When Mother’s Day was first celebrated, it was a call for women to unite against war. It was a day of activism founded upon the belief that change must come from work built across generations. As we celebrate Mother’s Day and honor our mothers, we are reminded that sustained social change depends on a commitment across generations.
2011 has already proven this principle many times over. We have all been captivated by the mobilizations of people across the Middle East and North Africa, demanding a voice in their own futures. Yes, the waves of protests rolled at lightning speed. But these transformational moments didn’t come out of thin air. Great popular change is the result of years of sustained organizing, education and activism.
Six women’s lives can tell this story. These are women who came together across generations to demand their rights and to fight for the safety and health of their communities. This Mother’s Day, we remember women like this and the lessons of our own mothers. We remember that all we can do is our own lifetime’s share of the work; then we must pass on what we’ve learned to the next generation. As we do that, we get just a bit closer to building the world we want to live in.
Monica and Mirna, Nicaragua
The little girl, barely seven years old, looked up at the women who had come to visit her mother. Maybe a few of them had an inkling of what that moment meant to the girl, as she watched them discussing the impact of the still-raging Contra war on her community in Nicaragua. She would grow up to be a women’s human rights advocate—just like her mother.
The little girl was Monica Aleman. Today, she is a leader in the movement for women’s rights and the founder of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, a space for global Indigenous women’s organizing. Her mother is Mirna Cunningham. In the early 1980s, she was one of a group of Nicaraguan women who took a stand against the violence that was ravaging their communities. Together, they invited a group of US women to see for themselves how US support for the Contra war destroyed communities. Their initiative gave rise to the international women’s human rights organization, MADRE.
Trained as a surgeon and a teacher, Mirna’s leadership was indispensable to her community through difficult times. She served for many years as a Minister of Health and Governor of the North Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua—demanding guarantees for the human rights of all at every step.
Together, Mirna and Monica have been leaders in social movements to demand their rights both as women and as Indigenous people. They worked to build momentum at the United Nations for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in a landmark human rights declaration that finally passed in 2007. Through their tireless work and collaboration, they have created new spaces for Indigenous women to speak out and to demand their rights.
Najla and Fatima, Sudan
When Fatima Ahmed founded Zenab for Women in Development, an organization fighting for the human rights of Sudanese women, her inspiration was her mother. “When I think of every opportunity she gave to me to become a leader and when I think of her dedication to young women, I know that I have a responsibility to keep that legacy going,” Fatima explains.
Zenab’s legacy lives on in young women like Najla. She came to work with Zenab for Women in Development in order to win rights for women farmers in Sudan. Today, she travels to visit the hundreds of women farmers supported by Zenab for Women in Development, hearing their stories, providing critical training and distributing seeds.
“She is becoming a leader, among the women farmers and in the Sudanese women’s movement,” Fatima says. “Because of her dedication, our work is growing, and I know that I can rely on her to continue after me.”
Hind and Dalal, Iraq
One day in 2006, when a team of women from the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), were visiting women in Kadhimiya Prison, one woman walked up to them, her eyes determined. She said her name was Hind and that she needed to get out to care for son—only nine years old.
Hind had gone through so much. At 16, she had been raped. After the attack, she could not go home, fearing that her family would kill her in order to restore their “honor” after the shame of her rape. To support her son, Hind turned to sex work.
Eventually, she was arrested and sent to prison. This is where OWFI found her. They helped to secure her release and offered her a small room for her and her son—next door to Dalal, an OWFI activist in her 50’s. Hind began to accompany Dalal to OWFI meetings and activities, hearing women who dreamt out loud together of a better Iraq.
“It was the first safe place I could remember,” Hind says. “I saw women who were strong and who took care of each other. They weren’t afraid to take action.” Today, Hind is the head of OWFI’s anti-trafficking program, traveling to the most dangerous parts of Baghdad to ask women living off of sex work what they need to protect their rights. Now it is her turn to open the door for women to a new life.
Women of all ages are building a movement that promises to tilt the course of history towards justice and human rights for all. It’s a principle I see in action every day at MADRE, an organization built on women’s collaboration across generations and geographies. As we celebrate our own mothers this Mother’s Day, let’s also honor mothering itself—the work of transmitting the lessons and principles we need to transform this world into a place where all children can thrive.