Mobilizing Grassroots Partners to Finance Empowerment and Change Lives, One Woman at a Time

March 5, 2008 - UN Church Center, New York
At-the-UN/CSW-Conferences/CSW52-Parallel-Event-2008
By: Bonnie Berry

WFWPI Parallel Event

The WFWPI parallel event highlighted successes of the diverse women panelists and their organizations, making a positive difference in the lives of women in need. In particular, microcredit projects have impact that is sustainable. Small amounts of money in the hands of motivated women and their families make a lasting difference in lives by empowering women to start small, successful businesses. Financing for these endeavors came largely from project initiators' own friends, family and community in the developed world. In addition, a young woman participant of a WFWP USA volunteer trip to Africa presented her experience in this inaugural service learning trip.

Moderator Ms. Bonnie Berry, WFWPI UN Representative, welcomed those present and introduced the panelists.

Panelist Ms. Susan Bradbury, Founder and Director of the Sound Essence Project emphasized the connection between women's economic empowerment and peace. From her personal experience with microcredit projects in Mongolia, Burundi and Ethiopian refugee women in Beer Sheva Israel, she has seen hope restored. In Burundi, Susan and her small team asked a gathering of about 300 women what their problems are. Without exception, they answered not enough food and water. One hundred women in three villages received $50 loans to start small businesses like selling sugar, oil, bananas and charcoal. Susan reminded us that, "Real change can be small scale and still powerful. All it takes is an ability to see other possibilities and the willingness to help others see them. When women listen to each other's stories and share their own, growth happens and confidence grows." Only a month after the microloans were given, the recipients were reporting that their children were no longer crying at night from hunger. Also during the Burundi trip, Susan and her group met with a circle of women refugees from genocide in Rwanda. These women longed for a communal farm. They had no means to survive and some had turned to prostitution to earn enough to feed their children. The women were asked to create a simple business plan, find land to lease and negotiate the lease. Hoes, machetes, shovels and boots were provided for the women to get started. In less than a year's time, over a third of the loan has been paid back.

Susan began working in Mongolia in 2005. Mongolia's pace is slow, the landscape wide and the people, generous. Following the downfall of Communism in 1989, the economy was unstable. People accustomed to rations from the government could not fend for themselves. Susan met with five women in Erdenet living in a rundown apartment building. Only one woman had an oven. The women brainstormed and decided to begin a bakery. A $500 loan was given to start the bakery. Every morning the women bake bread and cookies, weigh and package their goods, and sell them at a nearby kiosk. Repayment is on pace and a second bakery was formed last summer, with one of the original women serving as mentor. The most recent project has provided industrial sewing machines for Ethiopian women in Israel. There are cultural and language barriers preventing the women from entering the workforce. The women will sew and embroider cloth shopping bags to market. This cottage industry allows them to attend to cultural norms and still earn a living. Susan has raised funds in her community through auctions, donation drives and selling small jewelry items made by the Burundi women. Susan reflected, "Women are the fabric that holds families and communities together. Microfinance helps create pathways to success. Minds are nurtured and prepared, capacities developed and gradually a comprehensive development process is in place."

Youth Panelist Athia Shibuya, a high school junior from Tarrytown, New York presented her service learning trip to Kenya with a group of young American women during summer 2007, to support the Schools of Africa Project. They repainted walls and laid new concrete floors in classrooms in a school sponsored by WFWPI. In addition, the women visited an orphanage for HIV positive children. Blankets were donated to the orphanage. Athia expressed gratitude to WFWP USA for their financial sponsorship. She reflected about how her world view had expanded by experiencing a culture so different from her own. In addition, she is more deeply grateful for much in her life that she had taken for granted, like access to education. Athia emphasized that giving financial backing for girls from developed nations to serve communities in the developing world is another way to finance women's empowerment and gender equality. Each woman on this trip met and befriended a young Kenyan woman of similar in age. Everyone realized many similarities with their friends and some differences as well. The American women came to understand that these friends in Kenya are part of the human family whose needs must be remembered and addressed.

