CHANHASSEN, Minnesota — When Karen Sugar visited a village in Uganda as part of her work with the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, she sat down with several women who had participated in the organization’s social and economic development programs. As the women discussed their experiences, one woman described the particular significance of the literacy initiative. When Sugar asked the woman about her greatest achievement within the program, the answer was inspiring. The woman had learned how to write her own name, which she displayed on a chalkboard for everyone to see. Sugar spoke to The Borgen Project about these moments of empowerment and the organization’s mission to uplift women in Northern Uganda. Through programs in microfinance, leadership, literacy and justice, the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund combats gender inequality and equips women with the skills and opportunities they need to succeed.
Women’s Rights in Uganda
From 1986 to 2006, Uganda faced extreme conflict due to the violent acts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group formed in opposition to the Ugandan government. As the struggle between the LRA and the government continued, Northern Uganda was most affected by the brutal turmoil of the conflict. Although the country is now experiencing relative stability post-conflict, there is still much that can be done to help improve conditions for individuals in Northern Uganda. Women were especially vulnerable to school closures, poverty and gender-based violence during the unrest.
While there have been improvements in women’s rights legislation and female political participation, inequalities in domestic violence, literacy and economic opportunity persist. In 2018, the literacy rate for Ugandan women older than 15 was less than 71% while the men’s literacy rate was nearly 83%. Furthermore, the labor force participation rate for men in 2017 stood at above 56% while the women’s participation rate was only 41%. The unique history of conflict and need for humanitarian aid motivated Sugar to focus her work within Northern Uganda.
The Women’s Global Empowerment Fund
After working at a women’s shelter in the U.S. city of Atlanta and learning about microfinance in school, Sugar was motivated to found a grassroots organization to combat poverty and gender inequality. With her combined experience and new passion for microlending, Sugar created the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund in 2007 with Northern Uganda as her area of focus. She knew that giving out small loans could truly aid women in need. “[I needed] to create something that was going to be entrepreneurial, that was going to be economically sound, but at the same time incredibly fair and wise and based on best practices,” Sugar told The Borgen Project.
The idea of empowerment is imperative to the function of WGEF. To Sugar, “the concept of women’s empowerment gives life to the idea that a woman can be an agent of change in her own life, determining her own future.” WGEF determines the success of its initiatives based on several empowerment indicators, such as an increase in decision making, decrease in violence, food security and access to rest, among others.
WGEF runs several initiatives, including its Credit Plus microfinance program, Leadership Development initiatives, literacy programs, agriculture-focused business programs and the Gulu Women’s Resource Center (GWRC). The GWRC serves as a safe place for women to receive support, education and aid with mental health and domestic violence issues. Women can also obtain legal advice from the GWRC’s Access to Justice team. The WGEF also holds an annual drama festival, Kikopo Pa Mon Gulu, with original performances highlighting relevant social issues.
The Women’s Global Empowerment Fund Credit Plus program provides women with a “basic business education” and leadership skills along with a low-interest rate loan and manageable repayment plans. The agricultural loan program at WGEF has been especially instrumental in supporting the local food economy. As women have established successful agribusinesses with their farms and distribution networks, they have fought food insecurity throughout the region. In 2020, the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund granted about “12,000 new micro-loans and agricultural loans” for women’s economic initiatives.
The social programs of WGEF, such as its literacy and leadership training, are free to participants so women can develop the skills they need to succeed in any aspect of life. Sugar knew early on that WGEF needed a strong educational program to support women receiving loans and ensure they are properly equipped with the necessary skills, such as reading and writing, required to successfully operate a business. The WGEF’s Leadership Development program encourages women to participate in political processes, including running for office.
The Future of WGEF
Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic in Uganda, the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund is committed to continuing its work and expanding its efforts to aid women facing gender-based violence, school closures, early marriage, human trafficking, unemployment and lack of access to medical facilities and sanitation products. The organization’s goals for 2021 include further COVID-19 relief, agricultural loans, Leadership Development political initiatives and more support for its Access to Justice program.
“One of the cruelest things that human beings experience is voicelessness and being invisible,” says Sugar. She recounts early memories of arriving in Uganda with Ugandan women saying “We’ve been waiting for you, where have you been?” Affirming the truth in this statement, Sugar explains that despite the technological advancements that connect the world, “we still don’t hear the voices and the stories that we need to.” Therefore, above all, Sugar commits to continue listening to what the women of Northern Uganda require to thrive. With every initiative, the WGEF shows its commitment to empowering Ugandan women with the knowledge and tools needed to rise out of poverty.
– Sarah Stolar
Photo: With Permission from Karen Sugar