here.’
- How you can get involved and support the project
By visiting Virunga National Park in the future you would be helping their conservation efforts, their rangers and the Fallen Rangers Fund.
Virunga’s website also features an awesome online clothing shop. They don’t sell the work from the workshops online (otherwise I’d have bankrupted myself this weekend) but all clothes are made to order, sustainably in renewable energy factories using natural fibres — they’re even sent out in plastic-free packaging. More than can be said here in the UK with every online purchase!
You can also donate directly to The Fallen Rangers Fund here.
Discover more women-led projects from around the world
Some of the women helping clean up Lake Titicaca’s waters. Credit: Canada Fund for Local Initiatives
For Indigenous peoples it is clear: the less you know about something, the less value it has to you, and the easier it is to destroy. And by easy, I mean: guiltlessly, remorselessly, foolishly, even righteously.Nemonte Nenquimo
- Meet Nemonte Nenquimo, the Waorani woman co-founder of the indigenous-led nonprofit Ceibo Alliance who is on the frontline to protect indigenous rights — and the future of the Amazon Rainforest.
- And in the Andes, the Peruvian and Bolivian indigenous women living around Lake Titicaca fighting water contamination and pollution.
- Did you know that at least 43% of all agricultural workers in developing countries are women? In 2011 a UN agricultural report suggested that ‘if women in rural areas had the same access to land, technology, financial services, education and markets as men, agricultural production could be increased and the number of hungry people reduced by 100-150 million’. Here are 25 inspiring women working to close gender gaps and empower women in the food system.
- In Nigeria, Stand to End Rape (STER) founder Ayodeji Osowobi has teamed up with journalist Kiki Mordi to set up the Feminist Coalition, championing equality for women in Nigerian society. Perfect timing, as Nigerian-American International Development economist Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has just begun her tenure as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. She is the WTO’s first female and first African DG.
- The Australian Museum has appointed its first ever First Nations Director, who traces her family history to Wailwan and Kooma Aboriginal tribes. Laura McBride promises to prioritise the repatriation of ancestral remains still in the collection. The museum was one of the first cultural institutions to begin repatriations 35 years ago, but many have no provenance and it is expected to be another 10-15 years work.
We just don’t know where to repatriate them [because their provenance wasn’t noted] so [I am] looking to continue conversations on establishing resting places for ancestors so that we can get them out of museums, off shelves, and at peace where they deserve to be.Laura McBride