I recently met with Siiqqee in Ethiopia, visiting projects that promote women’s economic rights and ending violence against women. Siiqqee enables hundreds of women in a community to escape domestic violence, support themselves and their children independently and plan for their future. Many women are now empowered in their own lives and communities.
Siiqqee raises awareness of the challenges faced by women through community conversations and self-help groups, changing community attitudes to gender roles and violence against women. The self-help groups also serve as savings clubs and small loan lenders and women can receive skills and literacy training so they can earn a living.
Women in darkness
While in Ethiopia, I met some of the many women supported by Siiqqee in Sebeta, which is 25km from the capital, Addis Ababa, and in Gindo, a town in the Amaya district.
Sufe Tolessa, aged 35 from Gindo, has three children. She explained to me what life was like for her before joining a Siiqqee self-help group:
“Before getting involved with Siiqqee, I didn’t have any opportunity to discuss my problems with other people, or do anything really. I didn’t have access to food, I didn’t wash my clothes. I couldn’t leave my house, I was always kept in by my husband and treated like a “thing”. He would batter me.”
Sadly, many of the women I met had similar stories – the scale of violence in Ethiopia is staggering. Domestic violence is highly prevalent and widely socially condoned, with nearly half of all women experiencing physical violence in their lifetime. The women in Sebeta and Gindo have experienced rape, abduction, early marriage (as young as 12 years old), domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and more.
Sufe continued: “Before the self-help group, women were in darkness; their access to money, education and health was very limited. But as a result of Siiqqee most women have access to education, information and an income.”
Igniting a flame
Every woman I spoke to told me how they had transformed their lives with the support from Siiqqee and the self-help groups. Participating in training and regular meetings, and having a safe space to discuss issues for the first time, has ignited a flame inside each of them, and it is still burning bright.
Gelalcha Negassa, the programme manager for Siiqqee, shared with me the key ingredients for Siiqqee’s success: “First, a feasibility study is conducted and women are selected from the community based on their low economic status (for example, if then have no chickens or sheep), the number of children they’re supporting, and their willingness to participate. We bring all the women together in the community and they choose who needs the support most; they all know each other.
“Each self-help group has about 15 to 20 women from the same neighbourhood and with the same interests. We bring the women together initially but eventually they make their own rules; they decide the meeting time, length and so on.
“Every woman goes through self-help group concept training, learning life skills, saving techniques and business development. After training, the women are asked what business they would like to be involved in – for example, making local food and drinks, market trading and such like. They then put around 2, 3 or 4 Birr a week into the savings pot. A woman might then borrow 120 Birr and buy barley in bulk, re-selling for a profit.
“The ultimate goal is to increase the women’s income while addressing social issues, especially violence. The self-help groups are a safe space to discuss issues and for women to gain the confidence to collectively raise their voice.”
More than 1,600 women have been supported through self-help groups in Gindo and Sebeta alone (Siiqqee also works in other communities across Ethiopia's Oromia district), and at least that number again through community conversations groups and student groups, focussed on violence against women.
Through Siiqqee’s project, women have found a voice and new-found status in the community.
Gelalcha explained: “Many of the women we work with were neglected – they were even ashamed to go to meetings. After Siiqqee’s training and the self-help groups, they develop assertiveness and find the confidence to speak in public – they are. They now go to community meetings, asking questions and initiating discussion and are invited to be involved in government elections. They are respected.”
Sufe is now looking towards a future with her children: “I’m not only thinking about today, I am able to think about tomorrow. I now have encouragement and self-esteem, I am able to speak in public. I have a bank account and I am able to support myself and my children.”
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