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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Empowering Ethiopian women by improving livelihoods

Meet Meseret Terefe, 35 - a mother of five and a resident of Wolisso town. Meseret is a saver, one of a new generation of savers who invest in their families, showing how women can support and empower themselves and those around them. Meseret says, “Through our savings, we have started various individual and group income generating activities, and we are able to provide real benefits for our families.”

She adds, with pride, “It is possible to start from small and grow gradually. We now have 35,000 birr (about US$2,000) capital by saving 2 birr per week.”

Meseret is a secretary of eight women's self-help groups (SHGs) in Wolisso town, the capital of Southwest Shoa zone of Oromia Regional State, in Ethiopia.

Realising the potential of female powerWomen in a vegetable field in Wolisso (Photo: Siiqqee)

Every poor woman has tremendous potential. This hidden potential can be unleashed if a conducive environment is provided. As individuals, poor women are voiceless, powerless and vulnerable - but, bring them together and make them aware of their rights, and they have tremendous strength. Women working together in networks and associations improve outcomes for themselves and their families, and deliver broader social and economic benefits for all.

From my childhood times, I have observed that urban poverty is getting worse and worse in major cities of Ethiopia, as well as in rural towns like Wolisso. However, I have also observed improvements, in some cases transformations of individual and community lives, with the right aid interventions. Recently, I went on a field visit to Wolisso to see and write something about a project by the name of ;'Women Empowerment through Livelihood Improvement' run by Siiqqee Women’s Development Association (SWDA) and funded by the Finnish government through a Local Cooperation Fund (LCF). I was impressed by the positive impact of the project made on the lives of the female beneficiaries and the lives of those under their care. I was even more taken by the awareness of women of the importance of resource ownership and education in gender equality, as well as the desire to create a better life for themselves and their children.

SWDA or simply Siiqqee, is a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), which  helps poor women to take part in income generating activities as a means of  empowerment - in particular, in Wolisso and neighboring rural towns. The word  Siiqqee is an Oromo word, which means a decorated thin stick. As tradition has it,  the mothers gave the Siiqqee to their daughters on their wedding day as a symbol of  their ongoing support and female solidarity. The Siiqqee was also an icon of  opposition to male domination and oppression. If a woman experienced  maltreatment at her husband's hands, she would simply walk out of her home  holding high the Siiqqee, indicating that she needed council. All the women also then would walk out of their homes with their Siiqqees, heeding her call, congregating and staying outside of their homes until a solution was found for the one who initially called the Siiqqee council. I am not sure to what extent the tradition prevails today, and whether it still has the same influence.

Zertihun Tefera, Director of Siiqqee says, “The Finnish Embassy supported the project for three years with a total amount of 1,139,783 birr (close to 50,000 Euro). The project was able to assist 340 SHGs, and 275 poor women who were involved in agricultural activities such as vegetable production, sheep and cow rearing, beekeeping and grain trade. Some 50 orphan and vulnerable children (OVCs) are able to continue their education and 25 women living with HIV and AIDS are engaged in handicraft production and trade activities.”

After careful selection of its members, SHGs are formed with the integral participation of its members. The women design the SHG rules according to an initial group decision-making process, an important step to build a feeling of ownership and responsibility for its undertakings.

“Ownership of the project at all levels is a decisive factor to its success and sustainability, making sure that members of the community are involved and encouraged to be active members,” said Zertihun. “There are lots of success stories. For instance, like the story of Wode T/Mariam who is able to multiply from two female sheep to several cows and build a better house, as well as women who own beehives and became good entrepreneurs. Thanks to the Embassy of Finland.”

There are some failures - and the director acknowledges that, in certain cases, groups of women have had to be dispersed because of conflicts of interest. However, individual and group testimonies tell a story of women in SHGs who have started individual and group income-generating activities using savings, which have become successful enough to lead to access to education for children, low voluntary fertility, and better health and nutrition for children and mothers - as well as a support system to bolster their confidence.

One of the women beneficiary from cattle rearing group (Photo: Siiqqee)

Wode T/Mariam, is a 42-year-old mother of four children, and an SHG member. She said, “Because we are contributing for the household income, we are in a better position. I, for one, discuss and decide matters with my husband much better now. What is more, I am able to send both my daughters to university. The eldest is in Wolisso. She will graduate next year. Praise the Lord. The other is second year in Ambo University.”

She added, “Things have changed for the better. There is no wife beating. In households where the mothers earn money, the maximum number of children is four.”

SHGs also can do a lot to help women out of dire poverty. Women organised in SHGs report economic and social empowerment, the ability to provide a better life for their children and families. According to Zenebech Tilahun, 39, another HSG member, “SHGs are the best way to help poor women. Before I joined my group, I was a depressed poor woman - but now I have my own house and business, with good health. I even bought my husband a welding machine.”

She added, “Now, I also tell other women about the benefit of saving and sending children to school and I even organised one group.”

Meseret Terefe said that SHGs have had a direct impact on the quality of lives lived in the communities supported. The livelihoods and of most of the families engaged with SHGs are improving. Support and social ties have increased the promotion of healthy practices and are empowering women through relative social and financial freedom.

“Since we live close to one another, we have a chance to help each other in many ways. We have a strong social network to solve problems, share resources and information,” said Meseret.

Expansion is on the horizon for these SHGs, according to Meseret. “Recently, as per the new directive we joined a 75 member cooperative with a 95,000 birr revolving capital. With the pool fund, we are planning to invest in traditional weaving and open a retail shop.”

The Embassy's LCF programme coordinator, Meseret Mengistu added, “The women had a successful first year, reaping two large harvests. But the second year was less successful with only one harvest. Due to water supply shortage during summer and water contamination from outflow from the prison compound upstream.”

n addition to the grain trade and sheep fattening activities, the HIV positive women have had some success in trading their handicraft products overseas, to England, through another SWDA supporter who arranged for the shipping and selling of the handicraft products that the women regularly make.

Anse Diya, aged 18, has never been to school because of her physical impairment. She is part of the handicraft trade. She said, “I used to braid hair (about 10 women per week for 2 birr each ) to support myself and my sister, since both our parents are dead. Now, my health and my life is much improved because of the income I am getting from my handicraft. My sister is in school, too. I have also done some maintenance on our house and bought some furniture.”

According to Anse, the money from these sales is transferred to SWDA, who then give it back to her.

Now almost all SHGs are under the town's Women Affairs Office. She explained, “As per the new Women Affairs and Cooperatives offices directive, to be legal the SHGs needed to be registered as cooperatives - so, we hand over them to the women Affairs Office.”

The agents of change

Rural women are agents of change at different levels in society, including the household. They are the backbones of their communities, and the main producers and processors of food in many developing countries. Finland strongly believes that working with women greatly contributes to support for gender equality, and also for poverty reduction nationwide. The support extended through the LCF, as well as the Finnish NGOs, focuses on programmes that promote gender equity, income-generating activities, and disability issues, among others - in line with Finland’s overall development cooperation. Generally speaking, the support extended to projects like the 'Women Empowerment through Livelihood Improvement' initiative has been highly relevant in empowering poor women in Wolisso town.

According to different reports, currently some 150,000 women all over the country are organised in SHGs, managing big capital sums as well as sending more than 300,000 children to school. Even some NGOs have over 10,000 women managing more than six million birr in capital.

Meskerem Lemma.