Women’s Empowerment and Community Development Challenges in Rwanda

This summer I am interning with an organization called Hands of Mothers in Kigali, Rwanda. We work with women’s cooperatives on helping to build their capacity with the goal of each cooperative becoming a sustainable, independent, and viable business that can generate income for the cooperative members and their families. Hands of Mothers works with three cooperatives: Ejo Hazaza makes beaded jewelry, Twiyubake makes handcrafted leather sandals, and Baho raises kuroiler hens and sells their eggs.

Each cooperative is based on the idea of empowering women through income generation, while providing members with a network of support and teamwork. Premised upon the idea of poverty alleviation through economic empowerment, Hands of Mothers seeks to build the capacity of each cooperative in order to become self-sustaining. Currently, all three cooperatives rely on support from Hands of Mothers and grant funds for their operation, and each faces unique challenges on the path towards sustainability and growth.

Through group discussions and interviews with cooperative members, the Hands of Mothers team spent the first couple of weeks learning about the needs and challenges of each cooperative. None of the cooperative members speak English, so our discussion was translated through our Kinyarwanda speaking staff. Being unable to communicate directly with cooperative members certainly made connecting with them challenging, and taking time for translation made our discussions quite slow. Nuances are often lost in translation, and it frequently took a couple of tries to successfully exchange ideas. This experience further developed my own patience, and it served as a unique opportunity to begin to understand the challenges our participants faced as well as challenges surrounding empowerment within the wider development context.

 All of the members in each cooperative are living with HIV/AIDS, so difficulties surrounding health were routinely and unsurprisingly a common focus of our discussions. However, a deeper dive on this topic revealed to us that health challenges extended beyond the obvious issues surrounding sickness and access to medicine. Our group discussions frequently focused on the link between poor health and transportation problems. Most of our participants cannot afford to pay for a bus or taxi to get to the cooperative for work. Many have to walk far distances – some walk 2-3 hours. For a healthy person this would very difficult; for people living with HIV/AIDS, their poor health compounds the exhausting effects of walking so far.

During our group discussions, participants also expressed to us that members frequently do not show up for work. For some it is the issue of transportation. However, for others it seemed to be a lack of motivation and lack of commitment to their work stemming from the reality that as of now, the cooperatives are not generating enough income to be sustainable or to pay their members an adequate salary to survive on. Our goal as an organization is to build the cooperatives’ capacity so they can generate income and lift themselves out of poverty. However, it is difficult to instill a sense of empowerment into a cooperative that is currently unsuccessful.

While each cooperative faced similar challenges surrounding health issues and lack of success, our team found that each group was at very different stages in their own development. Ejo Hazaza was having trouble marketing and selling their jewelry, Twiyubake was not making high quality sandals or selling in enough places, and Baho was not making a profit on their egg sales. Addressing each cooperatives’ needs while working to build their capacity is going to be a challenge for us going forward. For example, it may be a simple fix to contact customers and find new markets for Ejo Hazaza or Twiyubake to sell their products in. However, if we find markets and customers for them, it does not build their capacity.

Going forward, our idea is to provide a series of trainings to address some of these issues. For example, we plan to teach members how to find new markets on their own. However, we realize this will not be simple. If some members cannot pay for transportation to get to the cooperative to work, it will be difficult for them to pay for transportation to explore new markets and connect with clients after our trainings are complete. This is just one small example in a myriad of challenges we found. However, to me it demonstrates the complexity of implementing a development program when participants are constrained by the realities of poverty and poor health. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the opportunity to make progress this summer, and I am looking forward to developing solutions that meet the needs of our participants by focusing on empowerment and finding ways for cooperative members to successfully help themselves.