Once again, supporters of the work of AMREF (the African Medical and Research Foundation) gathered in New York City for an emotional celebration of their victories of the last year. Executives presented a series of awards to groundbreaking activists and they spread the word about their work that is improving the health of girls and women in Africa.
AMREF’s Director General Dr. Teguest Guerma set the tone. “The future of the world is in Africa,” she said. “Work with us to save more women and girls to ensure that future. AMREF is an African organization, finding African solutions to African problems. Our goal is to create long-term health changes in Africa, from within.”
American donors contributed more than $7 million in 2010 to support the 50-year old organization. AMREF was founded as the Flying Doctors of East Africa in 1957 and today is the largest Africa-based health development organization.
The speakers had a lot to be proud of and they touted their training of 350 clinical officers in Southern Sudan who can do 70 percent of the tasks of doctors, but can be trained at a much lower cost in a much shorter time period, effectively getting health workers with expertise into the field at a much faster rate. They also cited that using e-learning they are upgrading the skills of 22,000 practicing nurses in Kenya.
But a great deal remains to be done. Diarrhea is the largest killer of children on the African continent and AMREF is working to bring clean water and sanitation to more communities. If women and girls will no longer have to spend hours each day transporting water, much of it unsanitary water, the girls can go to school and the women can begin businesses. AMREF reports with $250, the organization can provide safe drinking water for a family in rural Tanzania for an entire year.
AMREF is also training more midwives, since 600 women die each day of pregnancy complications and child birth. The organization says for $150, it can train a community midwife in South Sudan who will safely deliver hundreds of babies.
The lunch honored filmmaker and philanthropist Abigail Disney, whose newest film, Women, War & Peace, will air later this year on PBS and HBO. The film provides the first definitive look at how war has changed for women since the end of the Cold War.
The Global Corporate Philanthropy Award went to Johnson & Johnson for its help in developing training programs for health workers in Kenya as well as for its support of fistula repair surgery in East Africa.
Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault was also honored for her more than three decades of coverage of Africa on NPR, CNN and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. “The people of Africa taught me how to tell their stories from their point of view – not from the Western perspective,” she said. “Save the women and we will save the continent.”
The emotional highlight of the afternoon, however, was the presentation of the Distinguished Humanitarian Award to author and activist Eve Ensler (pictured at left with actress Kerry Washington). Her play, The Vagina Monologues, has been published in 48 languages and performed in more than 140 countries. In 1998, she founded the V Day movement which has raised $80 million to break barriers and give a voice to young women. It is now operating in some 16 countries in Africa including Kenya, where V Day has opened two safe houses for girls escaping gender mutilation.
Ensler first visited the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 and has made seven visits back since then to advocate for the end of violence against women and to help the survivors. She began building a recovery center for rape victims, called the City of Joy.
She told the New York audience that over the last year, the women of DRC literally saved her life. Ensler was diagnosed with cancer in April of 2010. But she was determined to witness the building and opening of the City of Joy, which she did on Valentine’s Day – V Day — in 2011.
She described how the Congolese women made the bricks and built the compound of buildings in which 90 women will spend six months receiving psychosocial treatment as well as literacy, life skills and vocational training. Ensler described their joyous dancing, bricks in hand, at the opening.
“Had I not been fighting for the women of the DRC, I would not have survived cancer,” Ensler said.
Her triumph and that of the women of DRC are emblematic of the fight—and the promise—that AMREF provides every day.
For more information, visit www.amrefusa.org.