Earlier this month, the world celebrated International Women’s Day, which honors the achievements made toward the advancement of women throughout history and around the world.
The observance began in 1911 as part of the women’s suffrage movement in North America and Europe. But growing up in rural Wisconsin, we never learned about it in school or celebrated it in any way.
It was only when I became a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Madagascar that I realized the inspiration and celebration that the day generates in other parts of the world.
In the remote northeastern Malagasy village I lived in, Ambinanitelo, International Women’s Day was one of the most eagerly anticipated days of the year. As I walked through the village, strains of music, dance and laughter spilled out of houses where groups of women practiced for the big day.
The feten’ny behivavy (women’s festival) brought the whole village to a standstill. People took a break from their ubiquitous rice farming, dirty clothes were left soiled until tomorrow and students had the day off. Young and old gathered in the center square to watch the colorfully dressed women sing and dance about their lives. I felt honored to be a part of this exciting day.
A decade later, I had the good fortune to spend this most recent International Women’s Day back in Africa — this time in rural Kenya, where I was visiting one of CI’s indigenous fellows.
Beatrice Lempaira is from a small Maasai village in the dry scrublands near Mt. Kenya. She now works with neighboring communities to support sustainable rangeland management.
While we didn’t see any boisterous dancing and singing this Women’s Day, Beatrice and I visited several sites where she is working. It was the end of a particularly strenuous dry season, and after nearly an hour of tedious driving over sun-parched dusty roads we arrived at the village of Ilpolei. We drove past the village center and through a gate to a patch of land visibly different from the surrounding area.
This was land that had been given to the women of Ilpolei over 10 years ago. It is being sustainably managed with limited livestock grazing, a thriving apiary, traditional houses for tourists to rent and a burgeoning aloe field.
Wandering along the paths, past the hanging beehives that looked like little coffins, we came upon a circle of men and women sitting under an acacia tree’s welcome shade. These were some of the community members and colleagues that Beatrice works with.
Sitting down with them to talk, it was quickly apparent that they are very proud of the work she is doing, particularly her commitment to women in the communities. “Who would have believed,” said one of her colleagues with admiration in his voice, “that a girl from the rural village of Koija would one day become the manager of this conservancy and oversee 26 rangers and 18 staff members?”
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was “Inspiring Change,” commemorating the courageous acts of ordinary women that have inspired positive change in their countries and communities.
Beatrice’s inspirational story and the work she is doing to improve the lives of the men and women in her community is a shining example of this. And she’s not the only one — around the world, women like Beatrice are demonstrating what a crucial role women play in making the world a better place.
Kame Westerman is the advisor on gender and conservation in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace. Thanks to Gabby Abrego and Brittany Ajroud for their contribution to this post