Women-led businesses are bringing change in Myanmar
In Myamar’s Kayin State, FCA and Women’s Bank have supported women in 20 villages to establish and develop businesses to generate extra income.
NESTLED IN the Kayah-Karen Mountains range are the Kayin Highlands. The area has been plagued by armed conflicts between the Myanmar Military and the Karen National Union, People’s Defence Forces, resulting in very limited development opportunities. The region has been classified as a ‘black zone’ by successive governments.
Women in the area were often confined to the traditional living style of their village, struggling to make ends meet with small daily incomes. With some working as day laborers and others focusing on their existing farm businesses, financial stability proved hard to pin down. Although they could afford daily meals, they needed money to save up.
As the economic crisis worsened, the prices of food and gasoline skyrocketed and their income and investments also fluctuated dramatically. Additionally, products they farmed could not be exported in large quantities.
Women-led businesses are bringing change
A project aimed at empowering women in the region co-implemented by FCA and led by the Kaw Lah Foundation, brought about real change.
As part of the project, FCA provided financial assistance to 80 women, granting each of them 500,000 Myanmar Kyat (188 Euro) to help them establish and develop income-generating activities. Women participated either as members of the Women Empowerment Committee or as part of a Women-Led Cooperative.
Starting and running businesses in politically sensitive and fragile areas can be challenging, so FCA provided organised comprehensive business entrepreneurship training sessions to cover various aspects of business management, including financial planning and management, branding, and marketing strategies (including online platforms).
After the business was established, we continue to provide coaching and support. The project team regularly visit the businesswomen, offering guidance and addressing concerns.
The range of businesses established by these women included grocery stores, food stalls, seasonal crop trading, bakeries, motorbike workshops, and pharmacies. Within a year, 35 out of the 80 women (43%) began earning profits from their activities. 11 of them earned profits exceeding 10 million Myanmar Kyat (376 Euro) and one woman even generated over 50 million Myanmar Kyat (1880 Euro).
From entrepreneuship to financial stability
Life dealt 59-year-old Naw Aye Thar a devastating blow with the untimely death of her husband in 1997, leaving her as the sole provider for her three sons. To her support her children, she took on various odd jobs, earning a modest income of 3,000 Myanmar kyats per day.
But life changed for the better when she assumed the role of secretary for the Women Empowerment Committee in her village. It was during this time that FCA launched its project, aiming to promote women’s entrepreneurship and business ventures in Maing Lun. Recognising her potential, she was selected as one of the women entrepreneurs and provided with a business capital of 500,000 kyats.
With the newfound capital, she started a grocery store. Following her project proposal, she sourced products from wholesalers and began selling them retail. This venture proved to be a sustainable source of income to meet her family’s needs.
“Previously, I was very tired because I was buying goods by walking to Leik Tho Town with a bamboo-made backpack, and I couldn’t a motorcycle due to the high rental cost. My business became more convenient when I owned a motorcycle with my savings. In this time of political instability, the economic crisis worsened, food and gasoline prices skyrocketed, but mercifully I don’t have to worry about the daily meal anymore.”
Journey to business success
Naw Rutha, a 46-year-old widow from Kyaung Kone Lan Khwel village. She grew up selling groceries with her mother in a small food and local product trading business. However, despite having a wealth of experience in the industry, Naw Rutha struggled with keeping records of her business operations which made it impossible to ascertain the profit and loss of her enterprise accurately.
In June 2022, she successfully obtained a grant of 500,000 Myanmar Kyats, which she used to expand and repair her shop. The support from the project not only helped her become more familiar with business practices but also increased her profits.
“Thanks to the project, I received training on business market system development and basic financial management. The project also recognised my hard work and provided additional support funds (1,000,000 kyats) for my business.”
With this financial boost, she purchased refrigerators to store the goods and added value to local crops such as coffee, turmeric, honey, and tea. She further expanded her store and started producing and selling local products under the brand name “Rutha.”
The increased income not only benefited her family but also allowed her to financially support her parents and siblings.
“I can now support my son’s education without worrying about school fees. I can also afford donations for religious purposes and cover medical expenses for the sick. Moreover, I have been able to save money every month and even treated myself to a gold necklace.”
Displacement didn’t stop this businesswoman
40-year-old Naw Blu Paw from Bo Te Kone Village started as a casual worker in 2005, averaging around 2 weeks of work per month. In 2008, she began selling Burmese traditional snacks door-to-door in her village.
When the project was introduced in her village, Naw Blu Paw participated in business performance training courses and attended monthly meetings. Her dedication paid off when she was chosen as the small to medium enterprise (SME) woman representative of the village on June 20, 2022.
Unfortunately, she and her husband were displaced due to the conflict in the area. But the situation couldn’t discourage her and she began selling kitchen products as a mobile seller to other villagers who had also fled to the jungle. Despite the difficulties, she traveled to Taungoo – around 200 kilometres from Yangon – to purchase groceries and continued her work.
