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Behind Closed Doors: The Champions of Women's Empowerment

by Fionah Agaba Barbra


Fionah Agaba Barbra is a guest blogger for Opportunity International. She is a young communications professional from Uganda who has worked with several organizations to empower women across her country. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in gender studies. 


Growing up as the daughter of Fortunate Paska, a renowned women’s rights advocate, I had no choice but to become passionate about gender equality. I was always in awe of her work, even though, as a child, I didn’t quite comprehend what exactly she did. The way my mom’s face would light up each time we talked about her projects and the different women she interacted with motivated me to learn more about gender issues in my community. My passion for women’s rights, empowerment, and emancipation grew, so when I was invited to accompany my mom and two other exceptional women leaders on a trip to the coffee region of Uganda to observe approaches for empowering women in agriculture, I was elated! I understood that we would be encountering situations where women still face significant limitations, but I was also looking forward to seeing firsthand the progress from these gender experts’ hard work. 

My mom is a brilliant but calm, soft-spoken woman. With Action for Development, she successfully advocated for women’s legal protection at the national level. Now, as the Gender Expert for Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung Foundation (HRNS), she is pioneering ways to operationalize these legal rights in rural communities.  

Mary Pat McVay, a Research and Knowledge Manager at Opportunity International, facilitated the visit, bringing staff from a program in Mozambique to exchange learning with Opportunity International partners in Uganda. Mary Pat had been following my mom’s work for more than a decade and invited her to advise on Opportunity’s adaptation of a family-based approach to women’s empowerment. 

Doreen Tekedese is the gender expert in a joint program between iDE and Opportunity to economically empower women in agricultural markets in Mozamqibue (known as the PEMA program in Portuguese). With support from the ExxonMobil Foundation, PEMA is a market-based smallholder agricultural development initiative that integrates women’s empowerment into market systems. Doreen, who hails from both Zimbabwe and Mozambique, has an eclectic set of skills, including teaching, business, and counseling. In her long career, she has interacted with hundreds of women, and it is through that that she knew she wanted to empower women. 

Watching my mom, Mary Pat, and Doreen interact—three strong-willed women transforming the gender narrative—was inspiring. I could tell they deeply admired each others’ dedication and contribution to narrowing the gender inequality gap.

Representatives from HNRS, PEMA/iDE, Opportunity Bank of Uganda, and Opportunity International visiting a coffee cooperative in Uganda.
Representatives from HNRS, PEMA/iDE, Opportunity Bank of Uganda, and Opportunity International visiting a coffee cooperative in Uganda.

I was a little anxious to be spending a week with such accomplished gender experts and didn't know what to expect—but I was still excited to finally see the fruits of my mom's hard work. As we headed out to our first stop along a bumpy road to Maanyi village, Mary Pat was eager to learn more about the Gender Household Approach used in the coffee project here that is spearheaded by my mom. In this particular visit, we had a chance to visit Maanyi Coffee farmers' cooperative society of Mityana. The cooperative trains farmers on good agricultural practices and financial management, delivers fertilizers, and links farmers to coffee buyers—often using loans.

Christopher, the cooperative's chairperson, is a young man with an aura that commands respect and a voice that captures your attention. He took our team through the inner workings of the board and the different committees. He discussed how HRNS's gender trainings had helped their cooperative understand the importance of having women participate as leaders in the cooperative. For example, it is now mandatory for every section of the committee to have a female representative! The gender training has also given the cooperative a better perspective on the value of empowering women by involving them more in family decisions.

However, during the presentation, our team noticed that the men seemed to have alternative means of earning money during the coffee off-season. We asked the cooperative why the women didn't have similar avenues for money—and we got no clear answer. With that, I saw the timeliness of our visit. Our group was there to learn, but our trio of gender experts was also responsible for identifying the holes still present within our systems regarding gender equality—especially in the financial sector. Women still need more financial literacy when it comes to business and how they can gain financial independence. It is common for men to have several sources of income, but women are limited to one or have to be dependant on their husbands.

