Moving Women in Ethiopia Out of Poverty and Into a New Life

By Masha Hamilton, VP for Communications, Concern Worldwide U.S.

HOMA, Ethiopia—Misrach Salgado, 28, had one toddler and was pregnant with her second child when something happened that would send a shudder through her tiny village of Homa and change her own life forever.

Her husband helped a friend abduct a young woman who the friend wanted to marry. As soon as the woman was brought into the friend’s home, she hung herself.  Stunned, and hoping to hide what had happened, the men threw the woman’s body over a cliff near the village.

But herders found the body, uncovering the crime. The 270 households of Homa, some 235 miles southwest of Addis Adaba, the capital city, were horrified. Salgado’s husband, along with his friend and one other who had helped, was sentenced to life in prison.

Talking about it today, nine years later, Misrach’s face hardens and her eyes stare into the distance. She recounts the hardships that followed, including isolation in the village and hungry nights as she struggled to find a way forward. Eventually, she began to buy butter in the local market and travel to a larger nearby town to resell it, keeping whatever profit she could for herself. But she couldn’t afford to buy much more than about four to five kilograms of butter a week, so she only made a profit of between $2.50 and $3.50 weekly.

“To afford food for myself and my children was difficult,” she said, sitting on a wooden bench outside her small, round hut. “We were going hungry many, many nights.”

Her often desperate situation continued until just last year, when Concern Worldwide, the 45-year-old non-governmental-agency for which I work, stepped in.

Our organization, which is skilled at helping the world’s poorest people move sustainably out of poverty, reached into Homa to help Misrach and other strong, determined women like her help themselves.

Concern Worldwide offered the seed money for a 20-member women’s micro-lending support group. The women were given one-year loans of $100 each in 2013, and one year to pay them back with no interest. They were asked to invest in businesses, meet bi-monthly as a group, and contribute dues toward future loans. It is their determination that has made the project work.

With her purchase power boosted, Misrach began buying 100 kilograms of butter a week, and now makes upwards of $10 a week. This year, having paid back the first loan, she took out a second for $150 and bought a cow as an investment and to help supply her family with milk. She can feed her family and even began providing her husband in prison with some small food items. And the women selected her to be the treasurer of their group, demonstrating their confidence in her and her rising status in the village.

“I used to feel I was worried all the time. Now I feel I am safe,” she says. “My children’s lives will be better than mine.”

Ethiopia has one of the strongest performing economies in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, about 29 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line, and it ranks 173 out of 187 countries on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.

Women disproportionately bear the burden of the country’s economic struggles, according to the UN’s Womenwatch. This is “mainly a result of the gender based division of labor and lack of access and control over resources prescribed not only by tradition and culture, but also reiterated in the law,” it notes. For rural women, access to land and livestock is virtually impossible. Poverty also means more infant deaths, undernourished children, and lack of education. Observers have routinely noted how hard Ethiopians must work physically in an effort to keep their families afloat.

Thirty-year-old Dakutye Darcho is a perfect example of this. When we ask her how she used her microloan she said she was eager to explain but can’t stop work.

So we meet in the hut that used to be her home and is now her “bakery.” She is barefoot and wears torn clothes. While we talk, she makes round after round of injera, a sourdough flatbread with a spongy texture that is a national food here. The work requires her to rotate her arm in a circular motion over a pan as she stands above a fire that she keeps going by constantly fueling with dried grass.

Before her first $100 loan, Dakutye and her husband served as middlemen for locally grown crops, especially maize and sweet potatoes, traveling to nearby villages to sell them in markets. When the loan came through, she began building a second home so the first could become her workplace. She, too, took out a second loan after paying back the first. She and her husband still sell the crops in nearby markets, but her family’s financial mainstay has become her injera bakery business.

“I can provide more nutritious foods and better clothes for my kids, and now I can buy their school supplies,” says the mother of five children who range in age from 6 to 21. “Thanks to God, I really really feel they are better off now.”

Her personal dreams have become larger too: once she completes their new home, she hopes to build another that she can rent out.

“I’m working all the time,” she acknowledges with a smile in response to a question. “But I don’t feel tired. I feel I am a strong woman now.”

All photos provided by Concern Worldwide.

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92 comments

Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyer4 months ago

Bitter sweet story. The quote below from the Baha'i Faith teachings is not exactly pertenant to the article but it is about women.
“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals . . . an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced.” www.bahai.org

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa1 years ago

Thank you

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner1 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Ashley heffner
Ashley heffner1 years ago

Good article.

Margaret Szelmeczka

How wonderful

Janis K.
Janis K.1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Deborah W.
Deborah W.1 years ago

Women are the last heartbeat of that nation ... may they grow, gain in recognition, and flourish.

A F.
A F.1 years ago

thank you

Nikolas K.
Nikolas K.1 years ago

How short our memories are when we forget that in the early 1980's elements of the military /industrial alliance carried out the arming of Ethiopians to kill each other and to destroy their homes and infrastructor. Now they are experiencing the fall out of that war. Its time we woke up to who is behind ll the manufactured poverty instead of always feeling sorry and donating to the organisations set up to help them by the same people behind the problem in the first place. God helps those who help themselves.

Alvin King
Alvin King1 years ago

Thanks