With this determination, she was selected as a recipient of an additional 1,000,000 kyats from the project’s top-up grant for women. This capital injection allowed her to expand her current business and she ran the fish paste and dried fish businesses. She also learned how to maintain cash accounts and create monthly income and expenditure statements, skills she previously lacked.
The continuous operation of her business greatly aided her family while occasionally providing financial support to her daughter, who lives at the Thailand border, for school. Furthermore, she was able to send three of her children to school at a church-based institution, contributing to the welfare of the community.
“Through this business, I have gained a deeper understanding of my strengths and weaknesses which improved my business operations. Additionally, I seek guidance from others experienced in fish paste production to expand my business further. Despite the challenges of travel during these difficult times, I am grateful that my business continues to thrive, bringing greater happiness to my family by relieving concerns.”
Not feeling alone is crucial for survivors of gender-based violence
Finn Church Aid (FCA) works against gender-based violence in the Central African Republic by connecting survivors to healthcare services and psychosocial counselling.
WHEN ZITA KOUALET started her work as FCA’s psychosocial counsellor in Baboua, the hardest part was getting survivors of gender-based violence to consider sharing what they had gone through.
Koualet and her colleagues provide the first response in cases of rape, sexual harassment, or domestic violence in Baboua, Central African Republic. The project has been running for three years with UN Refugee Agency UNHCR funding. After careful awareness-raising in the community, people know how to approach Koualet in cases of violence or abuse.
“We pay for any transport or medical needs and provide counselling that focuses on the mental well-being. We can also help people file cases when they have been wronged”, she says.
“After that, the survivors are offered counselling. The more they feel they are supported, the more comfortable they are opening up about their experience and feel how it helps them move forward.”
Koulaet and her team also record the cases from their area in UNHCR’s database. Based on the countrywide data, NGOs know the needs and can tailor their responses nationwide.
Early marriage a key issue that leads to violence
Koualet mentions that early marriage is one of the core issues that leads to violence against women. When women are married off young, they are forced to interrupt their education – if they were in school in the first place. If women do not receive an education, they often end up staying at home doing housework and taking care of children, making them dependent on their husbands.
If a girl and her family refuse a marriage proposal, they might face consequences. In many cases of sexual violence, the perpetrator is someone they know from before, Koualet explains.
Usually, women with their own income suffer less from gender-based violence, which is why education is critical to preventing cases.
“Early marriage greatly slows down the development of young girls here. We work hard to discourage this custom and promote the benefits of education instead”, Koualet says.
Several of Koualet’s clients in Baboua, near the border to Cameroon, are only teenagers. One of them is 14-year-old Sylvaine. She was raped on her way home from an early evening event in her village. The assailant was a man who had earlier proposed to marry her, but Sylvaine and her family had declined.
“I had refused to marry because I wanted to continue my studies. Not too much later, I met the man when I was on my way home in the dark, and he assaulted me”, she says.
Sylvaine was first afraid to speak about the rape with anyone, but when she started feeling sick, she decided to confide in her sister. Her sister persuaded Sylvaine to talk to her mother, who had heard about FCA through an awareness campaign. FCA’s staff immediately took her to the hospital.
The doctor who treated her injuries quickly told Sylvaine she was pregnant.
“Our first thought was that we wanted to press charges against the perpetrator, but we decided that it would be disadvantageous for my future, my studies and marriage potential”, Syvlaine says.
Counselling comforts and helps building a way forward
The mental health consequences of gender-based violence are often paralysing. Ana is a 30-year-old single mother who takes care of her five children alone after divorcing her husband a few years earlier. Ana used to run a successful business as a vendor at the weekly market near the town of Bouar.
One day, she was assaulted and robbed by members of an armed group. They beat Ana and took all her possessions. Forced down on the ground, the men accused her of collaborating with another armed group. After driving over her with their motorcycles, they left her lying on the road.
“I lost all the money I had for supporting my children. They are now out of school, and during the month after the assault, I have not been able to work”, she says.
The people who found Ana referred her to FCA, who took her to treatment for her injuries and covered her hospital costs. Ana still feels pain in her ribs and back but is able to walk. While still fearing to visit the local market, Ana feels grateful for the psychosocial support she receives weekly.
“Thanks to that, I have been able to live, and the hospital helped me back on my feet”, she says.
Ana and Sylvaine say that the most important reason for their recovery is understanding that they are not alone. Sylvaine also says that the counselling has been comforting and helped her realise that what happened to her was not her fault. Her goal is now to go back to school and continue her education.
“Speaking with the counsellors has made me realise I also want to work with something that makes a difference. Caring for my child does not stop me. My siblings and mother will support me”, Sylvaine says.
The names of the survivors of gender-based violence have been changed due to the sensitive nature of their stories.
