Womens Rights

We put women’s rights at the heart of everything we do.

Money does grow on trees for Rwanda’s cassava producers

Although women in Rwanda do most of the work on family farms, there was a time when they had very little control over the sale of crops or any money made at market. In recent years, however, women are breaking new ground in farming and food production – and lifting themselves out of poverty in the process.
 
One of those women is mother-of-three Madeleine, who sometimes struggled to feed her children and send them to school. The 40-year-old single parent grew potatoes and beans which she used to feed her family and sold the rest at the market. But her crops were sometimes destroyed by pests, leaving her without enough money to buy the basics.  
 
Madeleine harvests cassava leaves from her farm. Photo: Eleanor Farmer
 
“When you are a single parent, it is hard to feed your children,” says Madeleine, whose husband was imprisoned in 1997 and never returned. “One child this side can ask for school materials, when you don’t have money you become anxious. It is hard for a single parent to provide everything.” 
 
Then she heard about SHEKINA Enterprises, an Oxfam-supported co-operative in northern Rwanda which dries cassava leaves for export to Belgium, Canada, Sweden, the US and the UK. Although Madeleine had cassava trees growing on her land, she never thought about harvesting the leaves and usually threw them away. When she heard that you could sell cassava as a business, she was surprised and a little skeptical.
 
Then Madeleine received her first payment from the co-op. “I felt like I was dreaming,” she says. “I took it and said to myself, ‘Let me buy a hen so that I can have some eggs to sell and buy salt (household items)’.” She also decided there and then to expand her cassava crop from just 20 trees to more than 500.
 
Madeleine and her children, 10-year-old Denyne* and five-year-old Mytoni* with their cousin Irakoze*, also aged five. Photo: Eleanor Farmer. *Names changed  
 
Madeleine’s life has been transformed since that first transaction with SHEKINA. “Within three months, I harvested and made money, and out of it I took 30,000 RWF (€30/£26) and saved it with SACCO (the Savings and Credit Co-operative),” she explains. “I continued saving that amount until I achieved the goal that I had set.
 
“Before my life was all about sitting, feeling lonely and worrying about the future. But since I started to sell cassava leaves, I am fine… The ambitions I have for my children are that my younger children could pursue their studies, have good marks and go to advanced level.”
 
Another woman who has benefitted from SHEKINA’s presence in Rulindo District is Uwera, who used to rely on her mother for financial support. She got a job with the co-op and now works on production three days a week and collects cassava leaves from the farmers on the other two days.
 
SHEKINA employee Uwera Gisele is saving money to study business agriculture. Photo: Eleanor Farmer
 
“I like dealing with the farmers – it’s social. I tell them all the good things about cassava leaves. That’s a big part of my job. I am happy with everything,” says Uwera, 22. However, the most important thing for her is earning a salary.
 
She recently bought a cow but plans to use the rest of the money she is saving to go to college. “I want to study business agriculture,” says Uwera. “After studying I would have enough skills to set up my own business. Even if I could only employ two people, I would be happy.”

JOIN THE MOVEMENT

We put women’s rights at the heart of everything we do. Join us today and be part of our movement to end the injustice of poverty. Sign up, and we’ll get you started with actions and opportunities that will equip you to change the world.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Zimbabwe

In rural Zimbabwe, where less than half the people have access to safe drinking water, traditionally it is the women who are responsible for collecting clean water for the home. This often involves long walks to a water source, with many of the women having to carry heavy buckets on their heads.  
 
These hours spent walking in search of water eat into the precious time that women can spend doing other things such as earning a wage, getting involved in activities in their communities or spending time with their friends and family.   
 
One woman breaking traditional gender barriers in the country is Takudzwa, an Oxfam water engineer. She has installed a solar-powered water system to deliver clean, safe water closer to the homes of the women in her community, changing their lives for the better. The new system in Masvingo District, which is funded by Oxfam, will supply water to many families in the area as well as a school and a clinic. 
 
Oxfam WASH (Water and Sanitation for Health) engineer Takudzwa at the Oxfam-funded solar piped water system in Somertone village, Masvingo District. Photo: Aurelie Marrier D'Unienville / Oxfam 
 
The 33-year-old mother is proud to work on Oxfam’s water and sanitation projects because she understands that access to clean water is vital to the survival of communities in her country. 
 
