From around the world, Baha'i women converge on Beijing

In Brief: 

Some 400 Bahá'í women and men traveled from more than 50 countries around the world to participate in the NGO Forum on Women. Many are involved in smallscale projects to uplift and promote the advancement of women

HUAIROU, China -- Born in a lush rainforest village on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, Margaret Elias is today among the most successful women in her native land.

The country's first woman lawyer, a milestone she passed nearly 20 years ago when she took a law degree from the University of Papua New Guinea, Ms. Elias is a respected member of the national administration, having recently been appointed to the position of Secretary for the Department of Industrial Relations, one of 27 such department heads in the land.

A member of the Charamagheis clan, the 42-year-old Ms. Elias this year was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her record of public service. She is also the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Papua New Guinea, the community's national governing council, which is headquartered in the capital, Port Moresby, where Ms. Elias resides.

Yet for Ms. Elias, who by no means disparages these accomplishments, what in many ways matters most is her identity as a village woman -- and the work she continues to do on weekends and in her spare hours in outlying communities to help uplift other women.

"I am a grassroots woman," Ms. Elias says emphatically. "I am a Papua New Guinean."

Ms. Elias was one of some 400 Bahá'í women and men who traveled from more than 50 countries around the world to participate in the NGO Forum on Women, held in the resort city of Huairou some 50 kilometers north of Beijing from 30 August to 8 September.

As a worldwide community, Bahá'ís accept the equality of women and men as a cardinal principle of their Faith, and the large turnout of Bahá'ís at the Forum reflects their commitment to this principle. Many of the Bahá'ís who attended the Forum came as members of various women's organizations or merely as concerned individuals, often financing their own travel.

And many, like Ms. Elias, are involved in grassroots projects to uplift and promote the advancement of women -- and/or are themselves "grassroots" women.

Marilyn Enggol, for example, who is a member of the Iban people in Sarawak Province, Malaysia, works in her spare time to coordinate a literacy project for women and men in distant villages there. Margaret Mikisi Mungonye of Kenya has helped to organize a small enterprise group in Nairobi that buys handicrafts from women in outlying villages and brings them to market. And Maryke Van Lith, after years of working with grassroots women in Suriname, has recently begun offering empowerment training in Leiderdorp, the Netherlands, where she now resides.

Ms. Elias, as secretary of the Bahá'í community of Papua New Guinea, spends a considerable amount of time seeking to promote the advancement of women. "In our plan for the current three years, we have set a goal -- which we have already met -- to have regional conferences on women and women's issues in the 17 regions that compose the country," said Ms. Elias during an interview in China.

Each of these conferences drew from 100 to 500 participants, she said, and the topics covered included the equality of women and men, the need for partnership between the sexes, and the role of mothers as the first educators of children.

But even before helping to launch that series of conferences, Ms. Elias spent many of her weekends traveling to villages and towns around the country to deliver talks on various Bahá'í principles including the equality of women.

"The beauty of Margaret is that at her level, she not only associates with diplomats and high government officials, but she is at the same time a very grassroots lady as well," said Mona Seddigh, 49, another member of the Bahá'í delegation to the NGO Forum from Papua New Guinea. "She travels to the villages and she works to strengthen the grassroots women. She is highly educated, but she can also talk at their level. She eats with them and she sleeps with them. This is remarkable."

Marilyn Madu Enggol

In Sarawak province, Malaysia, about half of the population of 2 million are from the Iban ethnic group. The Iban construct great "longhouses," accommodating an entire village of 30 or 40 families in one long building.

Since April 1991, Ms. Enggol has been working on a literacy project, aimed primarily at helping Iban women. Started with some $3,000 Malaysian dollars from the New Zealand High Commission, the project is administered by a regional Bahá'í committee which seeks to promote social and economic development.

Ms. Enggol, who is a member of the committee, is chiefly responsible for the project. She travels to the countryside on weekends and holidays on a volunteer basis to hold training sessions for literacy facilitators -- who then hold literacy classes in their own communities.

The literacy rate is low among the Iban people, about 37 percent according to the most recent statistics, Ms. Enggol said. Most of the illiterate are women, a fact which severely limits the control they have over their lives.