The Women of Raqqa – Fighting for Their Right to Study
Aisha held secret classes. Amina studied in them. Nour is prepared to wait for hours at checkup points to finish tests. The women of Raqqa are doing whatever they can to fight for a better future.
THE CITY OF RAQQA in Northern Syria, along with its surrounding regions, were once known as a modernized region, receiving a flood of industrial investments, with an orientation towards the future. The adults had a good education; the children studied in schools to obtain one.
In 2013, the terrorist organization ISIS took over and placed heavy limits the way the people of Raqqa, particularly the women and girls, moved and dressed. The terrorists seized farmers’ crops and merchants’ goods, thus also seizing locals’ way of life.
However, the greatest enemy the terrorists faced was education. From the get-go the terrorist organization closed the schools of the areas, turning them into bases, prisons, and torture centers. Boys were recruited to fight, teachers were made to apologize for teaching ; but the girls had the worst fate, as ISIS organized training sessions on how to offer their bodies to terrorists.
Currently, Finn Church Aid is operating in the countryside of Raqqa, which the terrorists left in 2017. The region has over a hundred schools damaged in battle with tens of thousands of students. Many have had their school life interrupted for as long as ten years. The various parties to the conflict still patrol the area, and going through checkpoints makes life hard for schoolchildren.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Locals, including girls and women, have been able to return to school. This story features a trio of survivors from Raqqa.
Aisha held secret school classes as a teacher during ISIS, participated in FCA training during her escape, and returned to her home region to become a principal.
“Previously, the women of Raqqa were active members of society, involved in politics. We lived our own lives and, like me, could move alone to a university town for studies.
The terrorists know about the power of teachers, and they certainly tried to win the teachers over to help them get young girls to molest. Thinking about what they did to us still gets me raving mad.
At the start of ISIS’s reign of terror, we tried to continue our work, until we understood that they were sending their members to our classes to report to their leaders what we were teaching. As a countermeasure we locked the school doors, but they broke the locks and interrupted our studies. Next, they took the study materials.
Halfway through 2014, the only thing I could do was continue instructing my students at my home. We had several female teachers, and we organized a school secretly at my house for four months. We organized teaching in shifts, with approximately a hundred children participating. When our work was revealed, the terrorists arrested me and interrogated me.
I fooled them and said that I only instructed the children Arabic and the Quran instead of English, French and natural sciences. They were enthusiastic about this, asked me to continue and promised they would deliver suitable study materials. After interrogation I packed my bags and escaped from the city to the countryside – they never caught me. I left
the Raqqa area in 2015, escaping at the last moment. After the night I left, ISIS announced that women under 50 were under curfew and locked up in their houses.
I spent the next years in the Hama countryside, a scene of many battles. During the worst ones I could not teach at all. Then, I found out FCA had started operating in my area, organizing school repairs and activities for the students. I participated in teacher training, a particularly important experience for me, learning about offering psychosocial support and new study methods, like giving the students group work. My students’ critical thinking skills improved, allowing them to focus on their studies better.
Before the war, my students made plans for their future, but during the reign of ISIS, the only thing the kids worried about was their own safety. Girls married young and had children, leaving us a huge burden as education experts. We are still trying to change the thought patterns of the girls who lived during the ISIS era to understand that getting an education is worth it. ISIS taught these girls to get married and start a family – we are teaching them to go to university and build a new future.
After three years, I returned to the Raqqa countryside to become the principal of this school. It is a personal decision not dwell too much on the war years. Regarding the past, I only wish to remember the times before 2010 and after 2023. The rest of it is not worthy of my attention.”
Nour, 18, travels from the Kurdish zone through 20 checkpoints to a school supported by Finn Church Aid to participate in her final exams.
“My first memory of ISIS? When they prevented us girls from going to school and forced us to cover our faces. I was in the second grade. We lived here, under the rule of ISIS, for two years, until my dad found a smuggler who took us to Hama. In there I continued my schooling in the second grade. It was weird, as I was older than other students, and taller by a head’s length.
We returned to the Raqqa area in 2021. Me and my sister are of different ages, but due to breaks in my education we are both going to the ninth grade. I should really be three years further in my studies. My father does not have enough money to send us both to school, meaning we have taken turns to go through the school. First, my sister continued her education, now it is my time, and my sister has prepared me for the national exams.
I live in the Kurdish zone without a public school. I woke up early in the morning and travelled here to participate in my finals. Normally this trip takes me half an hour, but it can also take as many as six hours now. There are 20 checkpoints along the way, asking a lot of questions and inspecting personal IDs.
I spent this morning afraid I could not make it through the checkpoints in time. In that case, I could not have made it to the final exams and would have had to remain out of school for a year. All this trouble – I go through it just to get a Syrian final certificate from school.
I want to finish my education but also fear that my family’s financial situation will prevent it. I find the higher-grade tests challenging. I need a real teacher – just studying with my sister is not sufficient. Travelling between different regions is also expensive and takes its toll.
