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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.”

Dear EU Leaders: Look at me

By Amal, Moria hotspot, Lesvos, Greece

 

Dear EU Leaders,

Spring has arrived- warming our bodies and our hearts. However, the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek Island of Lesvos, is still cold and prison-like. I have been in Moria for seven months now since I arrived in Europe, and there is only one thing I can be certain of is that I will be stuck here for a long time. I have requested asylum in Europe, but the next hearing for my case is 18 months away.

I invite all European politicians to visit us, to witness our hardship, and to see what life is like when your fate is in the hands of others – in your hands. Your hands are not tied – more humane migration policies can help us and give people here the protection, support and dignity they need and deserve. We need to #OpenTheIslands.

The EU-Turkey deal

My story is similar to those of millions of refugees from Syria and other countries. Conflict and persecution has torn our families apart, we had to leave our belongings behind, and our beautiful cities are no longer recognizable. We fled to survive and when we reached safety in Greece we were stopped and told to wait in inhumane conditions. That waiting has become living. While asylum seekers like me are waiting for their cases to be heard, our future is slipping away.

I am – we all are – trapped on Lesvos following the EU’s deal with Turkey, which was struck two years ago, in March 2016. As a direct result of the deal, Greece forces asylum seekers to stay on the island instead of being able to request asylum on the mainland or elsewhere in Europe.

The EU-Turkey deal has one main goal: to stop people from seeking asylum in Europe. But the effects of this deal on these people have been overlooked. They overlook the fact that a handful of bathrooms cannot be shared by the thousands who are forced to live in tents. That women and children face a real risk of sexual violence, abuse and harassment when they live in these overcrowded camps.

Lesvos, where Moria is, is a beautiful Greek island, but the camp is hell.

Being a refugee is not a choice

Every day I dream of going back home. But the place I call home is in ruins. When I think of home I think of my daily routine of working in a hospital in the morning and teaching English in the afternoon; I think of picnics in the park with my family over the weekends. Or just walking around Damascus, where I was born and raised.

Being a refugee is not a choice. I am stuck in Lesvos because I left my home when it became unsafe due to years of war.

If politicians came to visit Moria, I would ask them why they believe in policies that lead to overcrowded camps and insecurity for women and children. If European leaders came to visit Moria, I would ask them if they really think Moria is a place for people like me, like them. I would tell them that they have a responsibility to go home and remember us, remember what they see in Moria. I would ask them to let me rebuild my life.

Please send a tweet to Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and European leaders asking them to #OpenTheIslands

Dear EU Leaders: Look at me - Amal's Story

How can we go back to a Syria that no longer exists?

Authored by Shaheen Chughtai, Head of Campaigns, Policy & Communications, Oxfam Syria Crisis Response

Seven long years after the Syria crisis began, the situation remains bleak. Individual children, women and men continue to bear the brunt of a conflict marked by enormous human suffering, relentless destruction and a blatant disregard for human rights.

The harrowing news from Eastern Ghouta – the scene of intensified fighting in Syria’s brutal conflict – has pushed the war into the headlines again. Recent fighting in other areas, including Afrin, Idlib and Deir Ez-Zor continues to claim lives and leave families in desperate need of aid. During this protracted crisis, the broken lives of Syria’s women, men and children have too often been ignored.

Left: Hani*, 16, was displaced from East Ghouta in 2013, and now lives in a tent with his family of 8 in Herjalleh, Rural Damascus. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Wael* and Husam* return back from their daily journey to collect drinking water for their family from a nearby water fountain, Herjalleh.

While making a film about Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan for Oxfam, I was truly humbled by the courage and resilience of the people I met. However, many are only just surviving amid harsh conditions.

One mother from Homs, Jawaher, told me: “Our houses are gone, how can I go back to something which doesn’t exist anymore?” Their homes in Syrian cities and towns continue to be pummelled into rubble, or are now occupied by strangers.

After seven years of conflict, the statistics are horrifying: at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed and over 13 million are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including nearly three million people trapped in besieged and hard to reach areas, such as Eastern Ghouta. More than half of the population – nearly 12 million people – have fled from their homes, many of them several times. More than 5.6 million refugees are living in neighbouring countries, the majority in extreme poverty.

Jawaher, the refugee in Jordan who I interviewed for the film, told me her son had returned recently to Syria. From Idlib, he sends her text messages telling her the situation “is bad, very bad”. He has no heating despite the low temperatures and no aid has reached him yet. Aid agencies say they still cannot reach many people who need help.

Some aid does get through despite the challenges. Over the last year, Oxfam has helped an estimated two million people in Syria as well as refugees and the communities in which they are sheltering in Jordan and Lebanon. This has included providing safe drinking water, sanitation and vital food aid as well as helping refugees make a living.

