Despite the changing trends in international development cooperation, the centrality of the individual is key, and this has also remained at the heart of the AVSI Foundation for the past 46 years. To this links women’s empowerment that requires establishing new types of relationships between beneficiaries, cooperation actors, donors, institutions and businesses.
From our experience in the field, we have learned that the starting point for empowerment is regaining awareness of one’s own value: every individual must recognise that one’s dignity is a quality that can never be stamped out or reduced; that no circumstance can overwhelm or remove. We learned this lesson from Sharon, a 20-year old woman from a Kampala slum attending school thanks to one of our projects, who responded to a question on the importance of money: “Money cannot buy me.”
While this statement might seem self-evident to most of us, we must remember that in a slum prostitution is often the only available option for young women and girls to sustain themselves, their children and their families. Having acquired awareness of her worth, Sharon was more protected against this predominant system of submission from which women have no escape and could instead continue her studies and have a chance to become independent.
And the benefits of women feeling empowered do not stop at individual level: they benefit the whole community. For example, savings groups established in villages or towns have attracted women who are eager and determined to take steps that help their children as well as themselves. To this day, 1,625 village savings and credit groups have been set up in Uganda as part of our SCORE project – an initiative funded by USAID and implemented by AVSI Uganda and a consortium of NGOs – with a total of 37,000 members having collectively saved nearly US$4mn. 80% of the participants were women, and as protagonists of this highly successful project, women have proved the effectiveness of the so-called “graduation model” – a customised support system that is dedicated to guiding women on their path to independence.
After over two decades spent travelling in the field, I have very seldom witnessed the level of happiness and satisfaction I saw on the faces of the women “graduating” from the SCORE project. While oftentimes a beneficiary is hesitant to leave a project for fear of losing protection, thanks to their exposure to this model of empowerment, these women were eagerly looking forward to graduation, ready to start their own business activities and gain independence.
Women’s empowerment begins with women. This does not, however, exclude partnerships with men and other sectors and groups of a society. And at the core of positive development lies a fundamental corollary: we must start from the bottom, from a cultural change in the everyday life. This is also the message of the women who have taken part in our activities.
While there are countries that have obtained excellent legal and policy frameworks after long battles of advocacy, these laws and policies do not always work as planned if there is no cultural change in the community. Changes cannot be imposed exclusively from the top and no communication campaign – no matter its success – can replace the direct experience of taking part in a project that allows the participants make personal discoveries on their own.
The primary goal must always be to support women on their journeys and help them realise their value in areas where it might have been previously repressed. We must always strive to work simultaneously on advocacy and concrete projects in the field, starting from the bottom and listening to real needs on parity level. There is simply no longer room for the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Women empowerment is ultimately a generative process, that is necessary for the betterment of the entire community – and the world.