VGIF Portraits

Each month, read about the amazing women of VGIF who promote the rights of women and girls around the globe.


Maria Mercedes 
52 years old
Fundación Proyecto Solar para Mujeres Nicaraguenses (FUPROSOMUNIC), Nicaragua
Founder and General Coordinator

“My experience working with bio-intensive organic gardens has been fantastic! I’m even a beneficiary of VGIF as I am implementing the gardens in my own farm, which will make a big difference in improving my quality of life and involvement with other women and families to build a more dignified life and justice,” says Maria.

Maria has been working with solar energy since establishing FUPROSOMUNIC in 2004. She has “work[ed] with over 825 Nicaraguan families, in order to provide low-cost solar ovens and other sustainable environmental technology in rural impoverished areas.”

FUPROSOMUNIC’s 2015 VGIF-funded project increased the food security of women and their families by constructing bio-intensive gardens and by training 14 women community leaders in sustainable gardening techniques. After obtaining the training, these leaders shared their knowledge with other women in the communities.

Maria says, “with bio-intensive organic gardens we have realized the great need for opportunities of women and girls. So I say infinitely thank you VGIF for supporting us with starting the organic garden with these women leaders. We hope they will be replicating in the future.”


39 years old
Hoima District, Uganda
Hoima Blind Women Association, Chairperson

My life has been transformed as a result of founding the Hoima Blind Women Association,” says Joy.

After losing her eyesight in 2005, Joy says, “I would spend most of the day in bed, crying and blaming God for vision loss, unaware that this was opening another responsibility of championing the blind women cause in the region. With help from a Community Leader, Joy was eventually inspired to use her life-changing situation to mobilize other blind women in the area. Hoima Blind Women Association has implemented projects like poultry production, hygiene and sanitation, vegetable growing, and blind women’s rights. Joy says, I so much believe that working as a Chairperson of Hoima Blind Women Association is a noble calling to lobby for the plight of visually impaired women in Hoima District.

Joy works with local women and girls due to traditional male domination and suppression of the women and girls. Women and girls remain at the margin of the development process so their concerns receive minimal attention, their needs are not incorporated into planning, and their voices are lacking from lobbying and advocacy efforts. She explains, “The Hoima Blind Women Association therefore was started to close this existing gap to enable women and girls have a platform to say their concerns without fear or favor.

Of the VGIF grant, Joy says, “the project has brought about solidarity and cohesion amongst the visually impaired women and girls.” Project planning is collaborative so the “women and girls now work as a team.” Working with the local leaders has been a good thing because the leaders are now willing to support the project in terms of monitoring and lobbying for more support. Joy credits the project with making her a better leader and has made her feel informed enough to articulate issues. Joy says, “The participants are interested in the project and committed to ensure that the set project milestones are achieved. The project will also for many more years after [VGIF funding ends] owing to the active participation of the members.


Sketch by Amanda Goss

New Mexico, USA
Former Board President and Board Member

Barbara tells us how she got involved with VGIF and how the organization has transformed since the early 1990s:

“In 1992, at the International Federation of University Women’s (now Graduate Women International) triennial conference at Stanford University, Elizabeth May, one of VGIF’s founders, invited me to a VGIF luncheon. The program highlighted some of the amazing indigenous projects funded by VGIF, some for as little as $300-500 each.

At that time, one was invited to join VGIF. How things have changed! I was pleased to accept membership, and shortly thereafter was appointed to the Global Outreach Committee. As a committee member, I started traveling to participate in the meetings in the New York City.

It is not too much to say that VGIF changed my life, nor to observe that vast changes that have occurred over the years. Many of the dearest friendships of my life have come through VGIF, and the opportunities for leadership and travel that it provided have proven infinitely enriching. Among them are the three living former presidents Virginia Maynard, Sema Faigen, and Eileen Menton. My understanding family - my husband and three children - always supported me in this work, allowing me to devote time, resources and attention to VGIF matters.

During this time, VGIF’s part-time secretary, Fay, was promoted to a full-time paid executive officer. Virginia Palmer generously donated funds for VGIF to move to an office at Marble Collegiate Church. There were advances in other areas, too: Louise McLeod created our website; Carrie Gallagher transferred the grant application process online; Virginia Maynard and Leslie Wright advanced our presence at the United Nations; during the “great recession”, our financial advisor, Nancy Vang, kept enough grant money coming to enlarge the maximum grants available to $5000 each; Evelyn Cummings initiated on-site visits which have become central to our grant-making process. Finally, bequests from Virginia Palmer and Ester Scher provided the funds to hire full-time professional staff, and interns, to improve our overall efforts. These resources also made possible a move to the Broadway office, and to re-organize VGIF’s Board structure to a governance form, moving away from the historic managerial model.

I am gratified to be a part of a dynamic organization that has moved with a firm sense of high purpose in all of its dealings for as long as I have been a member. This determined spirit powered by devoted supporters provides an ongoing inspiration. It has been, and continues to be, one of the great pleasures of my life.


34 years old
El Pozo De Vida, Mexico
Program Coordinator

“VGIF has given us the opportunity to maximize the potential of this project by increasing staff training, program objectives, and providing more resources to work with women and adolescents at the immigration detention center in Mexico City,” says Lyd.

She sees the impact of the program in three aspects:

1.) Impact on migrant women: “What we perceive is an improvement in mood, despite the situation and mental condition. Our visits and art therapy sessions foster sharing life stories, releasing and generating a new form of seeing life and handling conflicts and overcoming problems and difficulties.”
2.) Impact on myself: “I am shocked to see that the time devoted to the women allows me to enter their world and be one of them, no more, no less. It has challenged me realize how much volunteer work has a deep effect on people, more than we could ever imagine, and by creating genuine relationships with others we create change. Realizing how important it is for others to be heard and accompanied with in difficult times has changed the way I relate to people. They have helped me to see that taking the time to be 100% present with an individual is something transcendent in our lives.
3.) Impact among the team: “All volunteers has been sensitized to the situation of migrant women and children, which has resulted in them being more committed to the project. Volunteers show more compassion, are more aware and educated, and have gained new life and social skills. They have become creative and proactive in looking for new ways to help and encourage the women. This project has fostered in them the spirit of participation, which is vital to create social change.” 


36 years old
Action for Rural Women's Empowerment (ARUWE), Uganda
Programs Manager

Agnes credits her mother with inspiring her to puruse a career in community development and female empowerment. Agnes says, "I grew up seeing my mother farming to feed us and sell crops to support our father in raising us." In the evenings, her mother met with other village women to share experiences and advice; which she brought back home to further develop her home. Agnes says, "Consequently, I grew up seeing what influence my mother had on our family."

Upon graduation, Agnes wanted to work for an organization that had the same values and passion to support rural communities, especially women like her mother and their children, to realize their full potential. She says, "working with ARUWE, with support from partners like VGIF, gives me an opportunity to change women’s attitude to development." Women were educated on their rights to participate in development initiatives, to access assets like land, to educate their children including the girls, and much more. Of ARUWE's partnership with VGIF, Agnes says, "it has further restored women dignity whose confidence was compromised before by their husbands and other community members since they believed they added no value to the society and their families."

She goes on to say, "Many women now affirm that, being aware of their rights and having some resources in terms of finances has enabled them to gain status in their families and their contributions is more recognized and this has boosted their self esteem. Now, women are not intimidated to fight for their rights. As we support and work with them, they are assuring us, that they are ready to change their community to benefit the women more."