By Jeremy Resmer | Senior Director of Projects “Half of humanity is female. If that half is not honored and appreciated with purpose and dignity as created equally before God, then abuse, perversion, and hatred of women follows. Oppression and poverty trail after, affecting all in society: men, women, children, and the unborn.” - Karen Carlson (Prayers for Crown Jewels: Honoring Women and Children in a World at War)
Women Without Opportunity
We live in a world at war. The effects are real: seen and unseen. Most often, the victims are women and children. Far too often, women’s economic contributions are undervalued and their potential is undeveloped. And yet, time and again, it is women who are less educated and without formal job training, that are left to raise their children alone, who provide for the daily needs of the family, and in cases where the mother earns enough money, the kids may attend school and receive medical care when they get sick.
We have observed these trends in the countries where we serve. The churches with whom we partner minister to the most vulnerable families in the community. Single mothers lead nearly all these families; many are undereducated day laborers and street vendors that barely earn enough to survive while caring for their children and/or other orphaned children. While our work with local churches has been a profound source of encouragement, relationship, and even stability, it hasn’t truly addressed the longer-term issue of strengthening these families financially.
Women Must Be Empowered
Globally, poverty is a leading cause that contributes to the breakdown of families. Empowering women economically has been shown to fuel growth in local economies and decrease poverty levels. In other words, vulnerable families are strengthened and children are more likely to attend school and receive adequate medical care. It’s no different for us. So the question is: how do we shift our focus from merely helping stabilize families in the short run to empowering and strengthening them to be a blessing that will affect the next generation?
This post isn’t intended to answer this complex question with a one-size fits all solution. Of course, such a solution doesn’t exist; however, it is intended to pose the question of how we can empower families economically, particularly single women, so they can lift themselves out of the most extreme poverty and improve their lives by using their existing talents and skills accompanied with appropriate opportunities and training for advancement?
Our Response in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, economic and family empowerment, especially among single mothers, remain huge issues the church is trying to help address. We are working alongside our church partners to equip and train them in these areas. For example, our program director has trained seven church coordinators on a simple way for women to save as a group and open a savings account at a local bank. By June of this year (2015), all of our coordinators were trained and this program was implemented at each church.
Each caregiver in our program, 150 in total, has started saving. Some save 5 Birr per month others save more than 30 Birr (1.50 USD). It varies from church to church and person to person, based on what they are able to contribute. Two elected members of the group collect the money and take it to the bank. All funds contributed are tracked in a ledger. The group meets monthly, has coffee together, and engages all sorts of dialogue. They discuss family, business, faith, and other important issues. Often they pray together. In some churches, the meetings are done at the same time as a food distribution for families in the community. This simple, self-managed savings program is VERY effective. The women are all saving so they have the opportunity in the future to start or expand a business and improve the lives of their families. They feel a renewed sense of dignity and hope.
It’s Working! Women Are Being Empowered: Four Examples
- At Leku Keta Church, located around the outskirts of Addis Ababa and very poor economically, the savings program includes all 30 caregivers, one other member of the church, and a Muslim woman who doesn’t attend (32 total). In three short months, they have saved 1,690 Birr (~85 USD) and, in addition, each member contributes 1 Birr per month that is set aside to help other members of the community with special funding needs like the birth of a new baby, a funeral, and so on. These caregivers are not only saving but also contributing to the well being of the community and church. They aren’t simply saving to improve their own lives but also to be a blessing to others. This is nothing short of amazing!
- At Lafto Church, our program director piloted an empowerment fund where some of the caregivers are given loans starting at 500 Birr (~$25), after which they pay them back at 50 Birr per month for 10 months. When a person pays back the 500 Birr, they have the opportunity to receive another loan for 1,000 Birr and pay it back at 50 Birr per month for 20 months. Currently, there are eight women that received loans for 500 Birr and three women have already received loans for 1,000 Birr. This program is going very well so far. The church members even provided a portion of the initial funds to launch the program. The loans and repayments are tracked in a ledger each month and the funds repaid are used to provide additional loans to other members.
- Literacy training has also been initiated in each of the churches with whom we partner. The Home-Based Care (HBC) program coordinators are teaching Amharic to caregivers who are unable to read and/or write but who have a desire to learn. At one of our churches, six caregivers in our program are attending classes three days per week. The coordinator writes letters on the blackboard and the caregivers practice writing letters in their exercise books at home with their children. This activity is providing another way for parents to engage and connect with their children. None of these caregivers could read or write (even their names) when they started. However, after just three months since starting, two women can write their own names and both of them want to continue learning so they can teach other women in the community!
- In addition, five empowerment packs have been created in partnership with our church partners to address key issues: including hygiene, women’s health, and literacy. These packs will be distributed to each of our caregivers and accompanied with training for them and the churches.
Each of these initiatives is being developed and implemented in the local context, in collaboration with the churches and with financial contributions from our US church partners. While this program in Ethiopia is still in its infancy and we continue to learn daily, the results we’ve seen so far have been truly outstanding! Of course, there are challenges that we work through with the churches and the caregivers, but our grassroots empowerment program works through the local church, allows for the advancement of the gospel and ongoing discipleship, and is giving hope to women for a better life for themselves and their families.