Editor's Note: This article is part of a blog series for Women's History Month featuring stories of men and women working to create a more equal and safe world. May we all continue to partner and pray together for gender justice—download our free March 2015 Prayer Calendar.
"Snakes, they are everywhere. We must first teach new children in the school how to kill them," said Sister Anna Verasimbo Ussiry. This was not the kind of response I anticipated when I asked her to describe the biggest challenge at the fledgling Ushirika Wa Neema Secondary School in Mpanda, Tanzania. She went on to tell me that just a couple of days earlier, a deadly puff adder about the size of her forearm had dropped from the rooftop and around her neck as she stepped out of her office. As one who has always had an irrational fear of such creatures, I found the story terrifying. But when I asked how many snakebite injuries the school had suffered since opening in January 2014, she responded "None, God protects us, he needs us here to do his work."
Sister Anna and her fellow Sister Anna Safari Etlawe had been sent alone from their home community in Moshi, Tanzania, to hack out a secondary school in the remote Katavi district of southwest Tanzania. An existing campus had been purchased through the leadership of the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. But the campus had been abandoned for 13 years and was overgrown, with the grounds claimed by squatters and the buildings in decay.
The grounds were clear when I visited, and the first class of students were living in the dorms and studying diligently. The students sang for us in that special way that only Tanzanians can sing. The sisters were preparing to admit a second class of students and embark on year two of providing education to kids that would otherwise have gone without. Especially important was the role modeling these amazing women were doing for the young girls in a culture where women are often abused and denied opportunities.
The challenges my American eyes saw—buildings in disrepair, few furniture, limited teaching supplies—were nothing compared with the real challenges that the Sisters were working together with God to overcome.
The tangible faith (not just "belief") of these two Sisters reminded me of the most courageous woman I know, Sunitha Krishnan. At age 15 she was gang-raped, most of her limbs have been broken and there have been contracts taken out to have her killed. Rising from this, she has been indefatigable in her quest to stop sexual trafficking and abuse of women in India.
After presenting a TED Talk, she was able to obtain the financial support needed to build a transitional living shelter near Hyderabad as part of her Prajwala organization which takes a holistic approach to creating new lives for victims of trafficking. Sunitha, a Hindu, started Prajwala working together with Brother Jose Vettical, a Catholic. Brother Jose passed away before the shelter that he and Sunitha co-created was completed. Sunitha's description of the path to the building of the shelter is replete with miracles—the right amount of money showing up on the very day it was needed to purchase the land, water appearing where there had never been evidence of water, a sponsorship from Google that made the construction possible.
Prajwala has helped thousands of abused women. The organization offers them shelter, counsel, and vocational training in "empowering" trades like welding, construction, and printing. It operates schools for the children of women who have been trafficked. The work is very challenging. Some women run back to the only life they have known and perhaps were sold into the slave trade by their own parents. Organized crime is constantly a threat to Prajwala's operations. There is never enough money.
Sitting in Prajwala's small conference room adjacent to a chaotic market, I asked Sunitha where the strength came from to charge ahead into danger, violence, and sometimes even rejection by the women Prajwala served. I don't remember her exact words - but the gist was that the strength came not from herself, but from faith in her own experience of God. Not a God owned by some religious denomination, but the real One. That One who never let Sunitha down when it was time to pay the staff, deal with the mob, handle corrupt police, or remain resolute in the face of failure.
I have been blessed and humbled to have met these three women and remain inspired by what they do, particularly their commitment to empowering other women and girls. Sunitha told me to not just show up and feel sorry. Send money if you are inclined, but most importantly, speak about sexual slavery and trafficking to everyone you know. Don't allow anyone to pretend it isn't going on in your own community. Only when all men are vocal about this and intolerant of any abuse of women will things improve.
I pray that I may develop a sliver of the courage Anna, Anna, and Sunitha model.
Martin Malley is a leadership development consultant and principal of Shrinking Borders LLC. His mission is to make the world a smaller place.