Executive secretary for communications
General Board of Global Ministries
The United Methodist Church
475 Riverside Drive, #1501
New York, NY 10115
April 12, 2005
The Laos women crossed the Mekong river in small numbers - much like refugees --leaving their homeland. On the other side, they were met by Hmong women from the United States, who had once been refugees themselves. The difference between them -- the women from Laos would return to their country after a few days, putting themselves at risk to make the lives of other women and children better.
At the end of March, 60 women from Laos participated in the United Methodist Women’s Bible Women training in Thailand, a country where the women felt they could meet, learn and discuss issues safely. Their home country is under communist rule and stories of Christians jailed or displaced for their faith are not uncommon.
The Bible Women training has spread throughout South and Southeast Asia, teaching grassroots women - many who are illiterate themselves - to go into the poorest, most untouched regions of countries and address issues the indigenous women identify as critical to their women. The women from Laos wanted training on health, parenting, and microcredit.
Kady Herr-Yang, a Hmong-American from Wisconsin, first experienced how the Bible Women training worked as a United Methodist Women’s Division director two years ago. She approached the Division, wondering if it would be possible for Hmong women from the United States to help train women from her homeland. Eight women underwent the training, then gave the training in Thailand. Ms. Herr-Yang’s 14-year-old and 11-year-old daughters and two translators, speaking Laos and Hmong, also went with the group.
After the training, Ms. Herr-Yang with her daughters went back to Laos to see how the women live.
“They are so poor, but especially the Hmong villages. There are no bathrooms, they have unclean filthy water, the houses are built on dirt,” she said. “During the rainy season, they wake up with water up to their bed, and their pots and pans floating around them.”
Her daughter, Tiffany, 14, saw children carrying gasoline cans filled with dirty drinking water from one village well. The villagers had to pay for the water.
“How sad to have to pay for such filthy water. Water should be free. It is a gift from God,” she told the Women’s Division board of directors at their spring meeting.
Jessica, 11, watched the children - with dirty faces, dirty clothes, or no clothes -- who were her age, lugging their siblings on their back. “And I thought, that could’ve been me.”
But the training that Ms. Her-Yang and the other seven Hmong-Americans gave may change villages like this. Working with three ethnic groups from Laos, the trainers first had to address the cultural barriers and the fear that the various groups had. Much of this fear was based on the strangeness of a new place, a new environment, exposure to different training materials, and introversion with women of different backgrounds.
Ms. Herr-Yang also perceived cultural barriers because of the history and diversity in Laos. According to Ms. Herr-Yang, many of the low land and middle land Laotians have labeled the Hmong people as rebels and traitors, because of their association with the United States during the Vietnam war. And the level of education was much greater in the low-land region of the country than in the mountain area, where many of the women could not read and where traditional superstitions prevailed.
Ms. Herr-Yang, who was teaching about micro-credit opportunities so the women could create their own businesses, saw the challenges when they discussed frog farming as a way to make money. For those in the low lands, it was a money-making venture they could relate to. But for those in the high and mid-lands, water was too scarce for frog farming.
“The women kept thinking they needed money to get more money,” Ms. Yang said. “I had to move them beyond this thought.” She challenged them to think of what they did well. Needlework. The women didn’t read, but they sewed their stories on cloth. Garden. They grew vegetables and corn. They could each contribute to a kiddie and sell these in low-land markets. They could use their earnings to build wells, with free, clean water. The women left with action plans on bettering their economic condition, improving their health, and spreading their lessons to other women.
“These women will continue and empower other women to better their communities. And they’ll be witnesses to God’s mission. The hope is that it will spread throughout the country,” Ms. Herr-Yang said. The group presented the women with Bibles and Lao hymn books to take back to their villages.
Bible Women trainings are sponsored by United Methodist Women, a one-million member organization whose purpose is to foster spiritual growth, develop leaders and advocate for justice. Members raise close to $25 million a year for local and global programs and projects related to women, children and youth in the United States and in more than 100 countries around the world.
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posted: Apr 12, 2005