By Anne Desluriers
Some of us just live in this world. Madonna Larbi is trying to make it a better place — one woman at a time.
In both her private and professional life, this self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” has dedicated herself to creating a better life for women around the globe.
Larbi is not sitting back and waiting for women’s rights to change, she is helping change them.
“Women everywhere deserve the right to participate in democracy and enjoy equality, dignity and the opportunity to improve their lives,” she says.
Larbi, 47, heads MATCH International Centre, a non-governmental organization that helps educate and empower women in developing countries.
This native Ghanaian came to Canada 15 years ago. She began working at MATCH as a program officer in 1991 and a year and a half later was appointed as its executive director.
Her humble Elgin Street office has stacks of files piled from floor to ceiling. It’s run by and for women in the belief that women’s lives will truly improve through global solidarity.
MATCH’s two main goals are eliminating violence against women and ensuring women’s full participation in democracy.
To accomplish this, Larbi’s organization tries to match the skills and knowledge of women in Canada with the needs and resources of women in the South.
“Women’s involvement in development projects is critical,” says Larbi. “Development is more than just building roads and dams. It’s about strengthening communities and women play a big part in that.”
With words like responsible, responsive and activist often creeping into her vocabulary, Larbi may sound like she’s just spouting company lines.
However, the way she looks you square in the eye while talking about the need to make the world a better place, tells you it’s more than just a job.
It’s obvious Larbi gets great satisfaction from the work she does.
“I’m fortunate because this is not only my job but my passion,” says Larbi.
“This does not end at five when I go home. I live this (desire to help) in my private life also.”
Her colleagues seem to agree that Larbi practices what she preaches.
“She’s a very compassionate and understanding leader,” says co-worker Guenet Guebre-Selassie. “She’s also a true listener for women.”
Larbi describes herself as a practicing Christian first as well as a sounding board, a friend, a mentor and a feminist.
For a woman whose deep and smooth voice usually exudes calm, she gets very fired up when on the subject of feminism.
“Feminists don’t have to be radicals who burn their bras,” says Larbi. “A feminist is just someone who wants equality and dignity for all women.”
Her work requires her to travel extensively through developing countries. She has been to Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Senegal, Malawi, South Africa and Chile among other countries.
Larbi could tell you about the ineq- uities and injustices towards women she has witnessed around the world. But she won’t.
“The media already shows us all the pitiful stories from the South,” says Larbi. “It suits the Northern Hemisphere just fine to be better than anybody else.”
Instead she says she prefers to talk about the successes she has witnessed.
She tells one story of Malawi’s first female prisoner of conscience who was imprisoned for 12 years for speaking out against a dictatorship.
She talks about the pride she felt when meeting this woman after her release and working with her to form a women’s rights group in that country.
“That group is now considered a real pain in the neck by political leaders,” she says with a proud smile.
Keeping her own organization afloat is another big success story for Larbi.
She says sometimes financial hardships make it easy to lose focus of the mandate they are trying to fulfill.
Larbi says the focus shifts towards fund-raising rather than helping women.
MATCH has some financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency but relies mostly on private and corporate donations for the work it does.
Despite its meager resources, Larbi is proud of the critical mass of women activists MATCH is helping build in the countries they work with.
She says what they can’t give financially they try to make up through education, information and advocacy.
“We give a little financial support but a lot of moral support.”
Elisabeth Barot, who has worked with Larbi at UNESCO’s Canadian Commission for the Status of Women, says what makes Larbi stand out is her total dedication to the issues of women.
“She is the first one in any meeting to take charge and the first to make a firm commitment to follow-up on her words,” says Barot.
If you ask Larbi what her best quality is she will say without hesitation that she is a great mother to her 13-year old son Kwesi.
A broad smile spreads across her face at the mention of his name.
She says that anyone who knows her professionally knows within five minutes of meeting her that she is a proud mother.
When asked what she is teaching her son about women she replies, “I’m teaching him that as a citizen of the world he has a responsibility to be responsive to the needs of all people, both male and female.”
Larbi comes from a family history of social action. Her father was a political and human rights activist whose law practice helped the founding fathers of the African independence movement.
In her family it wasn’t a big deal to be an activist, it was just what you did.
Larbi does not pretend that being an activist is easy. She uses words like “daunting” and “overwhelming” to describe the never ending challenges she faces.
Yet she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sometimes you wonder if it’s too much,” says Larbi. “But then you just get on with it because you can’t help it. It’s a way of life.”