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'I have never seen a place as poor as this'

Central African Republic, September 21, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children playing in Bimbo, an especially poor area outside of Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic. Two-thirds of the country's population lives on less than $1 a day. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' Allison Huggins (speaking at front of group) and Denis Akino (to left of Allison) lead a women's empowerment session in Bimbo. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Justine Wakara is a member of the local women's empowerment group here in Bimbo. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I am writing from the Central African Republic (CAR). Not many people know much about this land-locked country slightly smaller than Texas. But the short and not-so-sweet brief on CAR is that it is the second poorest country on Earth after Sierra Leone.

It ranks 178 out of 179 countries on the UN Human Development Index. It’s been wracked by coups, violence and cross-border unrest for the past several decades. It’s in a bad neighborhood, so they say, with the Congo, Chad and Sudan on its borders.

The global economic crisis has hit CAR extremely hard, and devalued the country’s only sources of revenue — mining and timber — by 90 percent. Today, they export almost nothing. Go down to the shipping area and look at the containers — the incoming containers are full; the outgoing ones empty. The pockets of most Central Africans are empty too — that is, the people who are fortunate enough to have pockets. More than two-thirds of the population is living on less than $1 a day.

For the past seven years, I have worked for Mercy Corps in some of the poorest and most devastated places in the world, and I have never seen a place as poor as this.

Mercy Corps has been working here for more than two years to help develop and stabilize the country while meeting urgent needs for food security. A major focus of our work is women’s empowerment. Studies have proven that when women earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their children and households for food, school fees or health care. The amount women reinvest in their families is, on average, more than twice the amount men reinvest. Helping women help their families is a smart bet.

Here in CAR, working with women takes on an even greater significance. Mercy Corps is completing a baseline study here that has uncovered some grim details.

  • 1 in every 4 women have experienced violence at the hands of their partner in the last year.
  • Sexual violence is pervasive, with 1 in 7 women reporting they have experienced rape in the last year.

The study shows that women of all demographic groups are experiencing violence: all religions, all education levels and all household income levels. It also shows that a woman's personal income was the only indicator that had any effect on reducing rates of violence.

Allison Huggins is Mercy Corps’ Project Manager for the Women’s Empowerment Project — she oversaw the survey and is writing the report. She has spent many years working in Africa with women and is making a real difference here.

She has pointed out many of the problems women face in CAR — and identified some tangible and very doable solutions that Mercy Corps is putting into action. Some of the key actions Mercy Corps is focused on include:

  • Promotion of women’s rights and educating people on how they can uphold their rights
  • Promotion of positive examples of male behavior that denounce violence against women
  • Increasing services (legal, law enforcement, medical, etc) available to women
  • Providing women the opportunity to earn an income and have greater self-sufficiency

Allison took me out to meet some of the women she and her team are working with in the outskirts of Bangui, the capital. The area is called Bimbo, which despite the gravity of the situation made me smile. I had a fleeting thought of titling this blog “No Bimbos in Bimbo.”

We met with a local group that Mercy Corps is working to build-up and support so they can better support women in the community. The group has income generation projects for women and is working to give vocational and literacy training to women. They are also working with Mercy Corps to mobilize their community to protect women’s rights. Denis Akino, Mercy Corps’ facilitator for the Womens’ Empowerment Program led a session with more than 80 men in the community on women’s rights, and many important leaders attended, giving women’s issues real attention and credibility for the first time.

I met many women in the group and each one had a story about how the organization has helped them, and how they have come together to help themselves and support each other.

Justine Wakara, a grandmother and mother 9 children, summed it up best: “We are poor but together — if we pool our resources and focus our energy — we can do better. We don’t have to stay this way. Things can get better.”