It's not often you pull up to an appointment to see 30 women welcoming you with song and dance. But that's a given when we visit our Spice Grinder project in rural Wolaita. This group is a force of nature, full of ambitious and energetic women who are determined to make a change in their lives and in their community.
Several years ago, Mothers with a Heart for Ethiopia (MWAHFE) provided the capital to buy a grinder, the building to house it, as well as entrepreneurial training so the women could launch a business grinding grains and spices. Our organization also bought a weigh scale, two donkeys to transport grain to market, and tools and equipment to farm the land around the spice grinder compound.
"We have always followed that hope you gave us," one member of the group told us. "We have become a model for other women in the area."
We were again able to offer WRAPS (washable, reusable, affordable pads) kits, and the accompanying health training, to the group during our visit. Last trip, the women were overwhelmed to receive those reusable pads. "You not only care about our outsides, you care about our insides, too!" they told us gleefully. We heard this year that other women in the community are pushing to join the Spice Grinder project so they can get in on the reusable pads!
Of course, these sorts of projects aren't without challenges. The women told us during our most recent visit that they need more training to feel confident using and fixing the grinding machine. They also said they'd benefit from more education on how to run a business. Our board will be considering the options for further investment in the Spice Grinder project.
But in the meantime, the group came up with another venture. Since the grinder was purchased, the women have been socking their proceeds away in a group savings account, but not touching the funds. In the last year, they've decided to take out 1,000 birr loans (about $50) to help launch small businesses. Most of the women use the funds to buy butter and coffee, which they sell at the market. One woman can take out a loan at a time, and must pay it back - with 100 birr ($5) in interest - over six months.
All the members also strive to save between 10 and 20 birr each month to contribute to the group pot.
We're so inspired by their resourcefulness and dedication to the savings group. (Oh, and their dance skills, obviously).
Imagine staying home from work or school just because you have your period. Or using leaves and dirty rags instead of hygienic products. That's a reality for some women and girls in Ethiopia. And that's why we're so pleased to have donated, with your help, enough money to distribute 1,000 washable, reusable, affordable pads (WRAPS) last year. Along with a WRAPS kit, which includes eight pads, a wet bag, and underwear, girls receive education about the female reproductive system and training on how to use and reuse the washable pads.
Allison Karnes is the lead on this project, and she proudly declared the pads "the best in Africa!" when we visited with her workers in Soddo in June. That's another rewarding offshoot of the WRAPS program - the women who are employed to make them!
Aynalem has been there since the beginning, when there were just three women working diligently to create a reusable pad that would work, hold up to frequent washings, and be comfortable. Now there are nine full-time workers and nine sewing machines in their office.
"Before we are just making a small amount of WRAPS. Now it's a huge amount," Aynalem told us.
She's not kidding. WRAPS has an order of 5,000 kits to fulfill for an NGO by the end of the summer. That's a lot of pads!
And in a few weeks, Aynalem will mark a very special milestone of her own. She's graduating with a degree in accounting from a college in Soddo. She completed that program while also raising two kids - a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl.
All of the women in the WRAPS program go to school, some in younger grades because they were never afforded the opportunity for education as children. But most attend school at nights and on the weekends while working full-time at WRAPS.
Aynalem said it's been exciting to see the venture grow and blossom.
"I used to use disposable pads. For three years, we are using this. That makes me very happy."
Girls Gotta Run Foundation
Running, singing, learning, quality time with the MWAHFE paparazzi . . . we covered all the bases during our time with the athletic scholars at Abba Pascal Girls School.
Our organization sponsors 26 young ladies in the Girls Gotta Run program, which uses running as a tool to empower girls, increase access to education, and break cycles of poverty and child marriage.
It's nothing short of awesome to see these girls in action. We got to catch a quick practice, and aside from their obvious athletic skills, it was really special to see the friendships and connections that are built through the team.
Creating a support network of peers is one of the crucial goals of Girls Gotta Run.
"I'm beyond happy to be in this program," said Betelhem Tegegn, a 15-year-old student who just finished Grade 7 and her second year as an athletic scholar. "I have learned a lot, but mostly how to communicate. Before, I was shy and didn't have any friends. Now I am making friends."
The girls build confidence, running skills, and are enjoy team meals after practice. They also benefit from life skills training that tackles tough topics like safe relationships and self-esteem.
"Before I got in this program, I used to think there were some tasks females can't do," said Fidelphia Tamirat, a 13-year-old athletic scholar. "But now I get self-confidence. I feel proud of my gender.'
Prolapse Uterus Surgeries
We had the incredible privilege of speaking with four women recovering from surgery to treat a prolapsed uterus last week. It's a common condition for women who have had a child (and many Ethiopian women have had six, seven or eight pregnancies, though all the children may not have survived).
But in areas where medical care is difficult or impossible to access, the condition can drag on for years. Most of the women we've spoken to in previous years didn't know what was happening to their bodies - they just knew something was very wrong. In an intensely private culture, it's not unusual for a woman to keep those concerns secret, not even telling her friends or family.
There are degrees of prolapse, but in the most severe cases, the uterus actually protrudes from the body. Not only is that incredibly painful and scary, it also causes incontinence and makes walking - and living normally - very difficult. Many women who suffer from the condition in rural areas are isolated, hidden away from their communities because of the shame, stigma and smell.
We were so heartened this year to hear the four women who were treated for prolapse had heard from their neighbours and friends about the solutions offered at rural health clinics and at the Soddo Christian Hospital, where Dr. Mark Karnes uses our funds to treat prolapse patients.
Several of the women had communicated their struggles to one another, and one woman had even told her son. It may not seem like much, but to us this represented a real sign of progress. If women are able to open up to one another about these concerns, it's more likely that they will find out about the health care options available to them, even in very small and rural areas.
"A couple of mothers that I knew already had the surgery," Ayelech said. "If I come across any other women (who have the condition), I will let them know," she added.
Even a day after surgery, recovering in hospital, these four patients were over the moon about the procedure and the difference it would make in their lives.
"I am so happy. I'm better now," Gaule said from her hospital bed. "Now I can do anything I want."
Several women were running their households, taking care of children and even doing intense labour like farming to support their families - all without any treatment for their prolapse.
It's almost unbearable to think about those conditions and the pain these women must bear, both emotional and physical. Surgery to correct a prolapse uterus is only $325. So far, we have funded more than 160 surgeries.
The cost is reasonable for most Canadians, but out of reach for the Ethiopian women we spoke to. These women have spent years with untreated prolapse.
"Because of you, I'm feeling much better now," said Bature, another prolapse patient who was recovering in hospital when we sat down for an interview.
"Now I can be normal. I won't be ashamed."