“The gender training transformed me. People now call me the Oromo Ambassador.”Kelsuma Abdu, mother, farmer, entrepreneur, activist
This is the story of Kelsuma Abdu (pictured above). She lives in the Cheffa Valley in the Eastern Amhara Region of Ethiopia.
Kelsuma’s father died when she was a baby and she was raised with her grandparents as her main caregivers. Her mother had two plots of irrigated land and hired labourers to work the land for her.
When she was still a young teen she married Hakeem*, one of the farm labourers who worked for her mother.
They had a good start and had five children: three boys and two girls. Initially, they lived on her mother’s land and Hakeem worked for her mother. But soon they made enough money to build their own house.
Kelsuma traded at the local market and she and Hakeem farmed. Life was going well. After a few years, though, Hakeem’s behaviour changed and there began to be trouble in their marriage.
Gender training in action
In 2012, at the beginning of the Market-Led Improved Livelihoods in Eastern Amhara (MILEAR) project, Kelsuma and Hakeem were among the first to participate in gender training.
Gender training includes an analysis of the tasks that men and women do. Separate men-only and women-only groups, supported by a facilitator, analyze the household tasks, duties and responsibilities of each household member. The goal is to raise the couple’s awareness of who does what, and improve the couple’s productivity and income by reducing gender inequities.
In their training session, Kelsuma told us that, when the women and men came back together, the men presented their analysis showing that they do house cleaning and other tasks typically done only by women. Kelsuma asked the men to provide examples of when they had, for example, ever helped to clean the house. “None of them could give an answer and they just sat there silent with nothing to say,” she said.
Kelsuma asked, “If you know that women do all the work, why aren’t you willing to recognize it in front of other people? Who gets pregnant? Who takes care of the home and the children while pregnant? Do women have a burden?!”
Kelsuma revealed herself early as someone who was not afraid to speak truth to power.
While the training brought about some good changes in the community, Kelsuma and Hakeem’s marriage eventually broke down and, despite tremendous pressure from the community, she was granted a divorce. Since she was living and farming on her mother’s land, she managed to keep it but gave up everything else: the houses, the oxen, and the rest of their possessions. Four of their five children remained with her and Kelsuma had to start life all over. She credits the MILEAR gender training with helping her through this difficult time, saying: “The training stayed with me.”
Kelsuma sprang into action. She had learned all about farming; how to work the land, how to use a pump, and how to successfully produce crops on irrigated land.
She got a loan, bought an ox, and got an irrigation pump. She collaborated with a friend to work the fields with the ox and share the cost of operating the pump. Despite severe drought in 2015/2016, Kelsuma and her children made it through the hard times.
Diversifying for maximum profit
On her farm, Kelsuma produces onions, chili peppers, lettuce, Swiss chard, and cabbage. She has planted mango trees that are now producing fruit. She also grows maize for animal feed, which is very unusual in the Cheffa Valley – she knows that she needs to feed her oxen very well in order that they can work the land.
She’s been taught how to mix her own herbicides and pesticides and apply them on her fields. She puts into practice what MILEAR has taught her about agricultural production and marketing. As a result, she keeps her costs down, gets very good harvests, and sells them for a good profit.
She was named model farmer of the year in 2016. “The training has transformed me from a woman into a man,” Kelsuma told us, by which she means someone who is now as strong, independent and capable as men are deemed to be in her culture.
Challenging the power structures
Kelsuma said that she is constantly challenging the power structures to show how women are being excluded, and to show that women are able to participate and succeed. Her community has finally started to come around: “People now call me ‘The Oromo Ambassador’,” she said (meaning she is a person of power and influence.)
As someone who has experienced sexual and gender-based violence, she has become a community advocate in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, trained by the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. She is very engaged with the young people in her community.
Kelsuma is planning to do correspondence courses to further her education and get an office job. She also wants to buy some land and build a house for her oldest son. He is talking about going to Saudi Arabia (as so many do). She said: “If you work hard, Ethiopia can be like going to the Arab countries. Look at us, in two years we turned our lives around from being poor to being well off.”
* name changed to protect confidentiality
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