During the rule of ISIS, girls married at 13–15, and this became normalized. I am now 18 years old and already feel too old to be wanted. I want to continue my studies, and my father fully supports me. He does not want to marry too young.”
Amina, 14, went to a secret school held by her dad, but only learned to count and write years later. Now she is one of the best students at her school.
“I do not think I had a broken childhood. ISIS came when I was four. Those were bad, frightening times, times when we could not sleep at night or go out with my mom due to being female. When we needed something from the markets, my dad had to go out and get it.
When terrorists finally left the Raqqa area and I could start my schooling, I was 8. I could not write or count, but my father, who is a teacher, supported me. Even during the ISIS rule, my dad tried to teach me and my neighbors’ children in secret. ISIS found out and threatened my father over it. They also tried to force my dad to send them to one of their ”schools,” but my dad was very strictly against it.
I was eight years old when the terrorists left. I have worked hard to make up for the gaps in my education since then. Just this morning, I participated in the national test for the ninth graders despite being younger than the others. I am an excellent student – one who is always getting the best grades.
I will continue my studies, and I am ready to walk to the nearest girls’ high school even if it takes 45 minutes to get there. In the future, I want to train myself to be a pediatrician to help kids who have gone through war. And I want to remain in the vicinity of Raqqa – this is my home.”
Text: Ulriikka Myöhänen Photos: Antti Yrjönen Translation: Tatu Ahponen
Finn Church Aid is repairing damaged schools in Raqqa and supporting students and teachers with cash grants. Among those receiving grants are teachers and students travelling to school finishing exams from the Kurdish area. The work happens together with the Syria Humanitarian Fund, under the UN.
30 Somali women and girls are training in web and mobile development thanks to partnership between FCA and iRise innovation hub.
MAIDA MOHAMED AHMED is a bright and ambitious woman from Somalia who has always had a passion for finance and technology. She applied for a six month web and mobile development course at Somalia’s first innovation hub, iRise.
The course, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Finland, is designed to empower girls and young women in an underrepresented field. The six-month course utilises design thinking skills to unlock the girls’ potential, ultimately empowering them to pursue a career in tech and improve their employment opportunities.
Today Maida is working as a web developer and is proud to be paving the way for other young women like herself to succeed in the tech industry.
This project is part of FCA’s thematic approach to connect learning with earning in their livelihood projects. The initiative is highly significant, particularly in Somalia, where women face numerous hurdles in accessing education and employment opportunities.
Somalia is well poised to develop its digital industries – it is the seventh cheapest place in the world for high-speed internet. By providing women with the skills and expertise to pursue a tech career, this project hopes to reduce the gender gap in the tech industry and improve the quality of living for Somali women.
The first batch of 15 girls have already completed the programme, while the other 15 expect to finish their studies soon.
As the first batch of graduates enters the workforce with their newly acquired skills, we hope to see significant changes in the industry in the gender ratio in Somalia. This program empowers girls to take on more challenging roles, disrupt stereotypes and create a more gender-inclusive workforce.
Text: Fatima Abshir Photos courtesy of Osama Nur Hussien for iRise
Up to one million Kenyan girls miss days of school each month due to menstruation
What would you do if you had to replace your menstrual hygiene products with rags made from old clothes, or if you simply did not own anything that would stop others from noticing the bleeding or odors?
AKIMANA, 18,knows what life is like when menstruation interferes with going to school.
”It’s really stressful to go to school without menstrual hygiene products. I feel so bad, especially when I’m standing in front of the class, if I’ve stained my skirt by accident and my classmates laugh at me,” she says.
Sometimes Akimana skips school because she has no menstrual hygiene products and she feels ashamed to stand out. There are few teenage girls in the world who would not mind going to school while wearing clothes with period blood stains on them.
”Sometimes, when I have no menstrual hygiene products and my classmates find out, they laugh at me and call me dirty. It feels so bad that some girls don’t come to school anymore,” says Mikamsoni, 17.
The classmates’ laughter might seem cruel, but deep down, the problem is actually a lack of education. Roughly every other human being in the world menstruates at some point in their life. At the same time, the topic might be so taboo in the community that periods or the hygiene issues related to them are not talked about, even among mothers and daughters.
”Understanding the menstrual cycle is among the basics of reproductive health, and this information is necessary for both girls and boys. Being open helps combat assumptions such as that periods make girls dirty or weak, or that while menstruating you should refrain from everyday life or even isolate yourself from the rest of the community,” says advocacy expert Merja Färm from Finn Church Aid.
A WHOLE OTHER aspect of periods is the financial side. Disposable menstrual hygiene products may be so expensive that families living in extreme poverty – or about less than 2 euros per day – cannot afford them. In the case of reusable menstrual pads, the problem is that washing the pads is difficult without a proper water supply point.