Ms. Motoko Sugiyama, VP of WFWP International and Director of the UN Office of WFWPI, gave a brief overview of WFWPI overseas poverty eradication projects and the peace building, Bridge of Peace Sisterhood Projects. (Complete reports available www.wfwp.org.) Ms. Sugiyama emphasized that poverty eradication and peace building are inextricably linked. She shared success stories from WFWPI microcredit projects in Jordan. These projects in Jordan represent a very small number of the microcredit and economic empowerment projects that WFWPI volunteers have initiated and are investing in since 1994. Microcredit projects in Amman, Jordan were initiated in 2000. Jordan's economy has faced many years of shaky ground due to the volume of Palestinian refugees, the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks drop in tourism, and the Iraq war due to Jordan's dependence on oil from Iraq. Currently, about 30% of Jordan's population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment in 2005 was at 15%, and doubles for young people. Jordanian culture encourages women to stay home but often families have many children, making it difficult for men to fully support the family. Japanese volunteers discovered that women hoped to start small home-based businesses. In order to fund the microloans, volunteers held bazaars in their home communities and solicited donations from businesses and individuals in Japan. Loans were from $150 to $1000 depending on the scale of the business. Relationships between borrowers and the vo-lunteers strengthened through home visits by WFWP volunteers who offered advice on life and business management. Borrowers started beauty salons, boutiques, a children's clothing store, cosmetic shops, grocery stores, vegetable stands, second-hand clothing shops, perfume shops, sweet shops, kitchen tool shops, tailors, stationery shops, blanket and carpet shops, knitting shops, small restaurants, photo studios, drug stores, poultry stores, advertisement stores, small shops selling milk, oil, lunch, artificial flowers, diapers, computer parts, goat milk, etc. Since 2000, about 100 women a year have received loans, with about 1000 loans made since the program inception through 2007. Repayment rate is nearly 100%. In 2007, microloans were extended to the city of Madaba. A widow with eight children prospered when her teenage son received training and a loan to start a cosmetic shop. Later the family requested a loan for a second business, a grocery store. The enterprise has been expanding. Another woman had tailoring skills but only a small home use sewing machine. Her husband had been ailing with kidney disease so could not work. A loan from WFWP to purchase an industrial sewing machine allowed her to take high volumes of orders from wholesale houses. She has hired three employees. Although her husband has since passed away, she is able to feed her nine children. A third woman had a very run down beauty salon. She used her small loan to fix up her shop, upgrade equipment and the atmosphere. Customer volume increased dramatically. This woman is now teaching hair styling at a WFWP technical school as well. The microloans have assisted many women and families in improving their financial circumstances. The women have gained stature and a sense of independence. They are more confident, wiser, stronger and better able to support their husbands and children. Empowering women economically through micro loans increases domestic and social stability. These projects can meet the needs of an Islamic culture like Jordan. The happiness of the women and their families is the best reward for the WFWP volunteers.

The final speaker, Ms. Zahra Nuru, Director/Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary General and High Representative for the Least Developed Nations, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States and Special Advisor on Africa has an extensive resume dedicated to development that spans almost four decades, beginning with her two decades of work for the government of Tanzania in the Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Community Development, Culture, Youth and Sports. After these posts, Ms. Nuru spent fourteen years in the field with UN Development Program in Gambia, Malawi and Sierra Leone. She praised the grassroots efforts and experiences of WFWPI volunteers, and commented on the importance of the microcredit projects discussed by Sugiyama and Bradbury because of how the projects empower women economically, and the ripple effect that has on families and communities. She also expressed appreciation for our youth speaker and her colleagues for their commitment, expressed by traveling to Africa to serve others. Ms. Nuru illustrated the importance of taking into consideration the gender perspective on projects and taking time to figure out what is really needed in a community rather than assuming as an outsider that you know. She told a story of a project that she had been involved in that aimed to teach women crafts skills such as soap making, tie dying and others. There were difficulties getting the women to schedule these trainings and engage in them. What the planners came to understand is that the women could only gather in late evening after daily tasks were complete. The problem was it was dark by then. The women couldn't see to learn or do anything. Consequently, Ms. Nuru provided solar lamps for the women, to illuminate their training sessions. This was all it took for the women to get going on the training. Ms. Nuru told of driving toward the community one evening, and seeing the dots of light throughout the community as she approached from a distance. Her colleague reminded her that these were the lamps burning, indicating the women were involved in the learning that would give them skills to make products to sell. Ms. Nuru also urged patience. She affirmed that small investments now in the lives of women would bear fruit continually and create a ripple effect.

One of the most impressive comments following the program was from a woman who was inspired by the simple, practical, replicable projects. She gained confidence through the presentation that she could initiate a project that would make a difference in the lives of women and girls in her own community.