Nawal Hassan Osman is touring Australia this month, sponsored by Community Aid Abroad. The tour focuses primarily on her work as director of the Grinding Mills Project for rural women's development in Sudan. However, she is also an outspoken campaigner against female genital mutilation. Next week's Green Left Weekly will feature an interview with Nawal Osman about African women's campaigns against female genital mutilation.
Nawal Osman is a founder of Yed El Marra, which means "Women's Fist". This is a group of women from Nyala in Sudan, some of whom have been concerned about women's issues since the 1970s, when they were at school. They carried this concern on through university and into work with international organisations such as Oxfam, where Nawal worked from 1985 to 1991.
In order to assist the development of rural women, they initially formed a group open to both men and women called the Rural Society for Women's Development.
In 1988, however, the women involved in this society realised that the men were holding administrative posts but were not doing any work. They decided to create their own organisation of women working for the development of women. This was when Yed El Marra was formed.
Yed El Marra is currently organising the Sudanese Grinding Mills Project, which aims to improve rural women's development and is supported by Community Aid Abroad.
One of its objectives was to free women from the time they would otherwise spend crushing millet and sorghum by the traditional stones method, to enable them to participate in literacy classes and other pursuits. Another objective was that the women involved would use the income generated from the mill for projects such as health training and education.
The first grinding mill project was approved in December 1992 at a cost of A$14,000, in the village of Milebeda. The mill began operation in 1993 and until December 1994 was the only mill run by women in the whole country.
The Milebeda mill became a successful income-generating project by serving seven other villages as a grinding centre. In an interview with Radio National's Sandy McCutcheon, Nawal said that the women running the project are developing other ideas of their own. "Last year they gave out seeds to people from the mill to start planting their fields. For every kilo of seeds given out, they asked for two kilos to be returned after the harvest."
Nawal sees the project as increasing the women's confidence as they are able to work independently and develop their own ideas about where to take the project.
Operation of the mill by women had its own challenges. For the first six months, men were needed as technicians to train the women.
Although responsible for managing the project's finances, many of the women are illiterate. In order to open bank accounts, stamps had to be organised with their names written on them which they could use to withdraw money.
Setting up the project initially also took a lot of determination. In the Radio National interview, Nawal said that in rural areas, the women were generally well received because they approached the traditional leaders first to explain the project to them. However, in the towns men regarded the women as subversive, accusing them of being communists, anti-male or Western spies. It took the project a whole year to convince government officials to register them as a non-government organisation, which is compulsory.
Despite many problems, the project is making progress in helping rural women. Other projects Yed El Marra is involved with include new mills, vegetable gardens and dairy projects with poor rural women.