”If there are no hygiene products available, girls and women use unsuitable and unhygienic rags that are uncomfortable, smelly, and leaky, and at worst may even cause infections,” says Färm.
In a worst-case scenario, girls and women might even resort to using grass, leaves from trees, or sand. Those in a particularly vulnerable position include girls like Latifa and Violeta who live in rural Kenya and in refugee camps.
Finn Church Aid’s fight for girls’ education opportunities includes promoting menstrual hygiene. In our countries of operation, we provide girls with hygiene packages that include menstrual hygiene products, soap, and underpants. Another key part of this work is education regarding good menstrual hygiene that we provide while distributing the hygiene packages. Schools play an important role in this work as well.
”We educate students, teachers, and even the students’ parents on how important it is to enable girls to go to school even during their period,” says Färm.
Being left outside education increases the risk of early marriage and pregnancy, as well as unreasonable amounts of housework. Girls in a particularly difficult position include those who have undergone female genital mutilation and those with a heavy period, Färm emphasises.
After receiving menstrual hygiene packages from her school through the Finn Church Aid project, 16-year-old Micheline from Kenya is happy that she no longer needs to cut up her old clothes to be used as menstrual pads.
”Getting menstrual hygiene products from school has really changed my life. Back when we didn’t get them from school, I had to stay at home during my period, because I was afraid of the shame of getting stains on my school uniform. Now I can go to school regularly, and I feel confident,” says Micheline.
IN KENYA, FCA has distributed menstrual hygiene products to over 5,000 girls through the schools in the Kalobeyei refugee settlement.
In addition, Finn Church Aid has supported schools in its development cooperation projects and during crises by building toilets and water supply points in the school premises. A bathroom door with a lock helps secure privacy, but just building a toilet in the school premises creates security for girls in particular, since they no longer need to look for a place to be away from view. When there are enough water supply points, they can even be used to wash menstrual pads without others watching.
As previously mentioned, about half of the world’s population deals with having a period at some point in their life. It is important not to let something as normal as menstruation stand in the way of girls and women going to school, finding an occupation, earning their own livelihood, and reaching for their dreams.
”Menstruation awareness and hygiene are cost-effective ways to increase girls’ well-being and school enrolment rate, as well as women’s employment and participation in society. In order to rise from poverty, girls and women need to be included as well,” says Merja Färm.
Fly larvae help Nepalese women create innovative sustainable business
FCA and Womens’ Bank BUZZ project in Nepal uses larvae from the Black Soldier Fly as alternative animal feed due to their high protein and fat content, as opposed to traditional feeds. This reduces solid waste by efficiently converting organic waste into animal feeds and organic fertilizer within the cycle of circular economy.
IN THE small village of Bhardeu in Nepal’s Lalitpur district, a building with a corrugated tin roof is abuzz with activity. Women crowd round small plastic trays, which are writhing with small larvae. One woman gently and carefully lifts a handful of the larvae in gloved hands. She doesn’t seem fazed by the wriggling grubs – in fact, these unassuming worm-like animals represent an exciting innovation in the working lives of these women. They’re a chance to turn waste into value.
“It’s such a new concept in Nepal,” says BUZZ project coordinator Nishi Khatun. “In the beginning, the women who saw our prototype larvae farm were a bit doubtful and sometimes frightened. But since training, they’re really confident with handling the larvae and find the process more convenient and beneficial from the farming they’re currently doing.”
With funding from our sister organisation, Women’s Bank, and in partnership with the Federation of Woman Entrepreneurs’ Associations of Nepal (FWEAN), the project aims to provide employment to seven women, who are part of a farming cooperative in the village. All of them face social and economic marginalisation, with limited access to resources, job opportunities and influence within their community
The premise is simple: Black Soldier Fly larvae are raised in a special production facility feeding on organic waste. They then are used as feed for farmed animals and fish. The frass (excretion of larvae/fly) is used as organic fertilizers.
“The organic waste from the household and farming land is reused again and again for the larvae,” says FCA Climate and Environment Sustainability Advisor, Aly Cabrera. “It’s a really good initiative because it reduces land competition between food for human and for animal consumption.”
FCA set up the production facility and provides ongoing training to the women in both the technical skills needed to raise the larvae and the business development skills that will enable them to connect with customers and larger industries. In time, they won’t just be able to maintain their farms, but also sell surplus larvae and frass to others.
That said, it’s a very new concept in Nepal and the benefits of using the larvae are not yet well understood by stakeholders in the agriculture, poultry and fisheries industries.
Other challenges include the delicate nature of the larvae themselves. The grubs are highly sensitive to temperature and humidity and getting the ambient conditions exactly right for them to thrive is crucial.
Despite this, the women in Bhardeu recently celebrated a milestone. The initial insects needed to establish a colony arrived from the western district of Chitwan and they were able to get to work after long months of training. The cooperative issued a statement in celebration:
“We are filled with hope that our dream of economic empowerment through engagement in the Black Soldier Fly business model will finally come true. We envision ourselves becoming successful entrepreneurs.”