Yet despite doing a job that she finds rewarding, Takudzwa says that her decision to become an engineer wasn’t welcomed by everyone in her family.    
 
“My grandma almost came to tears to say, ‘Oh why are you choosing a male profession? What’s wrong with you, my granddaughter?’ But because it’s something that I really wanted, I had to take up the challenge, said Takudzwa, who was the only girl in her engineering class.” 
 
Takudzwa working water system in her community. Photo: Aurelie Marrier D'Unienville / Oxfam 
 
“I love water,” Takudzwa added. “There are so many things that have to be done. Having to come up with so many interventions so that we can always, at all times, have water, that is safe for drinking, that is in good quantities for the population that needs the water.” 
 
Takudzwa with her one-year-old son at her parents’ home in Masvingo before heading out into the field to see the solar-powered water system. Photo: Aurelie Marrier D'Unienville / Oxfam 
 
Delivering clean water to rural communities is only part of the work being carried out in Zimbabwe, where Oxfam has been working for almost 60 years. Through our WE-Care programme, we are also tackling the issue of women being left to do most of the household work, which is seen as being less important than paid labour. 
 
This water project also feeds into a larger programme, which is helping to bring about significant change across the country. The work is empowering women and supporting communities in Bubi, Zvishavane, Masvingo Rural and Gutu districts by installing 10 water points as well as 15 laundry facilities. 
 
This means that women will no longer have to travel such long distances to collect clean water or do their washing, ensure household work is shared equally between men and women and help women to have more free time so that they can take part in activities outside the home. 
 
The world will only improve if women expand their role as political, economic, family and social leaders. The cost of excluding women is well-recognised. Yet women bear the biggest burden of poverty, and most of those living in poverty are women. We work to advance women’s wellbeing and increase the benefits of the contributions that women and girls can make to societies and economies. The untapped contribution of women is a priority that we are working to correct by supporting organisations that focus on gender equality, legal reform and ending violence against women. 

JOIN THE MOVEMENT

We put women’s rights at the heart of everything we do. Join us today and be part of our movement to end the injustice of poverty. Sign up, and we’ll get you started with actions and opportunities that will equip you to change the world.

Breaking Gender Stereotypes in Zimbabwe

Meet the Inspirational Women of Oxfam

 

International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the amazing women we work with – and their incredible achievements.

These women work tirelessly in clever and innovative ways to make change happen and to create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. They inspire us every day. 

Sobia, 26, teaches Urdu to students in the city of Multan, Pakistan, where Oxfam has set up Accelerated Learning Centres (ALC) to educate women and girls who never went to school. “Mothers of young girls come forward to appreciate the progress their children have made in my classes,” said Sobia, who was herself trained under the ALC programme. “It’s extremely heartening.”

Fifty-two-year-old Katembelwa is the only female brazier maker in Kenani refugee camp, Zambia. The widow and mother of three fled the Democratic Republic due to conflict and arrived in Zambia with nothing. She said she joined a male brazier-makers group because she wanted to make a living independently, adding: “I was very proud and happy when I had finished making my first tub.”

In Jordan, Oxfam is supporting female plumbers to teach other women the trade. Mariam, a mother of four from the town of Zarqa became a plumber five years ago and now has several male plumbers working for her. Last year, the 44-year-old former housewife, who was selected by Oxfam to train other women to be plumbers, expanded her growing enterprise by opening a hardware shop.

Iffat is an Oxfam public health promoter at the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where our emergency response team is providing vital aid to at least 266,000 people. Her job is to tell the refugees about the importance of hygiene which helps to prevent disease. When an elderly man recently thanked her for her help, she said: “That made me feel very happy. That is my reward.”

These are just some of the millions of women and girls who have worked hard to break the cycle of gender inequality and to achieve their full potential. Oxfam is on the ground helping women like Mariam to become leaders in their communities, to have the same rights as men and to free themselves from violence.

