Years ago, in what she calls a moment of brilliance or insanity, Karen Sugar decided to start an international development organization for women. Sugar began by looking for a location where women had the most critical need for empowerment, but she soon realized that the location wasn't as important as the bond between women. "It didn't matter where I went, because I know as women we're all connected," Sugar explains. "As women, we all have similar experiences as we walk the planet, whether it's discrimination or abuse, physical or emotional. Although our lives look different, we can relate to being a woman."
On Wednesday, December 10, the Women's Global Empowerment Fund will hold its annual fundraiser at RedLine, which is curently featuring an art exhibit by Judy Chicago. This year's event happens to fall on Human Rights Day, and will feature guest speaker Pat Blumenthal, the director of philanthropy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Sugar has a background in political science and spent several years working in a homeless shelter in Atlanta, where she learned firsthand how difficult poverty is to overcome. She saw how the problem is multifaceted, and less about the lack of money and more about the lack of choices. "It was demoralizing and dehumanizing watching these human beings navigate a system that was so stacked against them," she says. "It was eye-opening. I understood poverty from an academic sense, but it wasn't until I worked with people every day that I really understood it in a meaningful way."
In 2007 she founded the Women's Global Empowerment Fund, a non-profit that works in northern Uganda to support women using economic, social and political programs. Sugar began her work as Uganda was coming out of a brutal period of conflict; her clients included former captives, child soldiers and sex slaves. "It's a challenging place to work, but it's an amazing place to work," she says. "People are rebuilding their lives. There's a lot of opportunities that exist for the people to create the communities that they want to see."
WGEF helps do this by improving health conditions, promoting literacy, supporting women in agriculture, providing leadership development and even holding an annual drama festival. Its major focus is using a microfinance model, which provides capital to promote small-scale entrepreneurship for those who don't have access to money to start a business.
WGEF's average loan is $57 and lasts for twelve-to-sixteen weeks; out of 5,000 loans that have been awarded, Sugar says the group hasn't lost a single one. That money can go far for small businesses, most of which are run out of the women's houses. And Sugar has seen immense growth in the businesses that WGEF has aided. One restaurant helped by her program, developed over two years with five loans, now serves over 200 people a day.
There has been some pushback from men in culturally conservative areas, Sugar says. But she's also found men who recognize that there can't be a healthy society without women. "There's definitely some entrenched patriarchal notions of gender norms that we bump into, but because it's a post-conflict region, people are very focused on how to recover," Sugar says. "I've met visionary men and women who really want to participate in their communities and create a region that's thriving and healthy. And that does include equality for everyone."
Even though WGEF focuses on women, Sugar knows that men must be asked to join the conversation, so men are included in all community events. "We make sure we're inclusive and not exclusive," she says. "We don't want to marginalize anyone."
Two WGEF members selling everything from flours to cooking pastes,
Courtesy WGEF staff
WGEF focuses on making lasting changes in the community and avoiding the "Band-Aid effect" of just dumping money and leaving. Lasting change means empowerment, which doesn't translate to just more power in the household. For WGEF, it also means leadership roles in the community and in politics.
"I believe any meaningful intervention has to have a political element," Sugar says. "You can give a women a lot of tools for development, but if they don't have don't have a seat at the policy table, then things won't change."
In February 2011, the region where WGEF is focused had its first elections in over 25 years. Five women from Sugar's program participated in the election; three won. Now WGEF provides leadership training for women to become advocates, lobbyists and politicians. Sugar says many more women plan to participate in the 2016 election, even one who wants to run for parliament.
"We work on elevating women's voices," she says. "It shows the next generation of women coming up that there are so many possibilities for them out there. That they do have the right. They do have a place."
Follow Amanda Moutinho on Twitter at @amandamoutinho.
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