Ethiopia: "Men can't control us. Nobody controls us!"

13th May 2011

Sophie McGrath meets the - previously segregated - women of Harshin, Ethiopia, who are making a huge success in the livestock business.

It's a cool, quiet evening in Harshin, a remote town on Ethiopia's dusty eastern fringe, and a group of women join my colleague and I on a large red rug in the Oxfam compound. "This could never have happened a few years ago," he says. "Men and women could never have sat together."

But things are changing. The women are members of a group of livestock co-operatives, founded to help women earn an income and have a greater say in their community. Until recently, women have always lived separated from men, not just physically but in their roles and responsibilities.

"Before Oxfam came to Harshin, most of us simply stayed in the kitchen," says Ugasso Mowlid, vice-chair of Alla-Amin cooperative. Most women here have little control over household income, and seldom have a voice in household decisions or community matters. This means that in one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest countries in the world, women are often the poorest people.

When Oxfam started work in Harshin in 2004, we trained women on preserving milk, meat and hides, and provided tools such as drying frames which doubled the price their hides could fetch. Oxfam helped the women set up their own co-operatives, and loaned each one about $1,300 (£800) to help them buy sheep and goats.

Six years down the line, the co-operatives are thriving. They've all paid back their loans, and built up substantial capital - with up to ten times the animals they started with. While selling individually left them at the mercy of brokers, together they have the clout to demand fairer prices and trade on a much larger scale. They have even gone as far as Somaliland to sell camels and cattle - a particularly big deal because these valuable animals have traditionally been seen as the preserve of men.

But what has this success meant for the women involved?

A lot more income for one - but also a more independent income, controlled by the women themselves rather than their husbands. "We are the ones who control our income," the group agrees. "Men cannot control us. Nobody controls us!" emphasises a clamour of voices.

The co-operatives also provide a social support network for the women, explains Khadra Ghod, the chairperson of Alla-Amin, "because they might be pregnant or give birth; and so can't do their work as required. Or there might be household problems. The co-operatives will assist wherever there's a problem like this."

But it hasn't been easy. In moving beyond their traditional roles, the women faced huge opposition from the community - even their own husbands.

"People threw stones," says Roda Mohammed. "They said, 'you're a woman - why are you going to Oxfam?'" They were criticised for meeting with male staff members, and there were problems with traders. "It was a struggle," she says.

But the critics have now been silenced. According to Khadra, "Nobody bothers us anymore. They saw how we were changing and doing business, and how it was benefiting the household." The women say their husbands often waste money chewing qat - a mild stimulant popular in the area - whereas the women can be relied upon to spend it on their families.

The co-operative members even joined together to raise funds to build a new school, and during recent heavy flooding the women helped Oxfam staff distribute food and water. The success is now inspiring other women in the region to start their own co-operatives.

There have been other challenges though. The devaluation of the Ethiopian currency, the birr, six months ago hit the groups hard. They had just sold their animals and lost 20% of their capital while converting the dollars they had received back into birr. The biggest problem, though, is frequent drought - which can threaten the lives of the animals they depend on.

But the women in front of me seem to take it in their stride. They discuss their future plans enthusiastically - forming a union, selling new products, expanding their trade to the Red Sea port of Berbera - and securing the credit to do all this. I think back to something Ugasso said earlier: "One hand cannot make a lot of difference, but two hands, if they join together - they can."

Oxfam's work in Ethiopia