Pregnant women, children and survivors of torture abandoned in Greek camps

 
New Oxfam report highlights how system is failing to protect the most vulnerable
 
Wednesday 9th January
 
Hundreds of pregnant women, unaccompanied children and survivors of torture are being abandoned in refugee camps on the Greek islands, an Oxfam report revealed today. The report – Vulnerable and abandoned ¬¬– details how the system to identify and protect the most vulnerable people has broken down due to chronic understaffing and flawed processes
 
It includes accounts of mothers being sent away from hospital to live in a tent as early as four days after giving birth by Caesarean section. It tells of survivors of sexual violence and other traumas living in a camp where violence breaks out regularly and where two thirds of residents say they never feel safe. 
 
For much of the last year there has been just one government-appointed doctor in Lesvos who was responsible for screening as many as 2,000 people arriving each month. In November, there was no doctor at all so there were no medical screenings happening to identify those most in need of care. 
 
Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive, said: “Winter has brought heavy rain to Lesvos turning the camp that thousands call home into a muddy bog. The temperature is expected to drop below freezing in the next week and it could snow. Meanwhile, Moria camp is severely overcrowded at double its capacity. 
 
“All of these factors compound the many challenges already faced by people living in the camps, making those most vulnerable even more desperate. Pregnant women and mothers with new-born babies are sleeping in tents, without heating, while children who arrived on their own are being placed in detention after being wrongly registered as adults. 
 
“It is absolutely vital that vulnerable people are quickly identified and can access the protection and care they need, including suitable accommodation, medical and psycho-social support and access to other basic services.”
 
Under Greek and EU law, the legal definition of vulnerability specifically includes unaccompanied children, women who are pregnant or with young babies, people with disabilities and survivors of torture, among others. They should have access to the normal Greek asylum process instead of a fast-tracked process designed to send them back to Turkey.
 
The report highlights a particularly worrying trend of authorities detaining teenagers and survivors of torture after failing to recognise them as vulnerable. Legal and social workers told Oxfam they frequently came across detainees who should not have been locked up because of their age or because of poor physical or mental health. Once in detention, it is even more difficult for them to get the medical or psychological help they need.
 
In one case, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Cameroon was locked up for five months based on his nationality, despite having serious mental health issues. No one checked his physical and mental health before he was detained and it took a month for him to see a psychologist. He said: “We had just two hours a day when we were allowed to get out of the container...The rest of the time you are sitting in a small space with 15 other men who all have their own problems.”
 
Oxfam is calling for the Greek government and EU member states to deploy more expert staff, including doctors and psychologists and to fix the screening system on the Greek islands. It said that more people seeking asylum should be transferred to mainland Greece on a regular basis – particularly the vulnerable. Oxfam is also calling on EU member states to share responsibility for receiving asylum seekers with Greece more fairly by reforming the ‘Dublin Regulation’ in line with the position of the European Parliament.
 
Oxfam has been working in Lesvos since 2015 running a programme to ensure that people seeking asylum are protected. This includes training community focal points to provide information, running workshops at a day centre for women and providing legal aid and social support for people seeking asylum through partners.
 
Full report available on request.
 
ENDS
 
CONTACT: Spokespeople are available for interview. For more, please contact: Alice Dawson-Lyons at alice.dawsonlyons@oxfam.org or +353 (0) 83 198 1869
 
 
 
Notes to editors:
 
Spokespeople are available in Lesvos and Brussels. 
Recent, high-resolution photos and video footage from around Moria camp are available.
The full transcripts of the interviews of asylum-seekers and volunteers in and around Moria camp, on which parts of the report are based, are available to the media upon request.
According to the UNHCR, the Moria camp in Lesvos was at around double its official capacity of 3,100 places, with just under 5,000 migrants living inside the camp and another 2,000 in an informal camp next to Moria, known as the Olive Grove.
A survey by Refugee Rights Europe in June 2018 found that almost two-thirds (65.7%) of respondents said they ‘never feel safe’ inside Moria, rising to 78% among children living in the camp.
In September 2018, Oxfam published a briefing arguing that the EU’s plans for ‘controlled centers’ for the reception of migrants saved at sea are modelled on the existing ‘hotspots’ described in today’s report and should not be implemented.
 

$72 million needed to protect Rohingya refugee women missing out on vital aid

Rohingya women living in Bangladesh are developing health problems, missing out on aid and are at greater risk of abuse due to unsafe and unsuitable facilities in many parts of the refugee camps, Oxfam warned today. 
 