Christopher has one of the largest coffee farms in Maanyi. Seated on over 13 acres, he and his wife have managed to earn a living and provide well for their family through it. I must say, we were all blown away by his matured coffee trees that stood majestically with hundred of healthy coffee berries sprouting from each branch. The beautiful color spectrum formed by the berries was breathtaking! With shades of dark and light green to some orange, amber, and red, I truly understood the pride in his voice and why he was so dedicated to the cooperative. He attributed his success to applying all the things he learned from HRNS trainings on farming and working together with his wife. He urged more of the youth within his area to take on coffee farming as a family business. He also encouraged them to attend the trainings as couples, so the women also learn the technical aspect of agriculture and how to plan and work together as families.

At our next location for the day, we were invited to observe one of these training sessions. A "Couples Seminar" was taking place under an awning in front of a home surrounded by coffee trees. As we arrived, they were completing an exercise with men on one side and the women on the other; each group was listing their daily activities on a large manila worksheet. After 10 minutes, the group came together and compared the lists. The women were responsible for far more daily activities than the men (37 to 22), which is a typical outcome for this training exercise. Next, the group discussed the two lists. Some men tried to downplay the length of the women's list by saying some of the activities were "women specific." (I was disappointed but not surprised by this comment.) One man, in particular, insisted that if he did some of the activities listed like preparing the children for school, his fellow men would deem him bewitched by his spouse. This exercise initiated an interesting and open discussion, which was both informative and entertaining. Through the guidance of the Micheal Ssengoba, the HRNS officer, the participants learned different ways to solve conflict within a household, especially those surrounding chores, their finances, and their relationships.

From left to right (standing): Fionah Agaba, Marlene Muzezela, Mary Pat McVay, Agostinho Ingles, and Paska Fortunate observe an HRNS “Couples Seminar.”
From left to right (standing): Fionah Agaba, Marlene Muzezela, Mary Pat McVay, Agostinho Ingles, and Paska Fortunate observe an HRNS “Couples Seminar.”

After observing the session, we visited a couple that has benefited from the household trainings, as well as ongoing advice and practical tools to improve on their livelihood while transforming gender relations. Ernest and Leah* are one of the model families in the project. Before the couple was introduced to joint-planning and decision-making, they owned a two-room house, an outdoor kitchen, and a small portion of land for coffee. Ernest worked on the farm, and Leah worked at a small trading business.

Now, they have made more progress than they could have imagined by working on the farm and managing the family finances as a team! They have managed to improve and expand their house, build another structure with an indoor kitchen and chicken coop, educate their children, acquire more land, and so much more! Ernest credits all this to the couples' training and other support that showed them the importance of sharing roles, planning, and executing goals as a family unit as opposed to handling them individually.

"My wife and I decided to draw a plan together as a family for three years. We noted down what we needed to achieve, where the money would come from and the timeframe to achieve all this. We also involved our eldest child because we want her to learn from a young age the importance of planning, saving and money management," says Ernest, with a beam across his face. By looking at him, I could tell he is a man content with his life and proud of his achievements. Their home has a warm, welcoming feeling, and he attributes it all to his wife of 16 years.

Leah also seems proud to be a model couple in the community and boasts of not needing to purchase food because they grow almost everything themselves. Despite having achieved so much in the last three years—while maintaining her independent income from her small business of selling snacks and catering for her children's school needs—Leah still doesn't have a basic bank account, nor is her name on any of the land titles. "I don't have my own account, but I'd love to have one of my own," Leah explained. Despite the family's considerable progress, Ernest is still in charge of money and assets within the family; we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality.

As we concluded our visit, the grey sky matched how we felt that our visit was coming to an end. We gathered together to share what we all learned on the trip, and all agreed that we are inspired by the "household" approach, which demonstrates the benefits of involving women in decision-making within the family unit. I saw the growth when men and women have the opportunity to assess the situation in their households together. The way forward is to target both women and men together because men, too, have a role to play in the empowerment of women. I am proud to have met these incredible individuals who are finding new and improved ways of creating opportunities for women.


*Names of have been changed.

Opportunity International and HNRS have launched a partnership in Uganda to address issues such as those raised in this piece, including women’s access to accounts.


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