The village school children have almost no school supplies, books or other things our kids take for granted.

by Crystal Cranmore

Karen Rowley stood by a layout of photographs on her dining room table in her Chestnut Hill home. She gently picked up her intricately beaded African necklace and placed it by her neck. One could tell instantly what she thought of the dear friend who presented it to her. Her face lit up as she recalled her fondest memories of Kenya.

A retired nurse, Rowley, 59, has an innate feeling for wanting to nurture others. “From a wee child, I have always wanted to go to Africa,” she explained.

Her dream came true last year, thanks to an organization called Dining for Women, a national charity dedicated to empowering women and girls who live in extreme poverty in Third World countries. The organization empowers these individuals by funding grassroots programs that help provide better access to healthcare, education and economic development.

Dining for Women accomplishes this goal in an innovative, unusual way. “The concept is that while you might go out to dinner once a month with your girlfriends, instead of doing that, you have a potluck dinner,” explained Debbie Britt, a regional assistant for Dining for Women.

The money saved is then donated to those in need. Each month, Dining for Women chapters in the U.S. and Canada pool their money together at the potluck dinners and fund that month’s featured program. They select 501(c)3 non-governmental agencies that are then required to keep members abreast of direct impacts of donations.

Last year, Dining for Women donated $285,000 to 10 different countries including Kenya, where donated funds went to The Boma Fund, an organization that helps provide for and rebuild Kenyan communities.

As an active member of Dining for Women, Chestnut Hill’s Rowley had the opportunity to travel to Kenya with several other women. They had to pay their own way there, but Rowley said she’d do it all over again without hesitation. She witnessed first-hand how her donationsdirectly impacted women and girls. She said through global awareness, many women in Kenya were able to learn about gender inequalities and make decisions that would ultimately have a positive effect on their lives.

She spoke, for example, of one Kenyan girl who refused to be circumcised and married at 14 years of age. Her name was Caroline.

“She apparently had a very understanding father because he was willing to sell eight cows for her to go to high school,” Rowley said. “But she had to leave the tribe at that point because the elders did not approve of it.”

According to the World Health Organization, female circumcision, also referred to as female genital mutilation, consists of removing all or part of the female genitalia. The practice has no health benefits and in fact can be very harmful to women. Female circumcision has been

documented in 28 countries in Africa and a few countries in Asia and the Middle East.

The World Health Organization estimates that 91.5 million girls and women above nine years old in Africa are living with the consequences of female circumcision. There are an estimated three million girls in Africa at risk of undergoing female circumcision every year.

Rowley said that Caroline’s education by Westerners made her realize that “women can have more, and they can be more.” Caroline graduated from secondary school and is currently a nurse in Nairobi, Kenya.

Rowley said Caroline’s father and her elders could not have been more proud. “You educate a woman; you educate a community,” said Rowley, who noted that she was the first female in her own family to  receive an advanced education.

With six daughters and one son of her own, the Hill activist said education has been a priority in her household. Rowley’s children are now grown up and living successful lives. She believes that women

hold the key to global understanding and that when a woman learns something important, she will be more than likely to share it with the world.

Not only does Dining for Women focus primarily on women, but the organization narrows its funding to recipients in Third World countries. According to the organization, women who live in extreme poverty are living on less than a dollar a day and do not have access to the support systems that exist in much of the developed world.

“These women and children have nothing,” said Debbie Britt. “In the U.S., there is a lot more availability for those who need it.” On next year’s itinerary, the group will donate funds to women’s groups in India, Cambodia, Guatemala and Kenya once again.

From just a small group of women in 2002, to a large and successful organization, Dining for Women has made an impact on society thus far.

Karen’s husband, Jim, said, “Dining for Women suits my wife because she loves helping women. She’s very much a feminist, not in a contrived kind of way, but in her heart, she really is a feminist.”

“Americans are such good people,” said Rowley. “We have so much to give. For us to know about other people’s struggles opens our perspective.”

To make donations to Dining for Women or learn more about the organization, visit www.diningforwomen.org or call 215-421-0603.