This week, Lois Juliber, Chairman of the Board of our foundation, and I are spending time in Uganda with our partner, BRAC.
Our partnership is scaling BRAC’s microfinance multiplied program across Uganda and is benefitting more than 1.8 million Ugandans.
We are talking and listening to the people who are served by this partnership. As BRAC and our foundation expand the program, we aim to enable even more people to improve their own lives with greater access to learning and earning opportunities.
During the week, I’ll be posting stories about our trip.
Empowering Young Women
Lois and I, along with Susan Davis, the President of BRAC USA, spent our afternoon at one of BRAC’s adolescent girls clubs in a poor urban community within the city called Mukalazi. The “club house” – a simple one-room structure with a tin roof – exuded with energy from more than 20 young people who welcomed us with song and dance.
This particular club has been meeting for nearly two years. As a result, the members, who range from 13 to 22 years of age, have covered all of the key “economic empowerment” modules of life skills, livelihood options, and basic financial literacy skills of saving and budgeting. Several have been introduced to microfinance.
“Why do you come here?” we asked the girls. They fired back, “To learn. To play netball. To read books. To get skills. To be with friends.”
What are you learning? “How to avoid an early pregnancy. How to save money. How to start a business.”
And, are you saving money? Several voices piped up – “Yes, weekly. In a tin cup or wooden box or under the carpet.”
When we asked if there was pressure from others – parents, boyfriends, siblings, friends – to borrow their savings, the answer was also yes. One young woman shared her standard response (and deterrent) to such requests: “Fine, but how much interest will you pay me?” This usually discouraged would-be borrowers.
Would you like to save the money in a bank? Zaina, the club mentor said, “Yes, at Equity Bank” (also a partner of The MasterCard Foundation).
Susan, Lois and I were also peppered with questions. Some were easy to answer – what are our hobbies and are there girls’ clubs in our home countries. One question – “do you have children?”– introduced alternative options for women. The three of us do not have children of our own. Rather, we spoke about the nieces and nephews, grandchildren and other young people in our lives. Our responses introduced ideas about choices and having family life without being mothers.
We also heard from Sandra, a soft-spoken twenty-two year old. She’s a single mother and was cradling Pretty, her three-month old infant girl.
“I was raised by a single mother and told that my father died when I was an infant. There were six siblings and my mother struggled to feed us by selling charcoal. When I was 18, I started going out with a man. One day he forced himself on me. It was my first time and I didn’t even know I was pregnant until three months later. That man has since denied my child and left the area. Early in my pregnancy, I heard about this club. I come here to be with friends, get knowledge and learn how to earn a living.” Sandra has accessed her first loan and is running a small restaurant.
And, what does she advise the other girls? “I tell them my story. I tell them to be patient and to look for small jobs where they can earn their own money.”
Like Sandra, several of the older girls are already earning a living – selling clothes, charcoal, candy or food. Some said they would love to earn and save enough to go to school.
Four other older girls are also first-time borrowers from the youth microfinance group formed by BRAC. Alice, an enterprising 20 year old, used her first $100 loan to start her “boutique” – a little stall by the unpaved road in the area where she sells denim skirts, tee-shirts and blouses. As we stood in her shop, she was quick to share that she has many customers and told us how she prices each piece to earn a small profit. And, yes, she is repaying her loan on time.
It was a full day of stories to digest. We said our goodbyes and thanked the girls for providing us a glimpse into their lives. We left with more questions about how we and others working in this field can continue to broaden economic opportunities for young women to learn, earn, and save money in order to improve their lives.