"When the women go to the town to sell their jungle produce, they can't give proper change to the customer," said Ms. Enggol. "And if they go to the clinic, they are embarrassed because they don't know which room to go into. Sometimes they take the wrong buses and can't get quickly where they want to go."

"But when they learn to read, they gain confidence," Ms. Enggol said. "They know they are getting the right amount of money when they sell their produce. And they pass this confidence on to the next generation. Once they are literate, they can give encouragement to their own children, even helping them with their school work."

Ms. Enggol has trained 104 facilitators in some 44 communities over the last four years. In turn, the local literacy facilitators, who hold classes three times a week in their own communities, have given literacy training to more than 800 people, mostly women.

Ms. Enggol, 44, does this work at a fairly high personal sacrifice. She has a full time job as a postal worker in Kuching, the provincial capital, and has three children. "I'm given 30 days leave a year, counting vacation time and public holidays, and I use most of this time to travel to the countryside," she said, adding that some of the villages are 12 hours away by automobile. "But everybody in the family is supportive. My husband helps with the travel money and my children help me by cutting out the alphabet letters that we use in the training."

Margaret Mikisi Mungonye

Born in the village of Kakamega, Kenya, Ms. Mungonye works today as an administrative secretary in the offices of the Kenyan Bahá'í National Center in metropolitan Nairobi. But like Ms. Elias, she has not forgotten her roots.

Recognizing that many village women in Africa have a hard time finding a market for their goods, she has formed a small enterprise group with five other Kenyan women. Members of the group travel to the countryside, buying handicrafts from grassroots women, and then reselling them in the city or, when they occasionally travel, outside the country.

"The women in the villages are very poor, and they don't have any way to get out of the country and sell their wares," said Ms. Mungonye. "So stepping in the middle and buying from them really helps them a lot."

Some of the fruits of the project were in evidence at the Forum. Ms. Mungonye had brought to China dozens of leather handbags and bead necklaces. Many days, Ms. Mungonye could be found in the Forum's "Marketplace" with her handbags and necklaces spread out on a table.

"Here my customers have come from all over the world," she said. By bringing goods to China, Ms. Mungonye's goal was to pay for her plane fare to China -- and to take back a small profit that could be used as seed money for further ventures. She also plans to take back some of the ideas from various Forum workshops, such as methods for using income-generating efforts to help finance small-scale development projects. "I can see many possibilities for improving health and community development," said Ms. Mungonye.

In Nairobi, Ms. Mungonye also serves on the local-level Nairobi Bahá'í Committee on Women. In conjunction with the national-level National Committee on Women, they, too, are working to help grassroots women develop income-generating projects.

"We have some ladies who are doing tie and dye, and others who are doing crafts," said Josephine Lutta, who is a member of the National Committee on Women and is also a member of the informal enterprise group with Ms. Mungonye. "And if they don't have money to do these projects, we are encouraging what we call 'kitchen gardens.' Because most of them have small farms and they can plant something and sell it to keep them going."

Maryke Van Lith

Maryke Van Lith's work to empower women seeks to help people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. "The Western world does not need as much material help," she said during an interview in Huairou. "But it needs psychological and spiritual help. The media, for example, is so full of violent and degrading images that human beings, and especially women, feel they have no value."

As part of her own effort to combat these trends, Ms. Van Lith has recently begun to give workshops in empowerment training in her new hometown of Leiderdorp, the Netherlands, where she moved after living for 17 years in Suriname, where she worked in Bahá'í communities to promote literacy, basic health education and other small-scale development projects. The Leiderdorp workshops, which are given in a course of 10 two-and-a-half hour units, seek to promote self-esteem, self-knowledge and a greater capacity to love others.

"This sort of training is especially useful in promoting the empowerment of women," said Ms. Van Lith, who is 71. "Too often the schools and workplace -- all of our society, really -- are filled with fault-finding and criticism. The courses focus on seeing positive things in others, on encouraging and being encouraged. They seek to bring out the feminine qualities of cooperation and love and care that are much needed in today's society."

The content of the workshops has been developed in part from the spiritual principles of the Bahá'í teachings and the educational methods pioneered by Rudolf Dreikurs," said Ms. Van Lith. "It starts with the idea that a human being is like a mine 'rich in gems of inestimable value.' The training then focuses on reinforcing the value of the individual, on the beauty of the soul, and on the building up of a new society."