By Peg Balano
What a wonderful few days! I recently attended Oxfam’s ‘Sisters on the Planet’ Conference on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Maine. An amazing conglomeration of women from 26 states and 7 countries gathered in Washington DC. This event is traditionally held on International Women’s Day and it is a true international experience. It was astounding to witness the wealth of experience ranging from local, state and federal politics, judicial, philanthropic, military, religious, television and theater, consulting, education, agriculture, authors, chefs, agriculture and investments. Talking and finding common ground with so many was a real joy.
I knew of Oxfam but not about their level of commitment to and accomplishment in responding to crises and building self-reliance across the world. They don’t accept U.S. Government funds, rather they work with existing humanitarian aid sources. To meet people working on life and death issues around the world is humbling. We at the League work so hard on issues here at home and it was fascinating to talk with people addressing some of the same things in other parts of the world.
There were so many interesting sessions with women addressing big, worldwide issues. Many showcased real-world examples of women-led projects that are changing the world one community at a time. The League believes that everyone has a role to play in making the world a better place but it really was empowering from — the point of view of this woman — to see and hear stories of women in leadership. One example, was ‘Local Women Solving Global Challenges’ in a panel discussion with:
- the Mayor of Monrovia, Liberia, who was instrumental in the Ebola Virus Disease crisis.
- an Engineer with the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council in the Philippines, during their 2011 and 2012 major cyclones.
- Oxfam’s Farmer and Female Food Hero from Nigeria.
Oxfam America is very focused on issues caused by Climate Change and what that means for supporting the needs of women and children during disasters. Pregnant women are especially at risk during any crisis. Food and food security, land management, human trafficking, water rights and education are all shared concerns during national disasters. The League is also working on environmental issues in the US so it was interesting to see where our shared interest might intersect.
One common thread – heard over and over again — was that no country can ignore 50% of its population. When girls and women succeed, countries succeed. The need to educate local leaders and develop a crisis management infrastructure was widely acknowledged by so many speakers. It’s not just an issue of charity but communities need the tools and skills to be prepared before a crisis even occurs. Rather than depending solely on international aid (which comes after a crisis), communities and leaders must build the capacity to manage those response funds in a way that provides long-term results.
Like the LWV, Oxfam does advocacy and public education on its core issues. It was reported that Women and children account for more than 75 percent of displaced persons. The second day of the conference introduced some of their advocacy work, including an introduction to Oxfam’s soon to be proposed STRIDE Act for Self-Reliance, which will focus on countries prone to natural disasters and the development of cost effective Disaster Risk Management. U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) spoke about the bill. She is co-sponsor of the bill and currently an Oxfam Sisters on the Planet Ambassador.
The conference not only opened my eyes to some of the amazing work happening all over the world, it also made me feel more connected to the people who work to make the world a better place. The League’s work here in Maine is so important: registering and educating voters, advocating for core political issues, monitoring our government and working with partners across the state. I came home with the sense that our work – while it may sometimes seem small in the context of national and worldwide politics – is crucial to safeguarding the rights and liberties of Maine people, and by extension those of citizens all over the world.