Mary Yangi (back row, centre) pictured with members of the women's group, she chairs. From left is pictured: Mary Sarah, 28, Majak Aluel, 50, Rejoice Daya, 55, Mary Yangi, 49, Victoria Madong, 60 and Jane Madong, 44. All photos: Tobin Jones / Danish Refugee Council

Women’s groups provide both friendship and a better life

Life has improved significantly for 49-year-old Mary Yangi after she joined a women’s project which the Danish Refugee Council runs in Northwestern Uganda with support from Lise and Gudmund Jørgensen’s Foundation.

30.05.2017

Mary Yangi left South Sudan with her family in 2004 because of the risk of being raped.

“It was very bad with the rapes. They did that to the women and they killed the men. That is why we left,” she explains.

But only one year after she and her family arrived in Uganda, her husband passed away leaving Mary alone with seven children.

“All of a sudden I was solely responsible for our children. It was a very hard time,” she says about the beginning of her new life in Uganda.

Mary and her children were relocated from Adjumani to the nearby Rhino Settlement, where her late husband’s parents were living.

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“They could help me with the children. I did not know what else I could do.”

Today things are very different for Mary. She is no longer dependent on the help of others. She takes care of herself, and – in her opinion – she is doing a very good job.

The outlook was not all that good though, but one day a representative from the Danish Refugee Council in the Rhino Settlement came to Mary’s home and told her, that they were looking for women for a new project.

“And then I said, ‘Me, look no further, I am right here’,” she says and laughs out loud.

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She joined the project, which is called ‘Women in Africa’ and supported by Lisa and Gudmund Jørgensen’s Foundation. The project gives women in vulnerable circumstances – for instance single mothers – livelihood support through small scale loans and trainings to enable them to become self-sufficient. ‘Women in Africa’ is now operating in its ninth year:

“I have received trainings in how to run a business, how group dynamics work and how I can be a better leader. I have also received training about better farming practices, which has greatly increased the outcome of my land. I have also attended a course in alternative income generation, so now I have learnt how to make oils or Vaseline for the skin, which I sell.”

Great difference from before to now

Today, Mary Yangi is the chairwoman of a savings-and-loans-group where the members help each other save up money and provide loans to each other. This makes them able to invest and expand their growing businesses, buy seeds for their fields and invest in better farming tools.  

“The project has meant a great deal for me and has changed my life for the better. There is a great difference from when I arrived here and today. Now I maintain my own house and I no longer need to ask other people how to do things. The project has really strengthened me,” Mary says and starts listing changes.

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“I have been able to buy a solar cell and a lamp, so now I have light in my hut at night. I have also been able to buy a goat. And a mobile phone with a sim card, so now people can reach me.”

Most importantly though is the fact that her extra income has enabled Mary to pay school fees of her daughter, so that she can get an education.

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On top of this, the women’s group has brought her great friendships. The women look out for each other both in business and private, Mary explains. And she is backed in this by several of the group’s other members, who have shown up for the interview to support her. They nod approvingly to confirm her words.

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Mary collects the group's locked cash box, whilst she explains that even though the women trust each other, the savings-and-loans-group has a built in security system. As chairwoman of the group she looks after the money box, but the keys to it are kept by three other members of the group. The box cannot be opened, unless all are present.

“When I first arrived here in Uganda, it was a very hard time. It was difficult for me to get by and provide enough food for my children. But just look at me now,” Mary says smiling, while she points to her freshly swept courtyard, where her goat and a couple of chicken play catch around the solar cell, which will provide light, when darkness falls later on.

“Today things are very good,” she says.

Project ‘Women in Africa’

The main objective of this project titled “Help for Refugee Women and vulnerable women in Uganda” is to contribute to the improvement of the socioeconomic situation of vulnerable women in refugee settlements in the West Nile region of Uganda. It targets vulnerable women, both refugees and Ugandan nationals, such as sole providers for their families, young mothers or others in vulnerable circumstances. The project provides tailor made trainings which for instance can include literacy skills, business, farming and leadership training and specific technical trainings aimed at enabling women to start small businesses. The project began in 2009 and is implemented by the Danish Refugee Council in cooperation with the local authorities.

‘Women in Africa’ is one of several projects in the area delivered by the Danish Refugee Council aimed at helping refugees and Ugandan nationals from the host community create and improve their livelihoods and become self-reliant. 

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Africa's largest refugee crisis

With only a few years of exceptions, South Sudan has been plagued by war for decades. The country was granted independence from Sudan in 2011 thereby becoming the world's youngest nation. But only two years later, the country was plunged into a brutal civil war, which is estimated to have cost more than 300,000 people their lives so far. At the same time more than two million have become internally displaced inside South Sudan and more than 1.5 million have fled to neighboring countries - primarily Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Uganda alone has welcomed around 800,000 South Sudanese refugees and more arrive every day.

During the summer of 2016 violent conflict erupted once again increasing the number of refugees significantly. The Danish Refugee Council works in South Sudan and neighboring countries including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia and provides assistance to the people who are seeking refuge outside the country.

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Rhino camp - no ordinary refugee camp

Rhino settlement in Uganda is not like most refugee camps. There are not rows of tents crammed into a tight space. Instead it covers a wider area, and refugees live in villages that are scattered throughout the area. The neighboring villages are inhabited by native Ugandans who have lived there for generations. When refugees arrive in Rhino settlement they are assigned a small plot of land, which they can then farm and call their own.