The international agency called for 15 per cent of new funding to be set aside for humanitarian programs designed to better support women and girls – including $72 million of the nearly half a billion dollars recently committed by the World Bank. Currently, there is no standalone budget for meeting women’s specific needs in the overall emergency response.
 
The Bangladesh government and agencies have provided emergency aid to more than 700,000 Rohingya people who have arrived over the past year, but the speed at which the world’s biggest refugee camp sprang up has made it difficult for support to keep pace.
 
More than a third of women surveyed by Oxfam and partner agencies said they did not feel safe or comfortable going to collect water or using toilets and shower cubicles – many of which lack a roof and a lockable door. Half the women and three quarters of adolescent girls said they didn’t have what they needed to manage their periods, including a female-only place to wash sanitary cloths without embarrassment.
 
As a result, women are going hungry and thirsty to avoid needing the toilet as frequently, suffering abdominal pain and infections by not relieving themselves or using unhygienic sanitary cloths, and resorting to defecation by their tents, which increases the risk of a major outbreak of disease – especially in the monsoon. 
 
Poor facilities are also increasing the risk of sexual abuse and harassment. Hundreds of incidents of gender-based violence are reported each week.
 
Oxfam’s Advocacy Manager in Cox’s Bazar, Dorothy Sang, said: “The breakneck speed at which the Rohingya refugee crisis unfolded meant that many emergency facilities were installed in a rush and women’s specific needs weren’t considered. Women and girls are now paying the price in terms of their wellbeing and safety. 
 
“This needs to be rectified urgently with substantial sums set aside to support and protect Rohingya women, such as lighting to improve safety, toilets and wash rooms that provide privacy, and extra assistance for the most vulnerable.”
Single mothers whose husbands are missing or dead head up one in six families in the Rohingya camps. They face particular problems, having to take on public roles that challenge cultural and religious assumptions about women’s place in society. Oxfam is calling for more to be done to support these vulnerable women, such as help collecting aid packages and more community dialogue about men and women’s traditional roles.
 
Oxfam is working with local organisations and refugees to tailor its humanitarian response to more effectively support women and girls. This includes installing solar-powered lights along pathways, distributing portable solar lamps, running women’s groups to discuss issues like safety and early marriage, community work to tackle violence against women, and working with refugees to design new toilet facilities with features like lockable doors, shelves to keep clothes out of the mud, and screens to afford privacy.  
Sang added: “The Bangladesh Government should be commended for allowing Rohingya people to seek refuge in Cox’s Bazar. We join them and others in calling on Myanmar to address the discriminatory policies that are the root cause of this crisis.”
Close to a million Rohingya people have sought refuge in Bangladesh following a military campaign against them in Myanmar that has been described by UN officials as ‘ethnic cleansing’. 
 
 
ENDS           
 
CONTACT: 
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson-Lyons, Oxfam Ireland, on +353 (0) 83 198 1869 or at alice.dawsonlyons@oxfamireland.org  
 
NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org
 
Rohingya refugee Ayesha with her daughter in her shelter in the camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam
 
Rohingya refugee Asia Bibi* with solar panels provided by Oxfam, in her shelter in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.  Photo Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/ Oxfam

Women in South Sudan plow forward in their fields—and in their homes

An Oxfam program supplies female farmers with the tools to manage their crops and to redistribute power in their households.

“When our leaders told us that Oxfam was coming to train us to use oxen to plow our fields, we protested,” says Lucia, a farmer from Wau County, South Sudan. “Our tribe does not know cows and even so, it is a man’s work to train them and lead them through the fields. This is not for us women at all!”

Yet, 12 months later, she’s changed her tune. Lucia grins from ear to ear as she shows off Malual—the young bull that tills her land. Women in Lucia’s community—as in most parts of South Sudan—typically shoulder a huge workload. They do all the domestic work and much of the agricultural tasks. For many, this means waking up early to collect water, light a fire, make tea, and cook lunch, all before heading to a small plot of land to cultivate crops.

Farming often takes from morning to evening, and even then, doesn't always provide enough food to feed the family. This was Lucia’s experience until last year.

That’s where Malual come in.

