Blog by Asha Asokan, MMEG Grantee 2019

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As per the UN report on Children and Armed Conflict, approximately 250 million children are living in countries and areas affected by conflict and with this increased conflict around the world, violence against children in conflict countries has also increased. As per the report released by UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, more than 10,000 children were killed or maimed in 2017 around the world, especially in Iraq, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Syria. And a total of more than 24,000 violations of child rights were reported in 2018, a sharp increase from the previous year, according to the annual report on Children and Armed Conflict. The need and urgency for child protection is very huge due to the increased conflict around the world.

With an interest to work in human rights and humanitarian field, in 2010, I moved from India to Sudan and then later to South Sudan in 2012. This gave me the opportunity to work on civilian protection, with special focus on children, women and refugees, in the context of armed conflict. My focus of work, in conflict countries, was mainly on protecting children during armed conflict, especially from grave violations committed by armed forces and groups in the context of conflict.

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After six years of my work in conflict and post conflict regions on peace, civilian protection especially women and child protection, I decided to pursue my second masters on policies to contribute in a better way for the protection of children and women in conflict and post-conflict countries. In 2018, I was awarded a generous rotary Peace fellowship to study a two-year master’s program on policies at Duke University. Later in April 2019, I was awarded another generous grant from Margaret McNamara Education Grants (MMEG) to support my career development activities, including attending conferences, speaking events and to partially fund my three-month applied field experience with United Nations in New York.  

A mid-career master’s program at Duke is equipping me with all the policy tools necessary to shape social, political and economic development efforts worldwide and to understand conflict mitigation mechanism in depth. This course of study is helping me to learn in depth about policies and is enhancing my analytical skills. Plus, I am studying more about the ethical dimensions of policy decisions.

In addition to the opportunity to study on policies, I also got the opportunity to do three months of applied field experience at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, commencing in June 2019. I decided to choose the United Nations Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict (UN OSRSG – CAAC) as this will give me the opportunity to understand children and armed conflict issues around the world and expand my horizon in understanding child protection issues outside of South Sudan, where I had previously worked with United Nations Mission in South Sudan. The office of the SRSG CAAC is mandated to report on six grave violations against children in conflict context and around the world there are twenty country situations that has been specifically monitored, because of the active conflict, by the United Nations on children and armed conflict issues. Six grave violations monitored and reported to the UN Secretary General and Security Council includes killing and maiming, abduction, sexual violence,  attack against schools and hospital, denial of humanitarian assistance and recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups in the context for armed conflict.

 The AFE is giving me opportunities to understand the children and armed conflict issues at a headquarters level, where advocacy is done with the parties to the conflict and with the United Nations member states to ensure the protection of children in the context of armed conflict. I got the opportunity to attend many high-level meetings and network with different expertise working on the issues. During my meeting with the Ms. Virginia Gamba, Special Representative to the Secretary General on Children and Conflict, I was encouraged to hear her that her office is working with different actors to strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, raise awareness, promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by war, and foster international cooperation to improve their protection.

 In addition to the AFE, MMEG funding is supporting me to attend different conferences and events within and outside US. Such conferences will help me in the work that I do in two ways, by improving my knowledge and skill on the subject and secondly by networking with like minded professionals. It helps me to understand different perspectives about the topic from different speakers and conference attendees. Later in the year, I will speak at different events organized by different organizations on topics - peace building, mediation, women’s protection and child protection. All of these are wonderful opportunities just strengthen my passion and responsibility to contribute more in the human rights field and global peace and international development.

 These opportunities are made possible because of my two grants --The Rotary Peace Fellowship and the Margaret McNamara Education Grants. These opportunities are helping me to strengthen my skills and my responsibility to contribute in a better way for the protection of women and children in conflict and post conflict countries.


MMEG Grantees Work for Peace

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On April 30, MMEG was delighted to host a discussion on “Why We Need Women Peacebuilders in Conflict Zones” featuring two recent grantees, Lima Ahmad and Singmila Shimrah.  Both women work to create and sustain peace in conflict-afflicted communities in their home regions, Afghanistan and Nagaland, respectively.  The forum was moderated by Karen Mathiasen, Former U.S. Executive Director of the World Bank Group and currently an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  Karen opened the discussion by noting that studies show that the influence of women in the peace-building process is profound; peace achieved with the involvement of women tends to persist 30% longer when women are included. 

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 Lima Ahmad is an FY18 grantee now graduating with a master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Tufts University, where she has just been accepted for a PhD program.  Her focus is on international security and women, especially as it relates to peace-building efforts in Afghanistan.  Lima has worked on involving Afghani women in the peace process, in land reform issues and in improving the prison system for females.  She told us that the impetus for her studies comes from having lost some 50 friends and relatives in conflict in Afghanistan.  Her goal is to ensure that security and peace-building efforts include women at the bargaining table, not at the door as token representatives.

