In honor of International Women’s Day, meet Cecilia Valderrama Gómez, Manjula Kahar and Nande Anggun, women who live in different countries but are united in their commitment to improving their communities with the support of The Starbucks Foundation.
It was a mother’s sacrifice that was nearly unfathomable. In order to save her children, Cecilia Valderrama Gómez knew she would have to send them away. She and her husband and four children lived in El Escobal, a rural area in Colombia that was controlled for 50 years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
“Because of the conflict, people were living in fear,” she said. “There was a lot of fear in doing just basic activities. We couldn’t dare try to leave the area.”
The FARC was known to recruit young children and use them as runners. So, when Valderrama Gómez’s children were between 9 and 13, she sent three of them to stay with family in a safer area where they could go to school and wouldn’t be taken by the FARC.
“I didn’t want them to be at risk,” she said. Years passed, and it wasn’t until the conflict ended two years ago that she saw them again. Her son who wasn’t able to go with the others ended up being conscripted by the FARC and later went to jail.
It’s overwhelming recalling all that she went through living in the shadow of the FARC, she said. Instead, she chooses to focus on the present and work toward the future. Today, “I’m happy and hopeful,” she said. “I have always wanted to help others fight for a better life and to help others get ahead.”
Valderrama Gómez, 52, is doing exactly that as president of the Escobal Women’s Association, an organization comprised of 16 women, dedicated to improving conditions for the community after the conflict. About half of the families in her community don’t have basic sanitation services. Many don’t have bathrooms.
That’s now starting to change due to help from a $500,000 grant to Lutheran World Relief from The Starbucks Foundation, which is targeted toward improving sanitation and access to clean water and also creating greater economic opportunity for women in coffee communities in Tolima, Colombia.
In 2018, The Starbucks Foundation announced a goal of empowering 250,000 women and girls by 2025 in communities where coffee, tea, and cocoa is grown. Since then, the foundation has given nearly $4 million dollars to 11 programs focused on women’s leadership opportunities, economic development, access to water, sanitation, health, education and more.
Starbucks currently partners with a number of non-profits around the world who lead the programs, including Barefoot College, CARE, Days for Girls International, Lutheran World Relief (in Colombia and Indonesia), Roger Federer Foundation, Send a Cow, UNICEF Ethical Tea Partnership, Instituto del Café’ de Costa Rica, Malala Fund and World Relief.
“When you invest in women, you are investing in an entire ecosystem,” said Virginia Tenpenny, vice president of Global Social Impact at Starbucks and executive director of The Starbucks Foundation. “We’re focused on investments that lead to women being empowered, specifically in health, educational opportunities and income, so they can in turn empower their families and communities as well.”
The women of the Escobal Women’s Association may be small in number, but they know how to organize and get things done, a point of pride for Valderrama Gómez. They raise bees and sell the honey locally, providing an income for their families while working toward a goal of being able to sell their honey in the larger cities and grow their customer base.
They are also about to use those same organizational skills to help facilitate the building of more toilets in her community. Women from her group will meet with families in the area to assess the need. And then they’ll coordinate getting the supplies there via a two-hour journey by donkey.
Valderrama Gómez knows that better sanitation means less sickness and disease. People get sick if the water is contaminated. The closest hospital is miles away.
“If you have better sanitation, you have better health,” she said. “My hope is to see new projects continue and for the community to really grow, not just in prosperity but in peace.”
That’s the hope of The Starbucks Foundation too, said Tenpenny.
“Women have an instinct to pay it forward,” she said. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, meet some of the other women who are working to change the world, one community at a time.
Manjula Kahar, India
At 3 p.m. each afternoon, about 120 children arrive at Majula Kahar’s home in Assam, India, for her after-school education program. For the next two hours, Kahar teaches them how to read and write. Though Kahar comes from modest means, she does it without pay, committed to helping the children have opportunities she didn’t growing up.
Like them, Kahar, now 26, grew up on the Moran Tea Estate, the daughter of a tea picker. She attended the local government school when she was a girl, especially unusual for young girls in the region. Due to limited access to school and lack of resources, many children on tea estates who do attend school drop out before high school without being able to read, making aspirations and economic opportunities nearly impossible.
