February 20, 2013 Issue
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Alum's Non-Profit, the Women's Global Empowerment Fund, Elevating Women's Voices in Uganda

Alum's Non-Profit, the Women's Global Empowerment Fund, Elevating Women's Voices in Uganda

Karen Sugar in a Northen Uganda village

As a University of Colorado Denver graduate student, Karen Sugar first conceived of a project that has now improved the lives of women halfway around the world. In 2008, Sugar graduated from CU Denver with a Master’s Degree in Political Science and launched the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) in post-conflict, northern Uganda. Her organization has helped hundreds of women realize their potential, feed their families, start businesses, and put behind them the cruelty of sexual violence and civil unrest.

With a small investment of her own and tireless fundraising efforts, Sugar was able to start a microfinance loan program for entrepreneurial women in northern Uganda. Microfinance is a way to promote economic development, employment, and growth through the support of individual entrepreneurs and small businesses. Sugar’s microfinance program works by lending money to groups of women. Within each group, the women have to elect leadership immediately and decide who will be treasurer, chairperson, and secretary. Once leadership has been elected, they decide how to disperse money throughout the group. To date, all loans have been repaid to the WGEF, and no loans have gone into default. From these roots, the WGEF expanded and began providing education in literacy and leadership, support for women to get involved in local government, and much more.

Sugar remembers sitting in a class taught by emeritus professor Jana Everett and being introduced to the concept of microfinance for the first time. Everett was showing the class a film, which no one else seemed particularly interested in, when Sugar had what she describes as her "A-ha!" moment. Sugar credits Everett for much of the early support she received in conceiving and starting the WGEF. "She such a quiet, unassuming character, and is such a wealth of knowledge. Without her and her department allowing me to do this, it would have been hard to accomplish on my own," Sugar says.

Ugandan women in Sugar's literacy program

Ugandan women in Sugar's literacy program

The CU Denver Political Science department has supported Sugar and her efforts in northern Uganda from the beginning, allowing her to develop her ideas for the WGEF as projects within many of her courses. Sugar says, "The great thing about the political science department is because it's small once I figured out what I wanted to do the professors were really great about helping me incorporate microfinance and development into my classes." Everett was always very supportive, Sugar remembers, "She told me a couple of years into it, 'I really didn't know how you're going to pull this off.' And I told her thank you for never saying that to me because I might have thought, 'You know I don't know either.' But instead I got so much positive feedback that I just kept pushing forward," Sugar recalls. Jana Everett was one of the first people on the WGEF's board and now serves on the advisory council.

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Davidson

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Davidson

During her studies, Sugar went to Paraguay and gained firsthand experience with a microfinance organization there. She credits this experience as being very useful, but she immediately found things about existing microfinance schemes that she hoped to improve. She also felt South America was already well supported by microfinance dollars and that Africa was a better place to begin her efforts. Through her CU Denver connections, she was introduced to a man from northern Uganda who was teaching at Community College of Denver, and this relationship piqued her interest in that country. After extensive research she decided that Uganda fit her criteria, particularly the women of northern Uganda.

"We did our whole pilot project completely remote. I'd never even been there, until we became fully operational in April 2008, and that's when I went to Uganda for the first time," Sugar remembers. "I definitely flew by the seat of my pants a lot, and it was a big leap of faith, but it always felt right to me. When I was looking for where to land this organization, the only criteria was where on the planet did women have the most critical need for economic activity and empowerment? It didn't matter to me what language they spoke, their ethnic background, or geographical location," she says.

Sugar accepting an award in Milan

Sugar accepting an award in Milan

The people of Uganda, especially the women and children, have faced brutality, sexual violence, and extreme poverty. Insurgency powers such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) used sexual violence as a tool of war, keeping victims in a state of constant insecurity. Now, with the help of aid organizations like the WGEF, Uganda has begun to rebuild. The government has committed to keeping the LRA and other insurgency groups out of northern Uganda, creating the possibility of a peaceful and successful recovery.

Working in a post-conflict area hasn't been exactly as Sugar expected. She's learned that years of political turmoil can present unique opportunities. If a society has been dismantled for a long time, people can be very open to new ideas during the rebuilding process. The landscape can be more progressive, and people are willing to look beyond the entrenched patriarchal societal norms. Sugar has seen new opportunities for women in post-conflict areas to be integral parts of the recovery.

In this atmosphere of growth and change, the WGEF itself has evolved in ways that Sugar never anticipated. Several important branches of work done by the WGEF arose organically from the needs of the local communities. One of the biggest advancements of this kind is a leadership program where women can go to study. Sugar believes women are natural leaders, and the WGEF is helping them to take on active roles in their communities. In recent northern Uganda elections, five women from the WGEF program ran for political offices. In the future, the WGEF plans to expand the support and education network in leadership.

A literacy program has also become a critical part of the WGEF program in Uganda. Sugar speaks eloquently on how vital language can be to bringing down traditional gender barriers and how elitist denial of education to girls continues the cycle of inequality. "It's critical to the recovery of a developing country to allow its people the basic skills of learning to read and write," Sugar says. In support of women finding their voices, the WGEF hosts an annual competitive drama festival where women in the program prepare informative and entertaining original skits, and the community can come together and freely communicate issues in a safe environment. In 2011, more than 150 women participated in the event.

Sugar believes that philanthropy can be executed in more dynamic ways than are currently being conceptualized. She says, "When you look at how aid works and NGOs work, you see it's broken," she says. Sugar feels that outside organizations coming into places with agendas that may or may not be relevant to local communities can do more harm than good. She hopes that more grassroots groups might embrace agendas that grow out of the needs of the people. With lots of money but no local knowledge, NGOs can isolate themselves from the true needs of the people, and "that's a huge mistake," Sugar says. "That way nothing endures, and the band aids are very expensive."Recently, the WGEF began partnering with Nokero, a Colorado-based energy products company, to send volunteers to Uganda with solar-powered light bulbs for the literacy students. Sugar discovered after launching the literacy program that lack of light to study by at night was a stumbling block to success for many of the participants. Ugandan families can now have a viable means of lighting their homes for about two to three years with solar-powered light bulbs that charge in about six hours and are much cleaner to use than kerosene lanterns.

As a single mother of two daughters, one in college and one recently graduated, Sugar hopes to inspire other women to see themselves as agents of change.
Sugar repays the support she received from CU Denver by offering internships to many activist-minded students each year, giving them a chance to learn what it's like to run an NGO firsthand. In addition, Sugar has come back to lecture in several classes and is willing to mentor students serious about helping her change the world for the better. Sugar's relationship with the university continues to support the dream she conceived while still a student—and the lives of women in Uganda continue to improve because she dared to dream. You can learn more about how to support the WGEF's efforts by visiting the organization's website.

Stacey McDole is a student at CU Denver majoring in English Writing with a minor in Film Studies.

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