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A Summer in the Rearview

“Gyebale ko Muzungu,” echoes an enthusiastic voice in the distance.

From the shore, I hear a jovial voice beckoning my boat. I can’t help but stare at the shoreline wondering what “Gyebale ko” …. *Thud*

We have reached Jaguzi Island. This would be my home for the next 3 months—complete with a fun and loving host family, with a new-found passion for yoga.

I was excited and nervous when I found out I was going to spend three months on a remote island in Uganda. I wasn’t sure I was prepared for this adventure. I’m a student at the Masters of Developmental Practice program at the University of California. I was used to a very different lifestyle than the women in these villages. But I was confident the experience would change me for the better.

I was selected to be part of a research and a cultural learning exchange through Pathfinder International and the PHE Learning Lab. I was partnered with another graduate student at the University of Makerere in Uganda to work on this project. The Learning lab is a Pathfinder initiative that aims to increase the capacity in Southern and Eastern Africa to work on integrated projects that combine PHE—Population, Health, and the Environment. These projects bring together family planning, health, and natural resource management—with the idea that addressing community needs in these areas together can achieve more than working separately in each sector. Integrated projects like these create an added value beyond what is found in single sector projects.

Jaguzi was an endlessly welcoming place. The community embraced Pathfinder’s HoPE-LVB project, especially their work with women’s groups to spread PHE awareness throughout the island. Because of this relationship, from the moment I arrived, the people of the village and their leaders embraced me with open arms.

I came to Jaguzi to research how HoPE-LVB impacted women, whether they felt more empowered in their daily decision making or if there was little impact. Specifically, I wanted to understand the linkages between income generation by women and changes in other spheres of their lives, particularly in the decision-making relationships with their husbands or partners and community. Jaguzi Parish, where HoPE-LVB has promoted income-generating activities for women, gave us the opportunity to include questions related to women’s knowledge of and participation in HoPE-LVB income-generating activities. We collected 84 in-depth surveys and narratives with a random sample of homes in Jaguzi, of which, 25% were involved in HoPE-LVB.

People all over the island were excited to hear women paint a picture of how empowerment, in terms of decision making, is characterized in Jaguzi Parish, using local women’s accounts of their daily lives. More so, men and women alike wanted to know which decisions women make and aspire to make.

As I spoke with the women and men of the village, they shared their lives with me. Hearing the stories that women told me about themselves and their families was hard to hear sometimes. Raising a large family with competing health concerns on very little income is challenging, especially if your partner is an out-of-work fisherman due to overfishing. The decline in fish populations impacts not only their family’s income, but also their health, as these fish were a key dietary staple. However, these women truly believed in themselves, HoPE-LVB, PHE, and the successes of their own income-generating activities.

Women told me daily about the power that income from these activities afforded them. They used their money to support their children’s education, pay medical fees, and, on occasion, spend a little extra money on themselves. Community health workers explained to me that HoPE-LVB helped them see how the environment is intertwined with health and job security. Mothers expressed their desire to begin using contraception to ensure a higher quality of life for their children. Midwives, church mamas, and other female leaders smiled as they explained how the health center had been improved for safer delivery.

These women trusted me to use their voices as authentically as possible—to convey what empowerment means to them. To quote one of these women, “This woman will determine when to get a baby and when to not, and how many. It is within their means to decide. That is an empowered woman.”

These women want to be able to plan their families, have discussions with their partners about contraception, and they want their daughter(s) (or future daughters) to know that they can too. Many of the mothers expressed their wish to pass along family planning information—such as the importance of limiting and spacing children—to their daughters. They want their daughters to have the opportunity to complete high school before experiencing the joy of motherhood, and they want to be able to afford to provide that education for them.

This internship was an experience that has changed me.

My time with these women—seeing their resourcefulness, resilience, and downright radiance—makes me proud to be a woman. I left with a deeper understanding of the decision-making power that these women wield in their homes and community, which allows them to be changemakers on multiple levels. I also left with so much rich information on the role of income-generating activities in decision making and household welfare in rural communities—and plan to share my findings soon.

Research continuously shows us that investing in the power of women has a ripple effect. These women can and want to share their newly-gained knowledge, power, and wealth with their families and communities. I have seen this firsthand. For me, this experience has reaffirmed the need to continue to support programs like HoPE-LVB which empower women to make choices to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. I hope my story does the same for you.