Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Simply Saying You Empower Women Is Fashionable But Can Be Vague.

On my recent visit to Western Kenya, I met so any people living in dynamic villages, with different economic conditions. Some of the villages have power lines passing along the main road, but the families living just fifty meters from the power line cannot afford the cost of connecting to it. Although I saw the worrying trend of a rapid decrease in the size of land owned by each family, some families grew sugarcane, while others grew maize. My friend and I visited one of the villages my organization has been in working for several years where we met women of Mumashi group holding their usual meeting. I saw kids going to school, more healthy women and children, and more importantly, happy faces. The women were learning how to bake cakes. My friend asked the women how the baking of cakes was going to change their lives. The women were so eager to answer- but the group leader, mama Ruth explained,

“ When we got solar lamps from SDFA, we started saving the money that we were using for kerosene and then we used the savings to start bee keeping project and horticulture farming. Now those projects are doing well and expanding. We sell vegetables and honey to pay for our children education in high school, and even pay for medication. And as you can see, we are every smart now since we can afford good clothes which make our husbands love us more. With money from the honey and vegetables, we can afford cakes and better things. We are now learning how to bake cakes so that we can keep our husbands in the home “.

My friend and I were so confused. But on my way back to Nairobi, I reflected on what Ruth had said. I learned that however much the women in the rural villages become economically empowered, and can afford better education for their kids, they still value the importance of having a happy family. The women will stop at nothing to make sure their husbands happy and children happy.

Under our program dubbed ‘Use Solar, Save Lives’ at Sustainable Development For All, we have a project that aims to empower women economically. We use simple locally made solar lamps called ‘MwangaboraTM’ to ensure improved education for children, and ensuring women increase their spending power. We train and use youth with informal education in making the solar lamps. The solar lamps are made from at least 50% recycled materials and are customized based on community needs. We distribute the solar lamps to poor rural communities through women groups. We then train the women in micro-enterprise development and help the women set up income projects from the money they would have otherwise spent on kerosene. The women can then use the income ventures as collateral to access financing to expand and to start new ventures.

Considering that teaching a woman how to fish is far much better than giving her fish, projects that aim to uplift the lives of women must ensure they create long lasting change. Simply setting up a school will not make girls get an education or simply setting up a health clinic will not improve healthcare for mothers and children. In some of the areas in northern Kenya where my organization is working, the geographical scope is so vast, the area is dry and the infrastructure is extremely poor. I asked, Naisula, a mother of one of the shepherd students we are supporting in one of our projects that her community needs to reduce maternal death. She told me she wants better medication and skills to be availed to the village ‘doctor’ because she trusts the ‘doctor’ and she doesn’t have to walk long distances to reach her. It clearly shows that some of the approaches being taken to empower women like Naisula only good on paper but not effective in the community.

To most women in Africa, having happy families is part of empowerment, irrespective of how much they are educated or how much money they earn. It is therefore important for organizations to ask the women they target to impact what really makes them happy and what do the women really want instead of assuming that what works elsewhere will automatically work in each community. We should therefore simply aim at making the lives of women happier.

All in all, everyone who is involved in projects to improve the lives of girls and women should engage the communities first and specify achievable and practical activities that the women themselves agree with rather than simply hiding in the blanket called ‘women empowerment’.

Written by Evans Wadongo, Founder & Executive Director, Sustainable Development For All (www.sdfa-kenya.org)
Twitter @evanswadongo

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