The BUZZ project is thanks to a joint FCA and Women’s Bank initiative that develops circular economy projects to increase income opportunities & sustainable agricultural practices in order to improve community resilience.
It’s particularly important to support women in developing countries – but why?
There are still too many women and girls in the world who don’t have the chance to learn to read or count. Without their contribution, half of the population’s potential remains unused.
“CHANGE STARTSwith your family. Then it can spread to your village and the whole community,” says Irene Kiplagat Koskei Rugut,48.
Chief Irene, as she is known in her home village of Barpelo in Baringo, northwest Kenya, has been at the forefront of her community’s fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). It has not been a simple or easy road, but Irene is passionate about her cause.
“It happened to me when I was 15 years old. I know what it’s like to be mutilated and how it affects your life and being a woman,” she says.
Irene did not want the same fate for her daughters or anyone else’s children. It’s not just about health or the effects of mutilation on a woman’s body. In many cases, FGM means the end of a girl’s schooling. Afterward, many girls are not allowed to finish their schooling, which affects their lifelong livelihood prospects.
Educated girls grow up to be women who can learn a trade, rather than having to live on agriculture alone. Now that the village of Barpelo is also severely affected by climate change, a profession other than traditional livestock farming would provide security. When a woman has a profession, she is not dependent on her husband’s or family’s money.
After initial challenges, Irene has won over most of the people of Barpelo. There is hardly any mutilation of girls here anymore. Irene is happy. Her own daughter has a university degree and already has a good job in the local government.
Discrimination against women starts in childhood
Women make up roughly half of the world’s population. Yet women face many forms of gender discrimination and physical threats; at work, in their communities and even at home. Women can rightly be said to be at a disadvantage compared to men in many parts of the world.
In many cases, exclusion and discrimination against women starts to build up in childhood. For example, in some cultures, the education of girl children is seen as a waste of time and money. If parents have to choose whether to send a boy or a girl to school, sometimes culture and antiquated beliefs lead them to prefer the boy. This idea is built on traditions where only men have full rights to decide their own affairs – and often also those of women and girls.
However, putting girls who grow up to be women in an unequal and inferior position ignores the fact that whole families and communities are losing half of their full potential. Development, prosperity and peace cannot be achieved if half of people are excluded from society and its decision-making processes.
The idea of supporting women in particular through development cooperation became stronger in the 1980s. The special status and needs of women and girls is still at the heart of development cooperation work in FCA’s country of origin – Finland. And no wonder, equality has a long tradition in Finnish society. But this has not always been the case.
Equality is the result of progress, it does not come automatically or for free. It is a social innovation, which has brought renewal and prosperity to society through the contributions of both women and men. Finland advocates a global commitment to equality. It wants to redefine the concept and put equality back in the spotlight.
Girls’ education is changing the world
There are still too many women in the world who never had the chance to learn to read or count. Without basic skills, people can miss out on important information about their rights and opportunities to participate in their communities and decision-making. They may be exploited financially and physically. Or they may not know how to seek help for health, financial or social-related problems even if they are entitled to help.
Above all, the lack of access to quality education shackles people to poverty. Millions of people in the world, especially in developing countries, depend on livestock or other forms of agriculture. Their already meagre livelihoods can be severely disrupted by sudden shocks, such as global pandemics like Covid-19 or weather events caused by climate change.
That is why it is important that girls also have access to schooling. With an education, girls become women who know their rights. This will enable them to use the knowledge and skills they have learned in a variety of ways to secure their own and their families’ livelihoods.
Education also protects girls from early marriage and pregnancy. Interrupted schooling, on the other hand, increases the risk of teenage pregnancies and child marriages. This is why FCA supports girls’ education and their return to school, especially in disaster and crisis situations.
Educated women are also more likely to put their own children through school. They keenly understand the importance of those crucial early years in school for their future well-being. So in a way, education is multiplied, especially by educating girls and women.
Peace needs women
The war in Ukraine has shown brutally how rape and sexual violence – mostly, but not exclusively towards women – are very much a part of warfare. But women are not just victims of war. In the context of conflict, women can play an important and leading role in peace processes. Women can work for peace not only at grassroots level, but also in higher levels of government.
In March 2023, the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its new Women, Peace and Security Action Plan, which FCA is also committed to implementing. The main objectives of the Action Plan include strengthening women’s meaningful participation and gender perspective in conflict prevention and peace negotiations, the security sector, crisis management and preparedness.
FCA has long supported women’s participation in local governance and peace processes. One example is in Somalia, where decision-making is largely dominated by male-dominated clans. Traditionally, women, youth and marginalised groups are excluded from decision-making processes. Our advocacy work since 2016 has resulted in 16 women being elected as members of five new regional councils. FCA has also provided leadership training to over 700 women leaders.