Traditionally, people in Lucia's community use malodas—small tools with a sickle-shaped head—to till the land, but because the tools are so small, it takes a long time to work the land. Using oxen and employing techniques like planting in rows means women can cultivate much larger plots of land in less time.

“I am growing sorghum, okra, and peanuts, and I have been able to increase the size of the land I plow from half a fedan [half an acre] to more than two fedans [two acres],” she says. “Some of the food I eat as soon as I harvest; some I save for the lean season to eat or to sell. I’m also saving some for planting later this year.”

In the past, Lucia and her family skipped lunch because they only had enough food to stretch between breakfast and dinner. “My children are much happier and I can see they are looking well,” she says.

Lucia is earning enough money to pay some bills, and the time she's saved using oxen is going into a side business selling cakes—all of which has earned her the deep respect of her husband.

As part of the same project, she and her husband took part in workshops focused on women’s rights. “Now he respects me so much more,” she says with a grin. “The way we are together is completely different. Now we share all the tasks in the household. He is cleaning more, mopping, bringing water, and washing clothes. I am able to rest a bit more now.”

Testing the Waters

How the local community and the government are joining forces to make a change in Jordan

A water community group meeting in Allan, Salt. Photo: Alixandra Buck / Oxfam

In Jordan, it is not common for government and citizens to talk face to face on issues of common concern. There is also skepticism on the role of civil society. (Chatham House).

Together with the Water Authority of Jordan, a group of people in Salt govornorate, Jordan are working to change that.

Abir Suleiman Mrooj, Buthaina Al-Zubi, and Majde Algharagher are three of the twelve men and women who comprise a water community group in the town of Allan, Salt. Now, people of Salt can collaborate freely with government officials, air their grievances, and work together to improve water access and governance in their community.

Rapid population growth, a mountainous landscape and neglect have frequently left people in Allan with insufficient access to water. Community members, including Mrooj and Al-Zubi, highlighted the issues to Algharagher, the Water Authority’s Director of Salt District. In turn he was able to convince the Water Authority to respond with extensive improvements to the local water network, valued at over 150,000 JOD (Approx. 210,000 USD). Now, leakages in Allan have gone down significantly - and further improvements are expected to reduce losses even more.

This is of particular importance in Jordan, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Water use far exceeds the replacement rate, and leaks, breakages and interrupted water supply are all too common - pointing to the need for systemic changes to water infrastructure, water governance and water use patterns.

Majde Algharagher was quick to recognize the issues: “There has been a huge increase in population in Jordan, so there is less water available per person,” he told Oxfam. “We are also seeing illegal pumping, which is making water even scarcer.”

Over 40% of water in Jordan’s network is lost through leakages and other losses [USAiD].

Majde Algharagher, the Director of Salt District for the Water Authority of Jordan, speaks with community members. Photo: Alixandra Buck/Oxfam

Abir Suleiman Mrooj, of Allan, told Oxfam, “The sight of wasted water all over the streets used to hurt us, as we were working so hard to save water in our homes... So at first, we were like a beehive around Mr Algharagher – always pushing until we got a solution to each issue.”

Collaborating with the community has made it easier for the Water Authority to find and stop water losses. According to Algharagher, “Now that I am in the water group, people can contact me directly by phone. Before they had to come to the office or call the ministry and it would be a long process to speak to me. We also have a Whatsapp group, so they can send me a picture of a broken pipe or any problem, and I can respond. I can immediately send maintenance staff, and they can fix it. The response is easier and faster than before.”

Mrooj told Oxfam, “We housewives were able to achieve something for our community. The Water Authority heard my voice, and through me, the voices of many people in Jordan. We feel so proud that we could impact our community and the government.” But things are still not perfect: “Now, my water is good. But honestly, other places still struggle.”

Abir Suleiman Mrooj, a water Ambassador from Salt, Jordan, is a leader in her community. Photo Alixandra Buck/Oxfam

With the support of Global Affairs Canada, Oxfam is working with community members, partners, and the Government of Jordan to improve water governance. We want to ensure that more people in the country can meet their basic water needs and participate in decision-making at the community and national level.

