This International Women’s Day we would like to showcase some of our favorite organizations that inspire and empower women the world over. Friends of Thai Daughters & the Guatemalan Housing Alliance may be located on opposite sides of the globe, but they each share the common goal of improving the lives of women, with a special focus on ethnic minorities, through community-based empowerment, organization, education, and access. Be they the Hmong or Karen of Northern Thailand, or the Tz'utujil or Quiche’ of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, these organizations help empower the disenfranchised, and create long-lasting ripples in the lives and communities of countless women and their families.
Friends of Thai Daughters (FTD) has been focused on protecting and empowering the “daughters” of Northern Thailand since its two female founders discovered a group of girls living in an abandoned school in 2002. Many of the girls were orphaned, had parents in prison, or were displaced from their communities for other reasons. The majority lacked any form of legal identification and in the eyes of the Thai government, and those of the world, they didn’t actually exist. These underdeveloped agrarian communities in Northern Thailand are home to various ethnic minorities and are notoriously susceptible to human trafficking from Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. Jane McBride and Patricia Zinkowski made a promise to help those girls, and aside from financially supporting them, they returned with a camera and filmed a documentary to bring awareness to the plight of these “daughters” through their heart wrenching stories.
The documentary gained the support of friends, family, and communities here in Maine, and in 2005 “Friends of Thai Daughters” became a registered non-profit. Since then they have been focused on creating and providing community support systems, families that support the daughters of the program through education and empowerment. These community support systems have since evolved into various “Sunflower Houses” through Northern Thailand that provide residential shelter to girls aged 10-18, under the care and tutelage of loving house mothers. Now a group of sisters, these daughters, help each other with schoolwork, housework, gardening, and group activities. The Friends of Thai Daughters, this strong network of familial support, has impacted over 125 Daughters, including Daughters that have graduated from some of the top universities in Thailand. Mee was one of the program’s first ever daughters, graduated from Chiang Main university, and is now FTD’s country general manager.
Each of these daughters will continue to have impacts in their communities and in the lives of others, whether they be nurses, teachers, artists, or entrepreneurs, and all of them return to the Sunflower Houses to help water the gardens for future generations, and future daughters of northern Thailand.
The Guatemalan Housing Alliance (GHA) is the combined effort of Nancy Wynne in Maine, and her four siblings scattered around the US trying to address the complicated issues of systemic poverty in communities around Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Lake Atitlán is surrounded by active volcanoes, steeped in local lore, and rich in indigenous culture, but catastrophic tropical storms and devastating earthquakes coupled with high poverty levels and poor infrastructure have led to serious levels of inequality, destruction, and hardship.
GHA was founded in 2011 with a focus on improving the quality of life of Guatemalan women and their families through access to safe, secure, and sustainable housing. Many families around the lake live in cramped unsafe ramshackle housing made of dirt floors, bamboo, cornstalks, and salvaged materials. These homes leak, cannot be secured, and are incredibly susceptible to natural disasters. Countless families were devastated by Tropical Storm Agatha in 2010, and have been ravaged by similar storms and earthquakes in the past decade. The GHA decides which community members to help on a need-based approach, and then uses community resources and support to help construct, and renovate homes for families while respecting the traditional “bajareque,” or wattle and daub, building style. All of the land titles are signed in the mother’s name, to empower the matriarch of the family. Families who benefit from this structural assistance then become involved in the community-oriented process, helping other families build and maintain their homes. The result is an interconnected community of people helping people that especially benefits those disadvantaged members of the community.
GHA focuses on four communities around the lake, and in each, they have established education initiatives, after-school programs, and health and wellness programs that help children, and their mothers, advance academically and socially. In all of these communities, the native dialects Tz'utujil or Kaqchikel are the household language. GHA helps educate those women and children that struggle to speak, read or write in Spanish. The organization has also created sponsorship and scholarship opportunities that in 2019 impacted over 72 students, 12 at the university level. One beneficiary, Madai, is now the acting program director of GHA. In Madai’s hometown of San Pedro, they have established an organic community garden that is shared between 10 women who are widowed, have suffered abuse, or otherwise mistreated. The community garden is a stone's throw away from where Madai’s family’s home used to stand, which is now a crumpled heap of walls that bears the scars of Tropical Storm Agatha over a decade later. The proud women tend the garden, sharing stories, sharing responsibilities, and sharing the harvest. The garden serves as a support system for them, and they in turn are able to support their families with healthy crops from corn to kale and everything in between.
Wonderful women like Mee and Madai and incredible organizations like Friends of Thai Daughters and Guatemalan Housing Alliance sew and water the seeds of change for future generations. We look forward to seeing what the future grows, and whether it is sunflower seeds or corn kernels, we know that with the right amount of love and support, it will be a good harvest that will feed the whole community, wherever that community might be 🌻🌽❤️