Karen Sugar, founder of the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, makes a striking first impression. She is tall with long blonde hair and a strong sense of purpose in her gait. She easily blends in at the upscale cafe we’re meeting in, although her journey is quite different than most of the laptop and latte crowd here.
Karen enjoyed a privileged upbringing, graduating with a masters degree in political science. Her parents were committed to social justice and she followed their path by working for women’s rights and human rights and women and families living in poverty. She also developed solutions and programs including a model for Microfinance, to enhance human security and women’s empowerment.
Through her studies, Karen learned that when a woman is given an opportunity, a loan or enters into an empowerment program, the entire family benefits.
A question began to emerge: Where on the planet did women have the greatest economic need?
The answer is Northern Uganda; a post-conflict region and one of the poorest countries in the world. A 20 year civil insurgency led by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) has left the region unstable, lacking in economic activity and vulnerable to food and human insecurity; women and children have experienced horrific violence and chronic poverty. Human Rights Watch reports that tens of thousands of people died and almost 2 million were displaced during the conflict. The LRA is notorious for child abduction, mutilation and sexual violence to serve its militia; reports estimate that 20,000 children were abducted.
Karen founded the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) in 2007, in response to the humanitarian crisis. Its mission is to: provide underserved women with access to microcredit loans, business and leadership development training, literacy and various health initiatives. The women in WGEF’s program are former abductees, forced to become child soldiers for the LRA, former sex slaves and ‘wives’ of LRA commanders. They have lost many family members, and for the most part, have been invisible to their government and the global community.
“I’m simply following the example my parents set. This work is so meaningful. Today I live without a 401K and no safety net; I consider myself one of the luckiest women in the world. The human connections I experience through WGEF are the greatest gift,” said Karen.
For less than the cost of a Broadway show, a woman in Uganda can start a business. A typical loan is just $57.00USD for three months. Since its inception, WGEF reports it has distributed 4,500 loans, repaid in under four months with 0% portfolio at risk. The women in its programs are: going to school, feeding their children and creating viable businesses. The market is growing with projects becoming more diverse including: raising livestock, raising chickens, selling produce, crafts, cooking, bricklaying and opening small shops, restaurants, hotels and small to medium scale agriculture projects.
The stories of triumph are nothing short of miraculous.
Everlyn is one of the many success stories. She lives in the main city of Gulu, where WGEF is based. Evelyn was abducted and held in captivity for 10 years. During this time, she was sexually terrorized and gave birth to three children while also caring for many others.
She felt completely unloved and unsupported. WGEF gave Everlyn a loan to start a small farming business. Today her business is successful and she is able to provide for her family. Buoyed by the support of WGEF, Everlyn founded a non-profit for children born into captivity. She’s about to travel outside of her village for the first time, to address the Parliament on behalf of girls born into captivity.
“If you want to create an impact in society for children and families, women are the ticket,” said Karen.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee agrees. In 2006 it awarded Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create social and economic development through micro-credit. It believes micro-credit to be a valuable tool in alleviating abject poverty, particularly where women have had to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions.
While satisfying to the soul, anyone who dedicates their life to uplift others will agree; it doesn’t come without personal sacrifice. “I lost a number of good friends when I created WGEF. I was going through a lot of shifts at the time, including a divorce, while my passion for social justice grew even stronger,” said Karen. “I don’t know if my friends thought I would ask them for money or if my life choices somehow forced them to look in the mirror and make connections between their life and how it impacts the rest of the world.”
Karen’s eyes fill with tears. “I’m a Mom. At times it’s been difficult for my daughters while they were growing up. I’ve been stranded in desolate areas where there were outbreaks of the deadly ebola virus. Years ago there were outbreaks of violence; it was overwhelming to be around so many weapons and frightening to hear gunshots in the night. They were concerned for my safety.”
She continues, “Still, I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything. I’ve given my daughters the gift of a global curiosity. They’re both in college and have big minds, along with big hearts. They appreciate the small things in life. They’re grown up to be strong, self-reliant and resourceful women. I’m so proud.”
Stability began returning to Uganda in 2006, after the Government and the LRA entered into negotiations. The World Bank and other countries have helped to support its recovery. However, Reuters News just reported that the World Bank postponed a 90 million dollar loan to Uganda for its health system, as it reviews the country’s recent anti-gay legislation.
Meanwhile, Karen is confident about WGEF’s contributions to the country’s recovery.
“Our clients are job creators. The sisterhood is powerful. One woman has had a hair braiding and tailoring business since 2009. It began with a loan from WGEF and there is always a line around her house. Whenever she leaves town to purchase supplies, she hires other women to run the business which means a few more kids will eat that night.”
After spending just a little time with Karen Sugar, it’s clear; empower just one women and many lives are uplifted for the better.
Take note world; we just may be on to something.