At the grassroots level, women, especially mothers, have played an important role in peace work. In Kenya’s Kerio Valley, where FCA works for peace, when a woman becomes a mother, she receives a wide leather belt. The gift is often decorated with shells by her mother or another woman in her community. The purpose of the belt is to aid recovery from childbirth, but it also has symbolic, trans-tribal significance. In times of violence, women come together to discuss issues. The old custom is for mothers to place their belts on the ground in front of them. The symbolic line is not allowed to be crossed, but is there to protect the peace of the parties to the conflict to negotiate.
Finland is a women’s rights pioneer
It is often said that Finland was the first country in the world to grant women full political rights. That was in 1906. However, decades of work for equality preceded women’s suffrage and political participation. As early as the 1850s, women activists were speaking out for girls’ education.
In many countries around the world, women continue to struggle for political participation as well as for everyday rights such as the right to own land or inherit from their relatives. In Finland, women and men were granted equal inheritance rights in 1878. The first Finnish co-educational school brought boys and girls together in 1886. In 1870, Marie Tschetschulin became the first Finnish and Scandinavian woman to enrol as a matriculate. Until 1888, however, women were still required to obtain a separate permit to sit the matriculation examination. It was not until 1901 that women were granted the right to study at university.
As the 19th century Kuopio woman lawyer and writer Minna Canth said, “The question of women is not only a woman question, but a question of humanity.” It is easy to agree. Gender equality is first and foremost about human rights, and human rights belong to everyone.
Contract farming project delivers life-changing benefits for women farmers in Uganda
Traditionally, women have had a hard time making a living in Mityana, a rural town in central Uganda. Women are usually not allowed to own farming land, and the ones who have land at their disposal have had low and unpredictable crop yields. This is something the contract farming project, backed by Women’s Bank and Finn Church Aid, wanted to address.
CONTRACT FARMING is a system in which farmers enter into an agreement with a buyer under predetermined contractual obligations. The farmers produce for the market, as they are already assured that they will have a buyer, and what price they will get for their produce.
In some cases, the buyer might also support the farmers with agrotechnical knowledge, inputs and other production requirements to be assured of the best quality product.
“Before, I struggled to make ends meet. I would plant my crops and hope for the best. But now, I have a contract that guarantees to buy my maize at a fair price. I have also received training on how to improve my farming practices, and I have seen the results in my yields,” says one of the farmers, Celina Nelima, about her experience with contract farming.
“With the profits I make, I set up a fast foods business where I sell fried chips to the community in the evenings. I save enough money weekly, and now I am building my dream house. I am grateful to Finn Church Aid for their support,“ Nelima, 34, adds with a big smile.
Increased bargaining power
Finn Church Aid and Women’s Bank help build the linkages between the women farmers and buyers. One of those buyers is Egg Production Uganda Limited (EPL), which is set up by the Women’s Bank. Women are assisted in organising into groups, creating collective bargaining power, to negotiate fair trade deals with the buyers.
FCA and EPL provide women farmers with training and support in the community, such as business literacy, good agricultural practices, Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) methodology, gender awareness, leadership and short-term specialized livelihood trainings. Training has improved the lives of the women and helped them access seeds, fertilizers, and other things they need to start their businesses.
The results have been remarkable. The farmers have been able to increase their yields and household income significantly, take their children back to school with ease, access finances for investment through VSLAs, access medical services, gain respect in their communities, and be elected to leadership positions.
Women in control
Through this, the lives of the women farmers have transformed. They are no longer at the mercy of middlemen who would buy their crops at a low price or not at all. They now have a steady income and can plan for the future.
Bitamisi Nakibirango, 52 years says, “I used to walk 7 kilometers to go to the market to sell my produce, now EPL collects the produce from the bulking center which is not far from my home. This has allowed me to save time and money.”
The success of the contract farming system in Mityana has also had a ripple effect in the community. Other farmers have seen the benefits and are now interested in joining the program. Finn Church Aid Uganda continues to work with the farmers to expand the program and ensure its sustainability.
In Mityana, over 700 women, from as many households, with an average of 6 household members each, were introduced to contract farming by Finn Church Aid Uganda (FCA). FCA is a non-profit organization that works to promote sustainable livelihoods in rural communities in a program that was initiated on January 3rd 2021.
Former school dropout Agnes found her way back from selling fish to prosper in her classroom
To compensate the lost years of young school dropouts, FCA implements the Accelerated Education Programme in five refugee-hosting districts in Uganda.
AGNES KAIRANGWA, 20, was in senior two at Bujubuli secondary school in Kyaka II refugee settlement when she became pregnant.
“The father of my baby convinced me to drop out of school and become his wife. However, a year into the marriage, everything turned bitter as my husband started to mistreat me,” Agnes now says.
“It got to a point when I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left the marriage and returned to my father’s home. I started selling silver fish in the market to get money to take care of my baby.”
