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Women who shoulder the world's burdens with grace

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"We had anza but now there is no anza," she said matter-of-factly about the bitter pea-sized berry that grows on desert bushes. It is softened and boiled into a bitter broth, often the only sustenance in a land chronically devastated by drought. In Niger, 1 of every 4 children dies before the age of 5 - the second-highest mortality rate for young children in the world.

Binta Amadou's day starts early. She rises at dawn to cook whatever she has, awakens the children, and washes them with water that is brought to their small hut from a nearby well. She helps her husband prepare for his day and then she forages for whatever food she can find to cook. When there was no more anza, she said, "we boiled leaves from trees and weeds."

In these circumstances, one would expect cries of bitterness or the groan of despair. But here, the women of Kawa Fako are serene and smiling, awaiting their delivered bounty: 220 pounds of millet, 33 pounds of beans, three gallons of cooking oil.

"Tonight we will have a feast," Binta Amadou said, laughing. "then we will save the food to last us for the next 40 days."

My travels over the past year have brought me to many women like Binta Amadou. I have met them in remote villages of Angola and Madagascar, on the sunbaked reaches of desert in Darfur, Sudan, where they have fled marauding militiamen who murder and rape and plunder. They exist in northern Uganda, where antigovernment rebels kidnap children and force them to become murderers and sex slaves. I have met them in the remote villages of India, where some 300 million people live below the $1-a-day poverty line. And I have met them in places closer to home, like Haiti, the poorest land in the Western hemisphere, and in Colombia, a country also struggling with decades of conflict.

There is no hall of fame for these women. But in the lands they inhabit, these women are the indispensable backbone of society, the glue holding their families together.

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