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From tomatoes to empowerment

Tajikistan, June 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Tajikistan  </span>
    Mercy Corps field officer and blogger Amy Spindler stands in a greenhouse in rural Tajikistan. Photo: Mercy Corps Tajikistan

While we’re spending this month focused entirely on the transport and distribution of wheat flour, lentils and oil to nearly 5,000 women, it’s actually a small component of USAID and Mercy Corps’ Single Year Assistance Program (SYAP) here.

The true success of the program lies in its network of field coordinators and 300 health and agriculture volunteers, who take time to educate their communities. These weekly seminars (roughly 5,500 a year!) include topics such as the construction of greenhouses; canning and drying fruits and vegetables for storage; breastfeeding and preparing complementary foods for babies; and simple behavior changes to promote better health and nutrition.

It’s exciting to travel through the region and see greenhouses everywhere! Last summer, while conducting an evaluation of a similar Mercy Corps’ program, families raved about harvesting tomatoes and cucumbers months earlier than the year before. Women proudly served us tomatoes in early June and some said they were selling their seedlings for a small profit. As we moved out of Rasht, collecting data where Mercy Corps did not work, there wasn’t a tomato to be found.

It’s simple interventions like these that add up to true strides in increasing food security. This is important in a country that is defined by the 20,000-foot peaks of the Alay and Pamir mountain ranges with just seven percent arable land. A country that spiraled into civil war after the collapse of the Soviet Union, destroying infrastructure and killing an estimated 60,000 men. A country where some families report that they spend 80 percent of their income on food. In the U.S., it’s a paltry 10 percent. This is a stunning, but harsh country.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2008: “Strained by the coldest winter in 30 years, Tajikistan’s Soviet-era infrastructure has buckled, leaving millions of its citizens without water and electricity. Aid groups have been quick to step in, but the mountainous Central Asian republic is facing a serious humanitarian crisis which could spark unrest in this volatile region, experts warn.”

While out in the field last summer, women told me that the distribution comprised about 50 percent of their income and acted as an incentive for their families to allow them to attend the seminars. As the seminars progressed and families saw improvements in their overall health, the elders came to unequivocally support the program and seminar attendance by young women — who normally do not leave their homes.

The distribution became less important. It's the education that is truly sustainable, communities told me again and again. And these women began to share this information with relatives and friends in neighboring villages: Breastfeed exclusively until six months! Here’s how to make a simple sugar-salt solution to treat diarrhea! Washing your hands is a simple way to kill bacteria! The women are becoming empowered. Some women told me the following:

“Even when we had eyes, we were blind.
Even when we were dressed, we were naked.
Even when we were alive, we had one foot in the grave.
This poem is our slogan now…since participating..."