Gejja Women Foundation
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 1 second.
On a piece of Mandazi (East African pastry) in the dark next to the assembly hall of the social innovation academy in Mpigi, Uganda
Empowering women in rural areas
Smell of butter fried pastry is in the air. The closer I get the more intensive the smell becomes. Meanwhile darkness takes over. The last sunlight is fading. With vanishing sight my senses are reinforced on the magnificent smell that is spreading and Majo’s voice that is telling me a story full of ups and downs a story that I would not imagine to be possible. With a wooden spoon in her hand talking to one of her co-workers she barely pays attention to me. There must be at least a million thoughts in her head. In her young age she already carries a ton of responsibility with a daughter and being in charge of the Gejja Women Foundation.
We are at the Social Innovation academy (SINA). It resides on the beautiful hill near to a small town and less then 2 hours away from Kampala the capital. Wind touches us every now and then gently flowing over the hill. Majo finally focuses her attention on me and we begin a beautiful conversation about life’s deepest potholes, the insurmountable will of women and the past that overwhelms you with beliefs and concepts that should long be gone.
Born by children, raised by the community and grown through willpower Majo is an eternal flame. She is the founder of Gejja Women Foundation with the overall goal to empower women in rural areas. She impacts the community through small scale farming projects, educational support for girls getting them into high school, entrepreneurial workshops for women in rural areas and the production of reusable sanitary pads. Menstruation is a huge challenge in rural Uganda because it is a topic that is not talked about and therefore hidden. Shame and anxiety lead to plenty of days without school attendance.
One thing about Majo is that she is real and true. It becomes clear that all the challenges she mentions she had to go through herself without any support. The general perception in more rural areas in Uganda seems to be a huge challenge that needs to be overcome. “So main challenges are early marriages, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, poor health and poor nutrition,” she remarks. Those issues motivated her to set up all the projects that together form the Gejja Women Foundation.
The Gejja Women Foundation is a non-profit organisation but with clearly defined products and services that partly create revenue streams as well. She says, “We’re trying to create sustainable ways of how we can move away from the donations. So we have our own income even if we don’t receive a donation the organisation still moves on.”
“Menstruation should not be a shame. Menstruation is OK! But currently in the society we are living in… Just someone hearing of blood it’s like ARGH. But it should be nice. We should embrace it.”
I’m already visualizing the Gejja Women Foundation centre where trainings will take place and each and every woman will find a home. Until then there are plenty of challenges ahead. The sanitary pads almost create no revenues because they have to be affordable for girls from rural areas, the community farming is also challenging because they don’t have high enough amounts to sell to companies and the sustainability for the girls that are sent back to school to pursue the high school has yet to be proved.
If you would now think Majo would be discouraged … the opposite is the case. Every challenge makes her stronger. There is only one downside to that. On the question about the time she does not work she only replies, “It’s now working, working and working to see that something good comes out.”
Read through the full interview.
Social business times four
What is Gejja Women Foundation about?
It’s an organisation that works to empower rural marginalised women, teen mothers, school drop outs and widows in the rural areas of Uganda through offering educational support to girls from the ages of 12 to 18. We also help women to do their own start-ups to create their own employment. Also practicing agriculture around your home especially near the kitchen mostly vegetables. We do this in schools and at homes. Why we do it at home is that the mum at home can always have vegetables to supplement the daily meals. Then at school mostly the government aided schools provide porridge for lunch. So when we do the vegetables in schools we assume that in some time in the future there can be change. For example, the days when they only have porridge they can use the flour to make Ugali (East African staple food) and then they can also use vegetables. Even the children themselves can sell these and can also safe money that would help them later in school or even after school.
We also do reusable sanitary pads to help menstrual-hygiene. Menstruation is a problem… It is not a problem actually. It is good for women to menstruate every month. If you have a sister, a girlfriend or any kind of woman in Western countries who is not menstruating, she would run to the doctor. In Africa it is still a challenge. Here, parents don’t openly talk about menstruation. Especially, those children who are growing up with their relatives and guardians in rural areas they don’t have sessions or any kind of trainings on how to cope with menstruation and the right materials. We have sanitary pads but they are expensive. The tampons, the menstrual caps are expensive. So it would be really hard for a rural girl to access save, comfortable and affordable menstruation products. That is why under the Gejja Women Foundation we as a team we decided to have the Safe Girl reusable pads. Also within the women start up project we have wine making, mushroom growing, book making and crafts among others.
How did you start?
I was born by two children that were still going to school. My father was 16 and my mother was 14 when she gave birth to me. They had to leave me and I stayed with different people mostly with my grandparents. I grew up in that suffering way. I know what it means for a girl in the village not having sanitary pads. I know what it means for a woman to be in the village without even having salt to put in the food. From my experience what I went through when I was growing up to what I have seen. It is in me. I do everything. Even the people I’m working with they also went through the same struggle.
So they have the same passion?