Singmila Shimrah received a MMEG grant in FY17 to support her work toward a doctorate at George Mason University.  Singmila is studying international relations and diplomacy, specializing in conflict analysis and resolution especially as it relates to Naga women’s participation in conflict resolution to enable more durable peace in South Asia.  As a social worker, she veered away from the medical career her family envisioned toward giving voice and agency to women involved in peace-building and conflict resolution.

Also attending was a newly-minted, FY19 grant recipient studying conflict resolution at Duke.  Asha Asokan.  Asha worked in South Sudan as a Child Protection Officer and focuses on bringing women as well as young people into the decision-making process in conflict-affected countries. 

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Singmila and Lima spoke with passion and intelligence about their work and their commitment to the cause of building and sustaining peace in a conflict-ridden world, an area that is male- dominated and intimidating especially in their home countries. They and Asha are testament to the exceptionality of MMEG grantees. As Padmini Mahurkar, chairperson of the volunteer selection committee, said at the event’s close, “it is gratifying for us as committee members to see, hear, and meet you and know that we did well to choose you and continue to support the good work that you do.” MMEG board members heartily agree and continue to be very proud of all of our grantees who are truly making a difference in today’s conflict-ridden world.

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Visit by Valeria Neh Angu (MMEG FY18 grantee)

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It’s a great day at the MMEG office when one of our grantee visits!  On April 4, Valeria Neh Angu came to see us in Washington.   A native of Cameroon, Valeria received a MMEG grant last year to pursue a master’s degree in Health Science, specializing in Community and Global Health at Clark University in Massachusetts, USA.    Valeria had told us in her MMEG application that she has a passion for justice and equity and boy did that prove to be true!

 Valeria’s belief in the power of women is electrifying as shown in her own story.  Born into a poor polygamous family, Valeria was one of 16 children.  While she was able to go to school while her father lived, her half-brothers closed that door when he died because she was a female child from another woman. This frustration pushed her into early marriage without any asset, where she was mistreated.  However, Valeria believes that a woman should “Never go into a marriage as a liability” expecting another to support you or take care of you; women must be self-reliant to meet their dreams, not making plans subject to their husband’s support.  She believes that if women “want to go ahead, they must do it themselves.”  She was as good as her word and left her husband’s family to go to school, enjoining him to wait for her.  He did wait as she pursued her dream.  

In order to undertake a double undergraduate major in Women’s Studies/Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Buea in Cameroon, Valeria made ends meet by selling doughnuts at the roadside.   She also then acted on another strong belief which is in the power of community.  “Sharing is caring.” So, she shared, her ambitions, her struggles and her story within her community and was able to find an educational mentor who supports her studying to this day.  Combine this ability to reach out to her community with her self-determination, persistence, and ambition and you have success in the form of Valeria’s achievements. 

After finishing school in 2004, Valeria continued to walk the talk and worked in community and livelihood development with Heifer International and a local activist group -- Women in Action Against Gender-based Violence.  She decided then to take her passion further and work in the broader area of global health and women’s empowerment. 

We asked Valeria, how she came to MMEG and she noted that she is an internet “guru,” searching and scrubbing the net.  She had identified the International Development Community and Environment department in Clark University which perfectly combines two programs (international development and public health) in the US and other programs in Europe.  “When I want to find something, I go for it.” She said “I want [to have] opportunities.  Then I choose.”  She chose Clark University and then received a MMEG grant.  “You people saved me” she said, noting that being a grant recipient has increased her already-formidable, self-assurance and determination.   

We asked Valeria how she wants to pay her work forward.  She plans on returning to Africa where she will continue her professional career as a project manager for any development organization that needs a passionate change agent.  There she will work toward equality and justice for women and on global health issues.  “Women’s empowerment means strengthening women’s capacity to use their innate abilities” she says.  She will work toward improving women’s livelihood outcomes such as increasing their access to income which, in turn, gives them the means to become self-sustaining with access to life improvements like – education, better clothing, improved housing, higher quality food choices, vaccinations and better medical treatment.   Valeria says” This would contribute in achieving the sustainable development goals especially for women and girls in all sectors of their lives. Her five years career plan is to lead a non-profit organization in Africa where she will collaborate with other partners to advocate for the voiceless underprivileged--especially women, girls and all children.

Valeria is also creating a legacy with her two daughters.  Not only is she a model of a successful woman to her husband and in today’s global world, she is providing her girls with the foundation of success; “Quality education is the key” she says.   Her elder daughter is studying computer engineering and the younger is still in grammar school.  By Valeria’s account, they are both determined, driven, feisty and opinionated girls.  They sound a lot like their Mother!

FY19 grantees for US-Canada & Trinity Washington university programs were announced

Congratulations to our US-Canada and Trinity Washington University grantees, listed here. Successful candidates were informed personally.

Many thanks to our volunteers in the Selection Committee who reviewed the applications and recommended these exceptional women!

Stories of our new grantees coming soon through our social media accounts. Follow us there!