Life changing women’s groups provide mutual support and safe spaces for women and girls affected by conflict and drought in Ethiopia. But the COVID-19 pandemic means that large groups can no longer meet, yet the women have come up with an innovative way to continue to provide support to each-other.
“After I took on this responsibility, I felt what empowerment really means” says Alima Ali, a 25 year old mother of two in Southern Ethiopia. “I was able to share important life-saving knowledge and skills to my community”.
Alima is speaking of her women’s group, and how empowered she felt after she became a leader in this group.
Alima is one of over 600 women who are members of women’s groups in Southern Ethiopia, many of whom have experienced violence and extreme hardship. The groups have been set up to provide a safe space for these women and girls to gather together and to share their concerns.
The groups have had a huge impact on the women in this troubled area near the Kenya border, where almost 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in recent years due to conflict and drought.
Trócaire and our local partners have been working in the Borena Zone region to provide humanitarian assistance and protection services to the most vulnerable communities. In particular, women and girls in displaced communities face huge burdens, and can be left on the fringes of society.
Traditional gender roles are very entrenched here. During gatherings where men and women are together, if a man stands up to speak, the women are expected to turn their backs and not look at the man while he is speaking.
So these groups are really important, so that women have a safe space to share their concerns, get critical information and seek support.
Currently there are 25 safe space groups for women in the area. However, these important life-changing groups are now under threat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as large groups can now longer gather safely.
Before COVID-19, Alima’s support group met once a fortnight. They are encouraged to talk about their experiences in a supportive environment. For many of these women this has been the first time in their lives that they have been able to express themselves openly.
The name of Alima’s women’s group is Angasu. This translates as ‘a ray of light that sparkles through darkness’ in the local Oromo language.
Angasu is a life-line for many community members. As well as psychological support, group members take it in turns to gather firewood and water for each other. They help elderly, disabled community members and new mothers with household chores. The women even construct and fix houses for other community members.
In March, the Ethiopian government banned large gatherings of people and instituted social-distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Group members feared that Angasu would be in danger of closing. This would cut off this invaluable support system for women and girls in the area.
To prevent this from happening, with help from Trócaire and our local partner organisation Oromia Pastoralist Association, Angasu members changed how they operated.
They adopted new procedures to allow groups to meet and share important COVID-19 information with other community members. Alima says there was a lot of misinformation about the pandemic, saying that ‘some think the virus drops from the sky like rain’.
Angasu now choose four representatives to support other members by organising small group sessions on COVID-19 prevention and hygiene. In this way they avoid meeting in a large group, but the representatives then make sure that all the relevant information reaches everyone in the group.
Through thinking creatively, and turning one large group into a wider support network of smaller groups, these incredible support groups can continue to operate.
As these women continue to recover from the effects of conflict, and stay resilient during a global pandemic, that is indeed a ray of light in the darkness.
These safe spaces for women in Ethiopia are an example of how impactful overseas aid projects can be. Our ‘Build Back Better’ campaign is calling on Ireland to protect our aid budget. This project in Ethiopia was funded with the generous support of the Irish government.
Now is the time to protect our aid budgets. We can’t let the poorest people in the world suffer the most. Learn more about the campaign here.
You can donate online or by phoning:
1850 408 408 (Republic of Ireland)
0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).