Sisters Helping a Sister
Our last project visit was in Gulu in the North of Uganda. Gulu is an interesting place, a-wash with International Non Governmental Organisations (INGOs) left right and centre as a result of the recent war and displacement. We were visiting a local organisation called Volunteer Action Network (Vac-Net) , a women’s empowerment organisation run by local people to empower communities through microloans.
We began our week meeting with Bukenya, the project leader, Bukenya told us his story and how he founded the organisation. It was such an inspiring story, the kind that lingers with you. We saw glimpses of it throughout the week as we met the inspirational women in the team and saw their work in the communities. From the first day, the bond between the team and Bukenya’s passion for empowering women to live fulfilling lives in honour of his mother shone through.The majority of the team are women, Bukenya described the ladies roles as ‘sisters helping a sister’, someone that vulnerable women can relate to. This really resonated throughout our time with Vac-Net. When we visited some of the women who had received loans at their businesses, it was easy to see the close relationship that they had with Kevin, one of the female project officers. Each one of them greeted Kevin with a warm heart and spoke sincerely of how much Kevin and the support from Vac-Net had helped them grow their business and send their children to school. It was as if each person that had received a loan was part of a wider Vac-Net commuinty/family and this was lovely to witness.
Microloans and Creating a Voice For Women
Vac-Net have been able to provide over 30,000 women with microloans to date and have 28 peer counsellors across 4 districts that take part in leadership training. The leadership programme allows women to find their voice. Vac-Net has been able to empower women to influence policy change through these peer counselllors. Last year, 11 peer counsellors actually participated in elections and 5 went through to sit in office, becoming District counsellor, division counsellor and local counsellors.
Not only are women able to voice their views through peer counsellors, Vac-Net run an annual event that 500+ women participate in called ‘Creating a voice for women’. This is an programme that involves the entire community, women from each microloan centre compose songs, poems, spoken word or monologues about issues that they face and present these. The event is inclusive of men and sounds like a great way of using the platform of music/drama to talk about difficult issues.
Healthy Periods Initiative
One of my other favourite parts about Vac-Net is their Healthy Periods Initiative. Women in Uganda face early systemic inequalities in education and many women are denied the opportunity to go to school. When girls hit menstruation, many of them drop out of school. Vac-Net designed the ‘Healthy Periods Initiative’ to adress the need for increased access to sanitary pads. Vac-Net train girls to manufacture pads using simple technologies at an affordable rate enabling girls in 6 local schools to feel dignified during their periods. 800 girls have benefitted form the initiative to date. Through the initiative, Vac-Net have been able to see retention in school attendance and performance.
Vac-Net are motivated to support even more girls with this initiative and reach more and more people. They are responding to the influx of refugees from Sudan and have identified two settlements that they are distributing 8000 pads per month to. According to Bukenya, many women arrive at camps and are not given anywhere near enough supplies, many women resort to using cloths, polythene and even mud. During our visit with Vac-Net we were able to see how the sanitary pads are made.
My Favourite Moment
During our visit with Vac-Net we ran an fundraising workshop with the staff and another local organisation also attended. We also ran through the GlobalGiving systems with everyone in the team, which Bukenya mainly led on as he is very familiar with the systems! This is what led to my favourite moment of our whole trip so far…
Everyone in the team was so excited to see the platform and view Vac-Net’s projects online that Monika, the finance officer, rushed to grab her purse and got out all her credit cards to make her very first donation to the project! As Marina and I stood back in amazement, everyone gathered round the computer as Ken inputted Monika’s card details, everyone cheering and laughing and speculating the ‘Thank you’ letter that Bukenya would send Monika. As she eagerly awaited for the confirmation email, Monika explained that it was the first time she had ever made an online payment!