The Ethiopian Mekane Yesus Church has more than 7.2 million members.
– One can say that this church is among the best opportunities in Ethiopia to reach out to people at the grassroot level. The network of the church is enormous, says Marit Breen.
She is employed as a missionary for NMS in Ethiopia, and as a advisor in the project Western Ethiopia Women Empowerment Program (WEWEP). The aim of the project is to promote women’s role and position in the society and in the church. Breen is currently on leave in England to study, but she have lived in Ethiopia for a total of three years.
It was obvious that we had to work to promote women’s position. We had to create awareness in the denomination about the role of women.
– When I first got there I remember that I was very surprised that I mostly met men in many contexts, she says.
– While I really wanted to meet the leaders of the women’s departments and organizations in the church, the female leaders normally just came by the meetings for serving coffee or greet politely. I observed that women rarely dared saying anything in ecclesial contexts, says Breen.
The Ethiopian denomination has for several years been working strategically to include more women in their work. One challenge, however, has been to raise awareness about women’s role in the church. Many were afraid to speak out, and were often organizing practical things, like making coffee or tea.
– For the church, this project was a natural continuation of the work that had been put down previously. We had to work to promote women’s position. We had to create awareness in the denomination about the role of women, says Breen.
The project has used several different methods:
- Strengthen women’s economy through self-help groups.
- Fight female circumcision and other traditional practices that threaten women’s health.
- Education and other measures to promote the role of women, including within the church.
“Starting with what they already have”
Programme manager Jeritu Berhanu says that groups for savings and loan was particularly important for helping women to become self-substainable financially.
– If you are in a financially difficult situation, you may sometimes be waiting for someone to help you out with money. We believe, however, that you must start with yourself. They should start with their own money, their own skills, and with what they already have, explains Berhanu.
By having their own savings groups, women also have an occasion to meet and to learn more about economics. Several groups meet weekly, and all participants save a small amount of money. As the group gets more money, one of the women allowed to take out a loan, for example to buy goats or start a small business.
– It is important solely for the opportunity to come out of their homes and meet other women. In addition, they feel dignified when they have their own moeney to control. The women are more empowered, says the programme manager.
– It is definitely a big change after the project began, she says.
More women elected to govern
An evaluation study of the project in 2014 point to positive changes: At the local levels of the church, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of female managers in the various bodies with decision-making powers. The increase in the number of female managers in individual controls are from 25 to 29 percent in less than two years.
The self help-groups are important solely for the opportunity to come out of their homes and meet other women.
On the upper levels of the church, there was few election within the evaluation period, and less change. Still, 28 percent of the members of synod boards were women, and 11 percent of the board leaders were women.
Speaks out loud in meetings
– I got the impression that more and more women now are stepping forward, says Breen.
The evaluation in 2014 pointed out that the project contributed to significant improvements in women’s economy. It also concluded that the women to a greater extent than before now were participating in local community and speaks out loud in meetings.
– Women are no longer modest, but has now emerged as fearless. They talk about great changes in their own lives. There are many touching stories, and many women who explains that before the project came, they did not had a platform to be heard. “Now we have a place where we can be heard, and train to be heard” they say, tells Breen.
Cover image: Tajitu Gabi has twice in a row been elected as the leader of a self-help group in the Synod Gimibi-Jorgoi in Ethiopia. With support from the project, she has gone from being committee secretary and conductor in the local church, to the head of the self-help group in the parish. Photo: Sigbjørn Kiserud.