by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Reading the Q&A interview with Jimmy Carter published in the Oct. 8 issue of Time magazine, I was particularly fascinated by one of the issues, an extraordinary description of change within a society.

In response to this question from an Illinois resident, “Did you ever envision becoming so prolific a builder of latrines?” Carter responds:

Ethiopia has one of the highest incidences of blindness on earth because of trachoma, which is caused by filthy eyes. To eliminate flies, we taught people how to build very simple latrines. Women have adopted building them as a kind of liberation movement — there had been a rigid taboo against a woman relieving herself in the daytime — so although we thought we’d have about 10,000 latrines, we’ve passed 340,000. Now instead of my being famous for negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt, I’m famous in Ethiopia for being the No. 1 latrine builder.

This was news to me — that Ethiopian men can relieve themselves at will and yet Ethiopian women must wait until dark. Imagine the shame and the physical discomfort women experience.

Working toward a single purpose, eliminating a preventable disease that causes blindness, the Carter Center coincidentally triggered a quiet gender revolution.

According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story (reprinted by the Carter Center), “Though health concerns motivate the Carter Center, many women in Ethiopia advocate latrines not as a weapon to fight disease but as a tool to promote equality. Also, women are more vulnerable than men to trachoma.”

“It’s really a gender issue,” said Teshome Gebre the Carter Center’s point man in Ethiopia.

The latrines are similar to the outhouses built in Georgia 50 years ago. Here’s a comprehensive New York Times story about the efforts to treat those suffering from trachoma and more information from the Carter Center.

Another accidental consequence of this building campaign, swiftly endorsed by the women, is that some girls who reach puberty are staying in school. From the earliest grades, the ratio in some rural areas has been 1 girl to 4 boys. Once girls start to menstruate, they drop out because of the lack of privacy. But in some areas that’s changing, too.

Think about what other rules are imposed on women. And think of the accidental and gorgeous consequence of the Carter Center setting out to wipe out a disease and making it possible for women to achieve some equality.

Here’s another inspiring example from the Bacho district in Ethiopia. Oxfam America, partnering with Oromo Self Reliance Association (OSRA), built hand-pumped wells to provide clean drinking water.

Until this project, women walked as much as two hours to fetch water, lugging six gallons — about 50 pounds — on their backs. Two or three times a day. If a man had a pack animal, and if he were a helpful husband, he could have pitched in. But it is a taboo for a man to fetch water from a stream and carry it on his back.

Now, any woman can step to the village pump and in two minutes she’s got seven gallons of water. That’s an exceptional form of women’s lib in the 21st century.

Sharon Stone is another agent of change. In 2005, she attended a panel on African poverty where a U.N. official pointed out that 150,000 African children were dying of malaria every month. Why? They didn’t have bed nets.

Stone offered $10,000 on the spot to Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa, who was on the panel along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and others. In five minutes, by challenging those present to help eradicate malaria, she raised $1million for the nets, which cost $7 each.

Anywhere in the world people with the will to implement even simple ideas can bring about extraordinary change. What would you do if each of us stood up for change?

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  • Penny Alper Boyd October 17, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    I read these articles and, like all of us, am outraged by the abusive, tyrannical customs of these societies. It takes a suspension of one’s reality to even envision a world in which these norms operate. My 14 year old daughter worries about whether she’ll be a starter in her next volleyball meet. One can only think of Eko’s mother, and all the mothers’ strangling powerlessness and the relentless sorrow and anxiety they have for their daughters. Of course I want to help, of course.
    Rightfully inspired by the impact of Jimmy Carter and Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Hemmerdinger appropriately asks each of us “What would you do…?”
    Very few of us have the resources, time and connections of Carter, Stone and others. So, what do we do?
    For those of us who want to act but don’t know where or how we can best serve, we have a real problem. Can Women’s Voices for Change help? Can we take the role of a Carter or Stone among our network of people who really want to act?
    Perhaps we might focus our efforts and interests on specific changes we want to bring about. Then, we might, among ourselves, identify solutions that we, individually and collectively, could bring about. How do we start/What needs to change?

  • Carolyn Hahn October 15, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    In the article about girls dropping out when they reach puberty because of a lack of privacy:
    “Neither Fatimah’s older sister nor mother went to school. And Fatimah is all too familiar with the alternatives for illiterate girls. When she returns home after school each day, she is greeted by another girl, named Eko, who lives in her hut. Thin and poorly dressed, 12 years old at most, Eko is literally a wedding present, given to the Bamuns when Fatimah’s sister married Eko’s brother.
    Before the wedding, Eko was an avid second grader. “I liked school very much; it would have been better to stay in school,” she said quietly, picking at her callused hands. Now she is the Bamun family servant, up at sunrise to pound sorghum with a stone for the breakfast porridge.”
    Thanks for the pointer back to these Times articles about how such simple things as latrines can make the difference. But it is still startling to think that girls everywhere are so, so expendable. A present when her brother married so and so…the latrine isn’t going to save her, her society’s already written her off.

  • Dr. Pat Allen October 15, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    As women from the land of plenty, our feminine psyche strains in the gymnastic maneuvers required to imagine being born of a world that includes “daylight elimination of bodily waste” on the list of taboos for women, side by side with the right to vote, own property, choose your mate, divorce, engage in commerce and protect your children.
    And, as always, the voices of those most oppressed effect change, time and again, that once won, seems so obviously sane. Once more, we stand in awestruck sisterhood with the hardships borne by these women for the sheer infraction of being female.
    My colleague and WVFC Medical Advisory Board Member, Dr. Laurie Romanzi, travels regularly to Africa to perform life saving operations on women, young and old, who have suffered from fistula and childbirth injuries. She is one of the people that Elizabeth writes about so movingly. One person giving what she has to make a difference.