Being a Syrian refugee is difficult, even if you manage to escape from Syria. Everyone who lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, knows only too well about its high cost of living. Imagine being a Syrian refugee who needs to live, to eat, and to care for their children there. Despite efforts by the Jordanian authorities, many refugees – as well as members of the overstretched communities hosting them – are still unable to find work and rely on limited aid. This means the reality for many Syrian refugees, particularly the women in the region, is a life without meaningful work. What a terrible waste of talent.

Left: Ahmed, 34, a husband and a father of three children, is one of those who fled their homes fearing for their lives. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Layla, 35, is a mother of six little children. Her husband has been missing for about two years. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam

One Syrian young refugee in Za’atari told us she is creating her own luck, developing her writing skills as a reporter for a magazine on the camp. Now 20, Abeer hopes she will return to Syria one day and she has made it her goal to give something back to her country because of the way ‘it has suffered and sacrificed’. She longs to write a story of Syrians rebuilding their country and starting over again. But how much longer will this conflict continue and at what cost? The international community has provided billions of dollars and euros in aid to the region in recent years. That welcome aid has helped to keep millions of Syrian refugees alive and alleviated their suffering – but it has not kept pace with the sheer scale of human need.

The continued violence, bloodshed and suffering in Syria represents a catastrophic failure by the international community. Attempts to reduce civilian loss of life and provide humanitarian aid to people trapped by the fighting have been repeatedly undermined by military operations.

Time is long overdue for world leaders to do more to protect and assist civilians and prioritise a political solution to the conflict. The people of Syria deserve no less.

See also our video ZA'ATARI: THE REFUGEE REPORTER

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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

International Women's Day

Now more than a century old, International Women’s Day is as important as ever before. After all, it’s not just the one day of the year that we celebrate the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women; it’s also a time to reflect on their ongoing struggle for gender equality.

On this International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce you to some of the awe-inspiring women we are proud to stand with and support through our work:

Top-Left: Jennifer with her mentor Tsungai Shonhai. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam. Top-Right: Women’s group leader Kausar Rajput. Photo: Irina Werning/Oxfam. Bottom: Ghozlan is a Syrian refugee living in Za’atari Camp. Photo: Alixandra Buck/Oxfam

In Zimbabwe, Tsungai Shonhai works with young people living with and affected by HIV. The 64-year-old mentor works with the Oxfam Ireland-supported Bethany Project, which promotes the wellbeing of these vulnerable young people through support groups, HIV testing and counselling. Tsungai’s job isn’t easy, but her efforts are greatly appreciated by Jennifer.

The 15 year old, who was born HIV-positive, used to isolate herself from her community in case anyone found out about her condition. But her life has been transformed by the project and the work of women like Tsungai. “The support groups gave me courage, confidence and hope to manage my condition,” she says. “I am now confident, my self-esteem boosted, I now participate in the school netball team.”

Kausar Rajput is a women's group leader in Sindh province, Pakistan. Kausar (50), who also chairs the local health committee, helps women access small loans to start businesses in their homes. She does all of this as part of an Oxfam project called Raising Her Voice, which aims to help women in Pakistan overcome the barriers that keep them in poverty.

“I was a councillor before coming to this project and I was a housewife,” said Kausar. “My husband died, that was years ago and I have brought up my children by myself. By the grace of God I don't face problems now – I go out and solve other problems for other people.”


Ghozlan is one of around 45 Syrian women involved in Oxfam’s Greenhouse project in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Many refugees in Jordan can’t find work and rely on limited aid. Finding work is even more challenging for these women who are encouraged to work in the home. When they do go out to work, they face harassment, rumours and discrimination. 

In response, Oxfam opened four greenhouses in Za’atari camp last year, and encouraged women to get involved. Ghozlan was one of those who joined the project, and quickly learned new horticultural skills. She is even making a little money from the produce she sells in local communities. For Ghozlan, however, it is the support from her new friends that is invaluable. “I met some women here,” she said. “When we talk together about our concerns we feel some relief.”

 

Rehema Mayuya is a change maker. Photo: BMF Production

Rehema Mayuya, from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, lived with a violent husband until she became involved with the We Can campaign, which is part-funded by Oxfam Ireland. 

The campaign’s aim is to end violence against women, challenging the attitudes and behaviours that facilitate it. Rehema is now a change maker, someone who speaks out against domestic violence to make her community safer.
 
“I’m a totally different person now,” says Rehema. As a woman, I need to stand strong, fight for my rights and protect the rights of women who are subjected to violence.”

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