Born in a family of five, Agnes Kairangwa is the youngest child of a single parent household. Two of her elder siblings have already completed Secondary Education. The rest of her brothers and sisters are still in school.
Seven years have passed since Agnes dropped the school and she is now a mother of two. Listening to her siblings talk about their classes and what they have learned in school has made Agnes feel left out.
“Even though deep down I felt I wanted to go back to school, I knew it was impossible as I had spent many years out of class, and I felt I was too old to return to school.
One afternoon, while Agnes was at her market stall, she heard a radio announcement from Finn Church Aid (FCA) calling and encouraging adolescent mothers to return to school.
“They stressed the importance of education and I felt encouraged to return to school,” she tells.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford to pay fees for herself. She had just enrolled her young daughter in school and all the money from her business was going to be spent in the child’s scholastic fees and other needs.
Finally, with support from FCA, Agnes was enrolled at Bukere Secondary School. FCA staff members also visited Agnes’ father and encouraged him to support her education.
Accelerated Education project supports those who have lost years of school
There are many young women like Agnes Kairangwa. To speed up the learning after years spent out of school, FCA implements the Accelerated Education Programme (AEP) in five refugee-hosting districts of Kyegegwa, Kikuube, Isingiro in South Western Uganda and Terego and Madi Okollo in West Nile. The programme is funded by European Union Humanitarian aid (ECHO).
The programme is an integral part of the Innovative and Inclusive Accelerated Education project (INCLUDE) and it uses specially designed and condensed version of the Ugandan curriculum. By covering two to three grades of primary education in one year and using teaching methods appropriate for different age groups, learners who have lost many school years can transit into the formal schooling system.
“Sometimes I would dodge school”
Going back to school is not easy.
“During the first weeks at school, I found it challenging and wanted to drop out, but officers from Finn Church Aid kept encouraging me to stay in school,” says Agnes.
“Considering the years spent out of school, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to catch up. I was also afraid my schoolmates would body shame me as I had gained weight and I was older than them,” she says.
Adding to her agony in the beginning, Agnes’ ex-husband kept approaching her on her way to school, trying to convince her to drop it and get married again.
“Sometimes I would dodge school, so I didn’t have to meet him on the way,” she tells.
“I appreciate the Finn Church Aid staff who kept encouraging me and providing me with the moral and psychosocial support.”
Not only is Agnes now studying but performing well in her class. FCA got her a full education scholarship through the UN Refugee Agency, and she is working hard to be an accountant in one day.
Finn Church Aid implements the INCLUDE programme in a consortium of four partners including Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, War Child Holland and Humanity and Inclusion.
“This is my decision” – Story of an independent business woman inspires others in Somaliland
Naciima found her way to make her dreams come true while attending to FCA’s Technical and Vocational Education Training.
WHAT DOES an independent businesswoman look like?
Naciima, who recently graduated from Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) programme, is a perfect example. She lives with her family of eleven in Gacan Libaax in Somaliland. They have a very limited income and her father, though he struggles to pay her school fees, has always encouraged her to find something she is passionate about.
“After deciding to drop out from the university, I put my entire focus on the training that I was getting. It was sensational and the most skillful experience I have ever gotten before,” says Naciima, who joined the Finn Church Aid’s TVET program recently.
She got to know about the course from one of her friends who went to the Horn of Africa Voluntary Youth Committee TVET Center. When deciding to apply, she says she felt at peace.
“My dream has always been to design clothes – coming up with ways to make them look fashionable. It was a dream come true when I found out about the training and I immediately joined without consulting my family. However, afterwards I told them about my decision.”
“Without the training I would not have become the woman I am today”
Naciima says that she gained skills from the tailoring course, including how to start business and practical tailoring skills. During the training, she was inspired by two things. Firstly, the way to come up with new designs and, secondly, the profits she could be make, especially since tailoring skills are in demand the country.
Naciima has become an advocate for TVET and wants to explain the benefits of it and how it leads to profit making.
“Without the training I would not have become the woman I am today – a business woman, an independent woman, and career-oriented individual.”
After graduating from the program, Naciima and the other graduates, received business start-up grants and equipment that helped her to start a business that could also support her family. Her idea was to start a tailoring shop that produces fresh looks in women’s clothing. She knew that the majority of ladies in Somaliland liked to wear tailored clothes and knowing her market helped her come up with her designs.
High hopes for the future
Within the first three months, the business was booming and made a decent profit. She hopes that in future she can support her family even more. At the moment she supports family in other ways than just financially – she makes clothes for her younger siblings. Some of her earning go into servicing her machines but her support for her family motivates her siblings and helps them to believe that they too can start a business and support the family in future.
Naciima is optimistic about the future and dreams of hiring more people for her business to meet the growing demand. This woman, who had waited to be supported by her family, has now become the one who supports them.
“I am able to save the money; average $100–150 in month,” she says. This is what a successful businesswoman looks.