One woman leading the way for healthy mothers in Bangladesh's refugee camps

By AJM Zobaidur Rahman, Campaigns and Communications Officer, Oxfam in Bangladesh

Rajiah, sitting here in her home in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, is a community health volunteer who helps share health information with pregnant refugee women. Photo Credit: OXFAM

Rajiah, 46, fled violence near her home in Myanmar 6 months ago, with her younger daughter, who is 15 years old. She is now living in a refugee camp in Bangladesh with thousand other Rohingya. Rajiah is one of close to a million Rohingya people have fled violence in Myanmar to seek refuge across the border in Bangladesh. This unprecedented number of refugees, of whom more than half are children, has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

Left: Rajiah sharing health information with a pregnant woman in her home in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Right: Rajiah walking through the refugee camp to visit her pregnant neighbor in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo Credit: OXFAM

WOMEN HELPING WOMEN SURVIVE AND THRIVE

Rajiah has been surrounded by women throughout her life as the eldest of 10 sisters. She herself has 5 daughters, two of which are also in camps living as refugees in Bangladesh with their husbands, while the other two remain in Myanmar. Tragically, Rajiah’s husband disappeared when the violence broke out in Myanmar and Rajiah has no way of knowing where he is. Like so many women in the camp, Rajiah must head up her household alone.

Oxfam has come to know Rajiah as a leader when she was unanimously selected to represent her community during an Oxfam assessment of what their most pressing needs were. Rajiah is well educated and has been working with and for her community throughout her life. She told us that she delivered some 10,000 babies as a midwife in Myanmar.

Now, as a refugee in Bangladesh, she is making sure she puts her experience to good use and supports and provides information to the pregnant women in her community. Her name means “Hope” - a true reflection of her personality and life’s work.

Left: Rajiah and her younger daughter inside her house in the refugee camp. Right: Rajiah taking notes about International Women's Day. Photo Credit: OXFAM

RAJIAH BRINGS LEADERSHIP TO COX'S BAZAR

Rajiah was born in a relatively affluent family in Myanmar. Education was an important part of her childhood, and her family made sure all the girls had 8 years of schooling. Rajiah speaks particularly highly of her father, who she says was the greatest influence in her life.

Rajiah honed her leadership skills from a young age, starting at school as a class leader. Later, organizations who were working in her community, including the UN, selected Rajiah as one of their volunteers. She continued working as a health worker and played a major role in the vaccination process in her area, helping to prevent children dying needlessly from preventable illnesses.

Rajiah is outspoken and confident, a full believer in women’s role outside the household. That way, she says, women can get knowledge and they can advance – and then other women can also come forward simply by seeing these role models. She is very keen on working and further helping her community, especially the women in her community.

OXFAM IS THERE

Oxfam is planning to organize women’s groups in the camps and Rajiah is the ideal person to lead this process in her community. With her leadership skills, kind and warm personality, she will undoubtedly make great progress with the women in the community. Oxfam is also currently focusing on providing water and sanitation and adapting to better deal with the crowded conditions and sheer numbers of people. We are drilling wells and installing water points, toilets and showers. We’re also helping people stay healthy and hygienic by distributing soap and other essentials and working with community-based volunteers to emphasize the importance of clean water and good hygiene, especially as monsoon season approaches. So far, we have reached at least 185,000 people, and hope to reach more than 250,000 in the coming months.

Donate now to help those in refugees camps in Bangladesh

The Oxfam training putting women on the right track

Knowledge is power – just ask these women from Nairobi. They are all members of the Oxfam project, Wezesha Jamii – Swahili for ‘empowering communities’ – which, among others, provides training, supports job opportunities and promotes equality.

The majority of these vulnerable women, who live in informal settlements across the Kenyan capital, are either domestic workers or small-scale traders. Before getting involved in the project, many of them knew nothing about their rights or entitlements – and were often exploited by their employers.

Left: Sheillah Achieng and her baby in their apartment in Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam Right: Doreen styles a woman's hair in her salon in Mukuru. Photo: Katie G. Nelson/Oxfam

Sheillah Achieng (28), who left school with few qualifications, says domestic work is the only job she can do. She describes how a former employer once threatened her with a knife when she asked for her wages. But since becoming a member of Wezesha Jamii, she understands that she can go somewhere for help.

