Nioma Narissa Sadler, Founder of Women Serve
Who is WomenServe?
Nioma: WomenServe is all about amplifying the voices and advancing the status of women and girls around the world through the use of storytelling and via initiatives primarily focused on the areas of water security, health and hygiene, education, and economic development. Our work is not about empowering women and girls: It’s about removing barriers and providing economic and educational opportunities so that they can have self-actualization and empowerment. When obstacles to empowerment are removed and women and girls are recognized, heard and given opportunities, they step up and step into community leadership. We work with local organizations to develop community-led economic and educational opportunities for women and girls. We invest in community water systems, help plant gardens, support self-help groups and give them opportunities to learn income-generating skills. We use social development projects, partnerships and storytelling to raise awareness and generate impact and change.
How did your upbringing/background lead you to create WomenServe?
Nioma: As a child, I was denied a formal education by nontraditional parents who believed in the wisdom of nature. My heart and mind longed for formal academic education, and so public libraries became my refuge and my classroom. I became obsessed with reading the stories and biographies of women and girls. It was these books that helped me see storytelling as an authentic and powerful means of advocacy. As I grew and experienced trauma of my own, my passion for women’s issues deepened. I felt deeply connected to the Bosnian women who were forced to carry their rapists’ babies and imagined working together to bring these stories to the web of women all over the world who have also suffered acts of gender violence.
In 2006, my role as Goodwill Ambassador led me on a journey into Traditional Medicinal herb-sourcing communities in Western Rajasthan, India. While listening to the stories of women and girls in these communities, I began to document their hardships through filmmaking to raise awareness. Over the years, my connection to these women and communities deepened, and to serve their needs, I founded WomenServe. I built relationships with organizations on the ground to help develop initiatives that have supported thousands of families, women and girls' access to basic necessities of life: water, health, hygiene, education & economic opportunity.
How did WomenServe get connected to ConnectHer?
Nioma: Storytelling has always been such an essential part of my life and work. As a child, it was reading biographies that opened my eyes to the diverse experiences of women all over the world and ignited the fire in me to make a difference. Learning about the challenges that women and girls face through stories, instead of generalizations or statistics, allows us to connect on a deeper, human level. A few years ago, I was sharing with a dear colleague an idea I had to create an organization called “Camera in Her Hand,” which would give girls the tools and opportunity to tell their own stories through video and film. As a filmmaker, I understand the power of film to communicate a message in a way that absolutely nothing else can. My colleague replied, “Let me introduce you to an incredible woman who is already doing this work!” She brought Lila and me together, and I immediately felt called to support her mission in whatever ways possible.
What are your future goals and hopes for working with ConnectHer?
Nioma: My heart’s work is in Western Rajasthan, India. I would love to see us support a ConnectHer Fellow in Jodhpur, near some of the villages where we fund grants, to lead hands-on filmmaking workshops with interested girls and women. One of our current storytelling practices is to visit with women and girls who have been working on their self-empowerment to hear and share their stories. But imagine if they could hold the camera on their own! That is a dream I hope to bring to fruition through WomenServe’s partnership with ConnectHer.
Out of all the other awards to sponsor, why did you choose to sponsor our 'Educating Girls' Award?
Nioma: I have a firsthand imprint of the inequality rural communities face due to a lack of formal education. So, when a girl is allowed to earn her own money, which education often is the gateway to, it’s monumental. You know, we “learn to earn”. At WomenServe, the work we do for women and girls around water, health and hygiene is really to remove barriers so they are given back time, given back the opportunity to be in classrooms learning so they can better their families and communities. I believe in education, very very strongly. Every little girl we get to a school is my own inner, little girl. So, when Lila said “Hey, what about the Education Award?”, we were all about it. Education for the women, education for their daughters, education for their communities — it’s a whole family impact when you help the women in families.
One thing that always sticks out to me is so little international support has gone to girls. Historically, it was close to two percent of every dollar went to girls, and 98% would go to boys. But, on the flip side of that, there’s so much research, such as one done with the World Bank, that shows when you educate a girl and when you invest in supporting girls and women, it has a much larger impact on their communities. It’s so much more than just empowering one girl, it’s educating that girl and seeing the effects that education has around her. It’s world-changing.
So, we often find that for a lot of these aid initiatives for these rural areas, we have to be intentional that the rewards are made for or go to the girls and women. There’s a wonderful push for “Equity for all” which I believe in, but I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves when we don’t start with the most marginalized of us. Everyone deserves the right to have access to an education. Partnering with Lila and ConnectHER in this initial framework hasn’t just been rewarding for all involved, but healing.