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Acholi women discover life beyond war, teenage pregnancy

Prisca Aloyojok possesses that physique that is enough to qualify her as beautiful.

Besides, she is always smart, with well-manicured nails and trendy clothes. Her smiles are infectious and perfectly mask all her troubles. But beyond her seemingly easy life, Aloyojok went through most of the challenges rural women in northern Uganda face, to achieve her current status.

“I got pregnant during my P7 vacation in 2004. I had to start cooking mandazi and chapatti to raise money. My husband (now deceased) always frustrated my desire to join secondary school,” Aloyojok said. “Luckily my elder brother offered to pay my school fees, much as I was staying with my husband.”

In 2005, Aloyojok and four other women who had formed a savings group called Amoo United, were introduced to a local NGO, Volunteer Action Network and Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (Vac-net/WGEF) in 2008. Amoo United secured a loan of Shs 550,000 and started dealing in charcoal.

“By the time we were to repay back the loan, we could afford a truckful of charcoal,” Aloyojok explained. And like that, the five women’s lives started on a path of transformation.

Village women in Amuru benefit from a free adult literacy programme by Vac-net

According to her, joining the group saved her a lot because three years later, she lost her husband in a road accident, leaving her with five children.

“I wonder how I would be educating my children, if I had not insisted on going back to school,” she said. “It is not easy being a single mother. But when I am in the field talking to fellow women, I realize that many have bigger problems, despite them having spouses who support them financially.”

Aloyojok attributes her steady growth to Vac-net/WGEF, which is now supporting thousands of disadvantaged women in the Acholi sub-region. Women such as Aloyojok understand only too well what a big difference a little financial independence can make.

“Joining a savings group alone would not have helped me, if it was not for the all-round empowerment I got from the NGO,” she said.

Vac-net/WGEF was formed in 2007 to empower women through its rare model dubbed credit plus. Under the model, women who apply for loans are given additional benefits of business skilling, education, and access to justice and leadership skills at no charge.

It is through the leadership trainings that Aloyojok got the courage to contest for and lead the women’s groups. She also contested and won in the 2016 local council elections.

“From 2008-2015, I was a peer counselor of the women groups in Gulu. Currently, I am the chairperson of all the peer counselors in the four districts benefitting from the services offered by the NGO,” she said.

She now can only imagine what her life would have been like had she not pushed for further education after her teenage pregnancy! For not many of her peers were lucky to rise from their ‘ashes’.

Working with the NGO has helped her discover her potential in leadership and beyond, for someone whose husband once tried to stop her from being much more than just another unwilling housewife.

“This experience gave me the skills of public speaking, and how to handle crowds. So in 2016, I contested and won the councilor III position in School road, Vanguard parish in Pece division,” Aloyojok said. “The public speaking training we were given now helps me a lot during meetings as a councilor, and during community gatherings. In the past I could not talk to large crowds.”

Aloyojok is just one out of the more than 100,000 disadvantaged rural women in Acholi sub- region, who have been empowered through the credit plus model. A large percentage of women in Uganda, especially from the northern region, still suffer numerous gender-specific drawbacks.

Their attempts to undertake agriculture on a large scale, do businesses and participate in leadership positions have largely been unsuccessful, thanks in part to a tumultuous past dotted by insurgency.

The challenges to women’s socio-economic and political ascent are mainly a combination of the harsh dictates of culture, and their poor educational backgrounds.

Despite government projects designed to empower women in the country, reports show that women, especially in northern Uganda, constitute the greatest percentage of the poor and illiterate lot.

Musa Bukenya, the programmess director at Vac-Net/WGEF, argues that government programmes aimed at empowering women have yielded little results, because they are mainly financial services and grants.

According to Bukenya, when empowerment focuses only on the provision of financial resources and services, it is unlikely to lead to wider changes in gender inequality, unless the programs strategically blend credit with other vital services.

“We believe that giving loans alone cannot help empower a woman. But if we combine micro-credit with social programming, it can be revolutionary and give effective empowerment,” he said.  “Our clients have utilized educational and financial tools to create viable businesses and make strategic choices that increase decision-making capabilities and control over resources.”

Bukenya said the NGO requires borrowers to form groups and attend business trainings, where they elect leaders, develop a business plan and work with staff to ensure their success.

“What makes our intervention unique is the inclusion of a political dimension. Poverty is the result of inequality in many spheres, and meaningful interventions must include a political dimension that enables addressing systemic inequality through participation and advocacy,” he said.

In trying to educate the semi-literate and illiterate women, for instance, a resource centre was set up and launched in October last year in Gulu district. At the center, beneficiaries access vital information like on disease prevention, market availability and get training in computer skills.

“We believe poverty is man-made. Sometimes lack of information keeps us in poverty. For instance, 80 per cent of the income of our clients is spent on health. This is simply because, much as diseases like malaria are preventable, rural women do not have the information they need to prevent the disease. So, the center is there to provide such information,” Bukenya said.

To evaluate empowerment, the NGO uses yardsticks such as increase in participation in household decisions, community activities and mobility to see if they are impacting their clients, as opposed to just giving them the money and leaving them to their own devices.

Other measures of empowerment are increased self-esteem/confidence and decrease in domestic violence. Since 2007, Vac-Net/WGEF has given out micro-loans to more than 40,000 people and trained more than 100,000 women in business skills.

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