“The after-school program that these children are a part of is for lower-income groups,” she said. “I feel change will come when it is communicated that education is a largest priority. I want the community to be educated and to value education.”
In many tea communities, education is prioritized for boys, with girls being expected to focus on household chores, she said. But Kahar’s mother, a tea picker whom she calls the core of the family, always placed value on education. She encouraged all three of her children to continue school, even as Kahar saw many of her friends drop out and get married early.
Kahar went through a training program to learn how to teach children as part of Mercy Corps’ Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI), supported since 2003 by The Starbucks Foundation. Today she is earning her Bachelor of Arts degree at Moran College to advance access to education for children in her community.
“I always had the desire to be a teacher,” she said. “Education was not a priority on tea estates growing up, and after getting training, I began teaching kids in the community. I quickly saw, after three or four months, an improvement in students. They could now recognize the alphabet and write short sentences. One student even began to sing stories in the classroom to friends. This is the inspiration I see in schools. I am happy that I can contribute to my community and society.”
The number of students who come to Kahar’s classes continues to grow. Many, who are eager for the chance to learn, are bringing their friends. She finds room for them all.
Education, she knows, is the key to unlocking a better life, particularly for girls.
“I want to see women and girls uplifted in parts of the world where they are deprived of education,” she said. “I hope one day the woman will rise and be given importance in the world.”
After she graduates from college, she wants to be a school teacher, which she sees as her path to changing the world.
Nande Anggun, Indonesia
It’s early morning and Nande Anggun, 48, has not been to bed yet. As a midwife, she’s accustomed to being up at all hours at the side of women who need her. On this day last week, she’s just helped deliver a baby girl – part of the next generation of women in the Indonesian community that Anggun has devoted her life to helping empower.
In addition to being a midwife for the last 26 years, she also works with young children and the elderly, tends to her farm of 200 coffee trees and is also the treasurer of Pembianaan Kesejahteraan Keluarga (PKK), a family welfare organization led by women focused on helping develop women’s leadership, governance, management, strategic planning and more in their villages. It’s rare for her to get more than six hours of sleep a night, but it’s worth it, she says, because she knows that this is how change happens.
“I’m very proud to participate in community activities because I look for how the women in my community can have a better life,” she said, as she sat in the lobby of her local health clinic.
In 2018 Lutheran World Relief, which works with PKK, was given a three-year grant from The Starbucks Foundation totaling $500,000 to support women-led community health and hygiene programs for 2,100 households in Indonesian coffee-producing villages.
PKK is leading a series of workshops where women in the community can discuss various topics about health and family. The group is focused on helping women build, and then advocate, for their own agendas in their lives and communities. Often, she said, the weight of caring for the family and making sure bills are paid falls to women, even when they are working outside the home.
“Women are considered the responsible person for running a family,” she said.
She recently led a workshop focused on the roles of women and men in families – and how women can navigate conversations with their husbands about being more involved as fathers and seeing their wives as equals. It sparked a conversation with Anggun’s own husband, whom she said doesn’t always understand why she is so busy volunteering her time.
She puts her hand to her heart as she talks about what matters – she wants to make things better for those who are coming behind her. Women coming together can be powerful, she said. “It’s not always just about gaining new knowledge, but other women might be thinking about the same things,” she said. That is how change begins.
Her face lights up as she talks about her own children, a 25-year-old daughter and her 21-year-old son.
“As a mother, I always hope my daughter can hope she has a better life than me. I hope she and her husband can discuss everything about the family,” she said.
In addition to the community workshops, part of the grant is focused toward improving sanitation and access to clean water. Women who volunteer with PKK will be trained to help educate people about better sanitation. Grant dollars will help fund the construction of 18 communal water and sanitation facilities in five communities, featuring a shower, toilet, sink and water storage tank.
While Anggun has running water at her house, many in her village don’t. When she goes to visit friends who only have latrines and no water, she worries for them, she said.
Better health, better sanitation and women who are truly supported in their communities are the goals that drive her, she said. “When I grow old and look back, I hope that people will remember the work I’ve done and the love and hope I have for people,” she said.
Just then, someone approaches and Anggun excuses herself. A woman in labor needs her. Another baby, part of the next generation in her community, was about to be born.
Luz Ruiz Salazar contributed to this story.