by Hannah McCandless
“We feel so empowered!” exclaimed one of the women in Bed Mot savings group in Olwelai Village. Empowerment. It’s a buzzword. As with many buzzwords in the development industry its meaning tends to be ambiguous, flexible, and overused. And yet there I was, sitting in rural Uganda, being told by our business owners that they felt empowered. Empowerment may be a buzzword. It is also a concrete result of our program.
One thing I love about the Village Enterprise program is that female empowerment is participant driven. We know that our program radically transforms lives and has the potential to empower women. We also know that empowerment cannot be given; it must be embodied and embraced by the empowered. Over 80% of our business owners are women, partly because women are more likely to live in extreme poverty, but also because they choose to be part of our program—they see in the Village Enterprise model and opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. When we target a household and invite them into our program, we leave it to them to determine which family member should participate. 80% of the time, households choose a female household member to join our program in order to benefit their family.
While meeting with the members of Bed Mot (Be Humble) Savings Group in Olwelai, it became clear to me that for many households, the decision to have a woman participate is simple. As Ajabo Nora put it, “Women know everything that goes on in the household—when school fees are due, what is lacking, and what can wait to be purchased until the next week. When women create income from a Village Enterprise business, they invest in the needs of their families.” As a result, the collective impact of the program goes beyond the individual business owner and even their family. Studies show that when a woman generates her own income, she will invest 90% of it back into her family compared to 35% a man will invest. Women prioritize things like health care, nutritious food, and education. As a result, a child in a household where the mother controls the budget is 20% more likely to survive — and much more likely to thrive. Increasing the bargaining power of women has the potential to create a virtuous cycle as female spending supports the development of human capital, which in turn will fuel economic growth in the years ahead. Nora and her peers agreed that they have seen positive changes in the well-being of their entire community since Village Enterprise began working there. One of those changes is the tangible sense of empowerment shared among the women in Bed Mot savings group.
I asked the women gathered under the mango tree in Olwelai what empowerment means to them, and to share day-to-day examples that demonstrate their newfound sense of what it looks like. From owning a chicken, to riding on a motorcycle these women have embodied and embraced what it means to be empowered.
My favorite example came from Ageyo Janet Francis. Janet is the secretary of her Business Savings Group. She met Anthony, our field coordinator, and I on her bicycle to lead us to meet her savings group. As she pulled up on her bicycle, Anthony turned to me and said, “This is a strong woman.” I quickly witnessed the truth in these words. As Janet moderated our conversation with her peers, the dedication, confidence , and leadership, that she gained through our program, shone through. She takes her work as secretary seriously, motivating and encouraging the others. For Janet, the best part of her agriculture retail business (buying and selling sorghum, sesame, and millet) is the sense of empowerment she feels as a woman. “In those days before we were in the group,” she explains, “it was only men who traveled to town to trade. Never women. If you found a woman sitting on a motorcycle to go to town, you would be so surprised! But in these days, we stand before the men. We do business with them. We exchange with them! Now, you can find me taking a motorcycle to trade in town every week. We are no longer cowards like we were before Village Enterprise,” Janet concludes, “we have really felt the change as empowered women.”
The accomplishment that Janet is most proud of is being able to use her business to send her four children to private boarding school; three to secondary school and one to a teacher’s training college. I asked Janet what she would tell her daughters, who now have an opportunity to attain an education that she did not, about what it means to be empowered. After taking a moment to think, she looked at me, eyes glowing with determination–a woman assured of her power–and said, “I would tell her that there is nothing on this earth that a man can do that a woman cannot also do.”