She walked into Sharehouse Coffee looking for a caffeinated pick-me-up, but what she found instead was purpose, community, and a vision for the future. That sounds like a pretty good cup of coffee, right? Well, it wasn’t just the coffee (although that probably helped).
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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.
By Jeremy Resmer | Senior Director of Projects
If you pay close attention, you’ll see poverty everywhere you look. If you don’t, it could be that you’re only viewing poverty through an economic lens. While material poverty is only part of the story, it seems to be the most observable and difficult to hide (especially in developing countries). It’s a leading cause of family breakdown that often results in separation of family members and placement of children in orphanages, among other issues.
When we carefully consider the best interests of a child, there is no greater need than to be in a loving family. Truly, a loving family is more important than shelter, food, education, medical care, and so on. Yet these things are also needed, and children trust family - usually mom and dad - to provide these basic financial resources in order to experience shelter, adequate food, clothing, medical care, and attend school.
There are a lot of organizations involved in various forms of family preservation. Some are doing incredible work and making a real impact. It’s unbelievable how big our hearts are to give financially and to go and serve. To be sure, we must continue and do more. But it’s time that we utilize our brains as much as our hearts.
While I believe real transformation comes through Jesus Christ, we need to bring more than Bibles and fish to our brothers and sisters in need. We must bring fishing poles too. You see, the church (individuals and collectively) is responsible for meeting the spiritual and, at times, physical needs of its people. The church has a critical role to play in family preservation.
To preserve is to exist. To empower is to advance. And until we develop and implement local solutions that go from preserving and stabilizing families to empowering and strengthening families, we will continue to bang our heads against the wall trying to reduce poverty and, ultimately, keep families together. If the root cause of our problems is sin, then poverty is one of its most effective weapons. In the same way that we can’t take on sin without Jesus Christ, we can’t take on economic poverty without relationship. Through relationships with local leaders and the people themselves, we create conversation. Through conversation, we include the very people who understand the problems and, more importantly, the solutions. As our relationships deepen and trust builds, we begin imagining a better world and casting vision together. Until we can imagine a world we desire to see, we will never be able to develop a plan to get there.
Here’s where I’m going with this. Now is the time for individuals, churches, NGOs, and governments to put aside our agendas for the greater good. We talk about it but it seldom happens. Every single one of us has unique personalities, skills, knowledge, and resources, but none of us can do everything. Instead, we do a little bit on our own when, in reality, we can be far better and accomplish much more by working together.
World Orphans strength is to partner international churches with US churches to encourage each other and work together to serve vulnerable families. In addition, we are effective at equipping and mobilizing churches to care for orphaned and abandoned children. We hope both churches inspire each other and serve their communities around them more effectively and compassionately as a result of that partnership. We play a role in family preservation, whereas other organizations excel in the areas of vocational education, business training, apprenticeships, and microloans. Every day we work with the MOST vulnerable families in the communities where we work. We do our best to encourage them, pray for them, share scripture, and meet physical needs, but without fishing poles we can’t teach them to fish.
What’s encouraging is there are many individuals and organizations out there with fishing poles that could teach marketable trades to single mothers and youth so they can provide for themselves and their families without becoming vulnerable to prostitution, drugs, labor exploitation, and all sorts of other dangerous activities. Yes, helping to pay for school fees, medical expenses, food, clothing, and housing, when appropriate and led by local leaders is essential, but family empowerment initiatives that improve the economic outcomes of parents and children including skills training, leadership development, financial stewardship, business training accompanied by access to credit, and apprenticeships are equally important. It’s not an either/or but a both/and. Can you imagine the impact we could realize if we put aside our own biases and agendas and actually witnessed NGOs working with other NGOs working with churches working with governments?
This dream is happening! Two organizations World Orphans is currently partnering with are AMG Guatemala and Bethany Christian Services in Haiti. Next week’s blog is dedicated to sharing about our new partnership with BCS. Through these partnerships, children are restored and communities transformed by the Gospel. Won’t you join us?