Yes, we all have the same passion. We know what it means for a woman of a child not to be in school, we know what it means when your guardian cannot provide you with what you really need to move forward. Also being a young mother … I have a daughter. I gave birth at the age of 21. I was not a teen but still young. Young mother, no father for the child. So I had to show even when a girl has given birth that is not the end. They can still become something beautiful.
You mentioned that pads or tampons are very expensive.
The disposable ones you buy a packet of 8, 8 disposable sanitary pads at 3,500 Ugandan Schilling. So it is like 1 USD. You use each pad only once and then throw it away. So it is more than 40,000 in one year equalling more than 10 USD. That money… the rural girls don’t even have it. In addition, it would even be a shame to go and tell your mother whom you’ve never seen going to the shop to buy pads. So girls usually shy away from school. They stay home for up to 5 days. So in three months a girl misses out 15 days because of menstruation. It makes some of them sick forever not to get into uncomfortable situations with boys.
How they would look at me? How do I deal with menstruation blood on my uniform? So they would sit at home and later drop out of school get married at tender ages and that is the end of the future of a young girl. Most of the women that we have were married when they were 12 or 13 years old because they dropped out of school. They could not take care because they used weird materials for menstruation like polyethylene bags, banana fibers, paper, rugs and toilette paper. We would like every girl to have a save and comfortable menstruation. Menstruation should not be oppressive. Menstruation should not be a shame. Menstruation is OK! But currently in the society we are living in… Just someone hearing of blood it’s like argh. But it should be nice. We should embrace it.
How does the support system work?
We work with mothers who help us. There is a percentage of 60% which is given to the woman to sustain her family, 20% goes to the school, 10% is put back in the business for the women and the last 10% is what comes to Gejja Women Foundation as the whole organisation. The products we make are made by women and then the profits are later used by the women and the girls.
So you really bring back the independence to the woman.
The woman takes full ownership. We want that the woman takes full ownership of it that even if me and my team are not around the women would still carry on the organisation, carry on with the training and carry on the production. So they can speak for themselves and they can do it for themselves.
What do you think is the biggest obstacle here in the rural areas?
First of all, when a girl in these rural areas start developing breasts that is when men start seeing the girl as being now ripe for marriage. So main challenges are early marriages, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, poor health and poor nutrition. So if a young girl finds a guy on the road he is like, “Hey, I’m offering you 5 USD.” That would be the beginning of moving away from the future.
Can you give me more insight in the business?
Right now we have 4 projects. There is educational support whereby we send girls back to school. We give them educational support and everything that they need in school. There is also the practicing of agriculture, the small gardens of vegetables both at home and at schools. The third one is women start-ups where women go through mentoring and coaching to start up their own businesses that they want. The women produce their own products. The produce the wine, they do the mushrooms, they do the gardens, they do the books and then we look for markets. The biggest challenge is the market. Sometimes they can do things that would not generate enough money during the month. We also lean on donations but we’ve been lucky somehow. That we have so far some donations that are coming and they support our projects. The 4th one is production and training in menstrual hygiene and menstruation, producing reusable sanitary pads. The ones that are generating money are 2 the women start-ups and the pads. But the pads do not actually generate money. Because the costs of producing one pad are 1,900 Ugandan Schillings and we sell each pad at 2,000. So, that means we get 100 Schillings profit. However, we’re trying to create sustainable ways of how we can move away from the donations. So we have our own income even if we don’t receive a donation the organisation still moves on.
So what is your role in all of those projects?
I’m the founder but I don’t work alone. I have a team that does the books, walks to the villages to check whether they are doing their projects well and someone goes to schools to see what the students need in school. We also have a team of women from the local communities who have their own committee with a chairperson, secretary and treasurer.
For me it is interesting that you do 4 projects at the same time. Do you have an overall strategy to make the projects sustainable? How do you make them work all at the same time?
It is the team. When you have the team, everything can move on. Because you sit and then you discuss among yourselves what can we do? This one is not working well. How can we also bring it up and get income?
Gejja Women Foundation on a business level
To some extent you still rely on donations. But partly you sustain your business with the income from the selling of the pads and women entrepreneurial trainings.
Yes, we still rely on donations but for the future the Gejja Women Foundation should be able to sustain itself.
What are the next big steps?
Big steps… I want us to get our own place. Right now we work under the Social Innovation Academy but my dream is to get our own place, our own centre. The Gejja Women Centre where women who have problems, women who cannot speak up, women who were violated in their homes can come to relax and find a home.
How is the environment of the Social Innovation Academy here inspiring you?
We live here to give each other feedback. I have seen Ask Without Shame grow in the beginning. It’s the patience and it’s the passion that you have, it’s courage and it’s your story. If you want to see something bright in the future, you begin it today. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow. I may not be where I am. But at least I am not where I used to be last year.
What do you do if you don’t work?
I’ve not yet gotten time. It’s now working, working and working to see that something good comes out.
Interviewed by Marlon