“Now I am enlightened and if something similar happened,” says the mother of three. “I would go to the police station. I know there are some offices we can go to.”

The project also taught Sheillah about her rights around maternity leave. Before her youngest child was born, she asked her employer if she could have some time off. “They told me I could have three months… I understood that if you are pregnant you are due some leave. I didn’t know that before."

“I am very happy that I learned my rights about maternity leave. I didn’t know before that three months is my right. Normally you would get two weeks and then find someone in your job.”

The advice she’s received through Wezesha Jamii (WJ) has made Sheillah realise that she wants better treatment at work: “What I want is for more employers to treat us as human beings. I feel very bad to see employers not treating us well. “I feel more confident and I have more energy. I feel encouraged that I know my rights.”

Elsewhere, Doreen Muththoni has tried to make a go of various business ideas down through the years. But from selling bread, to cooking and selling goat meat, she has struggled to earn enough money. After becoming a member of Wezesha Jamii, she was trained in how to develop a good business idea, how to budget and how to manage her money.

Now running a thriving beauty and hair salon, Doreen says: “The project helped me choose the business I could do and one that could bring me more income than the meat business. What I do now is sell hair products and also do women’s hair.

“Through the training they showed me how to save, I didn’t save before… I can save more than 10,000 KSh through my business.”

These days Doreen has no problem paying school fees for her three children – not only that, she has opened savings accounts for them too.

“We enjoy many things now we don’t have so many problems,” she says. “We feel free and happy now. I am filled with joy. The things we are doing, WJ has been able to help me so much and now I know more than what I used to know.”

Two wheels good: The bikes bringing Malawi’s girls to school

For some young people, the road to education can be long and arduous – quite literally. In Balaka District, southern Malawi, where many schoolgirls live up to 25km from the classroom, getting there used to be a struggle. There were no buses or cars to transport them to school – they had to walk.

The two-hour journeys on foot were exhausting. Many of the students couldn’t concentrate when they eventually arrived at school; others simply stayed at home despite being desperate to learn. Some would eventually drop out altogether.

It was a vicious cycle – one that Oxfam decided to tackle by distributing bikes to schoolgirls in the region. Esnat*, one of 30 students to receive a bicycle, used to make a five-hour roundtrip to school on foot. “The journey was hard,” says the 15-year-old pupil, who lives 25km from her school. “I would be tired and used to doze off in class.

Left: Esnat* with her Oxfam bike. Photo: Corinna Kern. Right: Zainab* was always late for school. Photo: Corinna Kern

“I would sleep when I got home, I didn’t study as I was too tried. My body and legs would ache; sometimes I would skip lessons. I was underperforming in my lessons because I was either absent or not concentrating.”

Since getting a bike, Esnat* no longer feels as tired and can study properly: “I am excited about my bike; I will be able to complete my education. Now it takes less than one hour to get to school. I start lessons with my friends so I feel equal to them.

“I want to be a nurse. I have had that passion ever since I was younger. I want to help the sick and my community because we don’t have many nurses. I want to earn money to help my family.”

Another schoolgirl who benefitted from Oxfam’s bike project is 14-year-old Alice*, who also wants to be a nurse. Describing her old commute to school as a “bad experience”, she says: “I would go to school on Monday but then on a Tuesday I would be absent as I was so sick and tired. I would miss one day a week and go in four days. I forced myself to go. I was arriving at school so tired. I couldn’t concentrate as had I no time to rest. I tried to work hard but I was just so tired.

Left: Girls from Chembera secondary school, Chembera village, Balaka District, with their bicycles. Photo: Corinna Kern. Right: Alice* used to get sick regularly. Photo: Corinna Kern

“We got the bikes two weeks ago. I felt excited and hoped that I would do better in class. Now I travel the same distance but I am not as tired. I still leave at 6am but now I get to school at 6.30am. I am hopeful that I will finish my education and get a good job.”

Before she got her bike, Zainab* – who lives 18km from school – was always late for class and often missed out on exams. “I was so tired, I would spend lots of time stopping on the way to rest my legs so I would be late for school,” says Zainab* (15). “I would miss out on exams and there was no way to make up classes. If you missed a lesson that lesson would be gone. Now I don’t miss any lessons.”

*Names changed

Pages