Sew Threads of Hope

Vocational training in Uganda provides more than job security to rural women.

Sometimes, hope comes in a box. A cardboard box, taped shut, in the middle of a room with dirt floors, a tin roof and no walls. And not just one box, but 25, each heavy with 20 pounds of industrial-grade hope. Under the same roof, 25 eager, smiling women are ready to tear through the boxes’ packaging. They’ve been waiting for today. While they waited, they built the structure they stand in now — a place to house their hope. Every day, they’ve walked to this place, some of them for painstaking hours through rain and mud with their youngest children in their arms. And now, the boxes are here.

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The women rip into the boxes, pulling out white, Styrofoam molds to reveal the shiny, black metal frames marked “Singer” in canary yellow stenciled letters. They pull a metal pedal from the box and a few black cords. The box holds their future, in the shape of a 15-91 heavy-duty sewing machine.

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Today, their training officially starts.

This is the Kamuli district, a rural village region of eastern Uganda, nearly four hours by bus from the nearest city, Jinja. The journey to Kamuli is difficult for outsiders, since the only connecting routes are thin dirt roads littered with potholes and mud puddles. Most people travel by foot or bicycle, with some botas(motorcycles) or taxi-vans. The area is home to three-quarters of a million people, but relative to the large population size, there are very few shops, stores or permanent infrastructure. Most people here make their living from farming or fishing.

In 2001, Holt began partnering with NGOs in Uganda, largely in response to the AIDs epidemic, which left nearly 34 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa alone. In 2012, volunteer caregivers at Arise and Shine orphanage in Jinja inspired Holt staff members with their dedication to care for orphaned and abandoned children. Holt and Arise and Shine became partners, and now their services in the area are expanding to include family strengthening programs outside of the city.

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In the Kamuli district, unemployment, low literacy levels and large families perpetuate poverty. The most effective way to protect vulnerable children, and immediately improve their livelihood, is to help women get better jobs. Women are often the primary caregivers for children, as well as for other families in the community with illness or special needs. However, in Kamuli, employment is extremely limited — especially for women.

In Uganda, less than 60 percent of women are literate, and the average birthrate is six children. Women are often the first in a family to be pulled from school, and few receive any additional vocational training. Regardless, most women are expected to work more hours than men, often in agriculture, and are expected to provide for their children. In the Kamuli District, women make up 60 percent of the population, deeply outnumbering men.

In May, with the help of a Rotary grant, Holt staff identified 25 women in the Kamuli District to receive training to become tailors. As tailors, the women would have better economic stability, either working from a shop or their homes to make children’s school uniforms, fix suit coats or pants, or stitch bags to sell through one of Arise and Shine’s American partners. Most of the women chosen have no employment and a limited education. Some have children with special needs. Others provide care not only for their children, but for another adult family member who can no longer work. Many are single parents, some impacted by HIV/AIDS, with children who are at risk of illness or malnutrition.

There is no better time than now to help women find work in this region.

Jinja is the second largest city in Uganda, carved into the thick, dense forest along the banks of Lake Victoria and the mouth of the mighty Nile River. Each day, more than 80 thousand people walk, bike, or commute by car from the rural village outskirts, following one of the red dirt roads into Jinja, nearly doubling the bustling population of the city. Despite Jinja’s relative size, shifting trade routes to Kampala have caused the economy in Jinja to stifle, creating more poverty and instability in the city, and the rural surroundings. Jobs have become more difficult to find, creating more financial strain on families and resources in the area, like hospitals.

Dan Lauer, vice president of Holt’s programs in Africa and Haiti, recently visited the sewing project. He said the women receive help from a professional sewing teacher every day. “They were extremely excited about sitting at their machines and making it pedal!” he said. “They were just so excited. For most of them, this was the first time they had any formal schooling or training.”

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As the women push the pedals on their sewing machines, and the bobbin starts to thread, giant smiles break across their faces. The buzzing of the 25 machines makes a few women laugh with joy.

Right now, the women are still learning basic sewing skills, such as making school uniforms. Soon, they will enter phase two of their education. “The second phase will be advanced tailoring – learning how to make men’s sports coats,” Dan said. “This phase will be funded by Arise and Shine. They are hoping to fund it through selling the uniforms and bags.”

For the women in the sewing project, they aren’t just a participant. They own it. They’ve built it.

“It’s just a dirt floor and tin walls, but it has a roof. They really wanted to start it, so they just got together and built the darn thing!” Dan said. “This project was Arise and Shine’s dream. The Rotary grant gave them the confidence to do it.”

The skills the women learn through the sewing project will benefit not just the women, but their children as well.

Children in Uganda are especially vulnerable. With a population of more than 35 million, more than 12 million live on less than $1.25 per day. Uganda has the second highest birthrate in the world, as well as a disproportionately high number of orphans. In Uganda, the average age is 15 years old. In the 1980s, HIV outbreaks plagued nearly 30 percent of the population, leaving many children vulnerable, orphaned or abandoned. Some joined neighbors or extended family.
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In three months, the women will graduate from their sewing program. For now, the trainer teaches two courses per day, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, so she can work with small groups of 10-13 women at a time. Upon graduation the women will receive a certificate in tailoring. Their teacher is employed by the government, so the certification the women receive will be an official document, dramatically increasing their potential for employment.

To the staff at Arise and Shine, watching the women receive their certificates on graduation day will be more than just cause for celebration. It will be a reminder that there are many reasons to continue to hope.

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