How butter leads to women’s emancipation: a self help group in Ethiopia

September 24, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

In societies where women are traditionally confined to the home and denied any voice, how can NGOs help bring them together? Ethiopia week on the blog continues with a visit to a women’s group supported by an Oxfam partner, Rift Valley Children and Women Development. On the way, Hussen Delecha, an ex-Save the Children staffer who decided to switch to a local NGO in the shape of ‘Rift Valley’, as everyone calls it, filled me in.

They work with ex-pastoralist communities who have settled and are trying to make a go of farming on tiny (typically quarter hectare) plots. The small size and regular failure of the rains means that drought and hunger are the norm (although thankfully, the rains are good this year, and the valley is lush).

Although men have traditionally dominated access to resources, with women often isolated in their homes, Rift Valley spotted a tradition they could build on: the butter economy, known as wijjo in the local Oromo language. Oromo women have traditionally shared and exchanged butter, e.g. as gifts to the sick, or at weddings, providing a model for establishing savings groups that could help people through crises, diversify incomes and reduce vulnerability to drought. Hussen sees it as an example of ‘community based risk management’.

Rift Valley SHGThere followed one of my favourite experiences of working for an NGO. Sitting under a tree and talking for an hour with a circle of some 15 Oromo women of all ages, as the rainclouds loomed and the birds squabbled in the branches overhead. (Sorry, no pics, my camera has got trashed somewhere on the trip – but here’s a pic from the Rift Valley website, obviously taken in drier times). Here are some highlights:

Savings: “We save about 14 Birr (US$0.90) a month, and can take out loans that we can use to buy goats and cattle. We didn’t have a culture of saving before – now I have what I didn’t have before.”

Community: “When one of us gets sick, we visit. We support each other for weddings and social occasions. We help the poorest members of the group improve their houses.”

Relations with men: “Before, it was our husbands who bought assets. We were stuck in our houses, we didn’t meet. Now the decision is up to me – what to do with my money. That’s a big change. Our husbands are changing too – they have their own group now.”

Climate Change and living with drought: “1984 was a terrible drought, but it was unique. Now it has become routine – we never used to see all the plants die. It’s really difficult, but last year we fought back through petty trade, we collected salt lick from the lake shore, and got some food aid to feed the children. Animals died, but no people did.”

Family size: The older women have 7-10 children, but add “we are struggling to change their (the younger ones’) lives. It was ignorance that led to large families. Now we are starting to use family planning and we get education from the health office. Some of our children are getting educated and moving to the town, but there are not many jobs there.” The younger women say they want only 4-5 children. (See this week’s excellent post on family planning and safe abortion in Ethiopia from Owen Barder)

What’s next? They want to be able to store grains, and buy a grinding mill. They dream of having their own vehicle to get to market. They would like to finish their education – most are barely literate – and have started a literacy class. “We want more skills and knowledge. That’s why we have come together.”

As well as supporting the self-help groups, Rift Valley is helping women increase their income in the face of climate change by providing drip irrigationthem with low tech drip irrigation systems (suspended waterproof bags  distributing water to pierced rubber tubes – even lower tech than the example in the pic). These allow the women to grow food in gardens, even when the rains fail, improving nutrition and income, which in turn allows them to rent more land and set off a virtuous circle.

Nothing flashy, just the hard graft of long-term development and women’s emancipation, running up the down escalator of climate change and shrinking farm size.

September 24, 2010
Duncan Green