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Mariet Verhoef - Cohen is a translator and past-president of Soroptimist International of Europe (SIE), an international organization dedicated to the growth and development of women worldwide. We met her in the Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam and spoke to her about the strength of women and the importance of clean drinking water for the growth and development of rural communities. A beautiful story with a powerful message.

Who are the Soroptimists and wherein lies their strength?
"Soroptimist International is an organization in which professional women from over 125 countries around the world are connected. We are committed to the rights of women worldwide by connecting them to each other.

The strength of the Soroptimists is their network and mutual goodwill and understanding. Within every country, every village, the Soroptimists can start up and monitor projects. The women are accompanied and supported by a local Soroptimist. Always receiving support regarding development and financial implications. That’s what makes us strong and what makes our projects successful."

Water connects
"When I became European president of the Soroptimists I thought, 'what connects all these women, what theme appeals to each and every culture' ? On the one hand you have the women from affluent and well-educated countries, with plenty of opportunities. On the other hand you have women from countries affected by poverty, drought and lack of hygiene. And then I realised: it must be'water'! The Netherlands is a typical ‘water country’; we actually have too much... Eastern Europe has water, but the infrastructure is often poor which makes the water polluted. And in Africa there is a lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. Water connects us all, each in his own way. Everything is actually based on water. From planting trees in the Mau Forest of Kenya, to the development of women, hygiene and health... the amount of links is endless. And that’s how ‘water’ became a theme."

The importance of water
"Water is the means to fight poverty. Access to clean water (and water pumps, toilets and showers) brings hygiene and reduces absenteeism and illness. Women can start their education, which means they can earn money and send their children (especially daughters) to school. It's a ‘snowball effect’. And it all starts with water."

Where lies your strength?
\"I think in making those connections. Understanding and accepting differences between cultures and the way they do things. Communication is so important, everything stands or falls with it. Projects in Africa sometimes have to be designed differently than we’re used to in Western countries. Therefore, it is so important to listen to the grassroots and to local needs. Because they know what is really needed and what is manageable within their culture and climate. The direct contact we have with the local Soroptimists makes this all easier. By connecting the language with the culture, and thereby having a clear idea of what is actually meant, I am able to help with negotiations and to achieve a success. That feels like a strength.\"

What does sharing mean to you?
\"Sharing is the basis of everything we do. It’s about sharing the possibilities that you have in your life with the people around you.

Sharing also means helping others grow. Not keeping everything to yourself, but contributing to the development of - in my case– women in particular. The construction of a water pump nearby for instance means mothers can spend time on their personal development instead of fetching water.\"

From fetching water to student
\"Recently I visited a school in Ivory Coast with the local Soroptimists. There were no sanitary facilities, and therefore the school was mostly for boys. Without toilets or showers a school is much too dangerous for girls. Because when they go into the bush for their needs, they run the risk of getting raped.

Together with the Soroptimists we realized showers and toilets at the school. As a result, the girls from the neighbourhood could go to school safely. And the good thing was, the mothers of these girls were excited! They went to the head of the school and said: our children are learning how to read and write, we want that too! It really touched me. It’s all about sharing. And because we are working together and joined forces, growth is stimulated in so many ways.\"

Soroptimists inspire action and create opportunities to improve the lives of women and children through our global network of members and international partnerships.

Author: MARIE-STELLA-MARIS - September 24 2013, 8:59