Denver Non-Profit Benefits Ugandan Women of Gulu

Sometimes, the fight for equality and the empowerment of women globally really does begin at home.

Denver’s Karen Sugar has taken her grassroots effort to empower women to Gulu, Uganda, a city in the heart of a former war zone.

In 2008, Sugar formed the nonprofit Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF), which aims to reach underserved women in northern Uganda through microfinance loans and educational programs. She plans to expand to other countries, and is exploring work in Haiti.

Her organization has given out about 3,400 loans with a 100 percent repayment rate. The loans are tiny by U.S. standards, at an average of $57. But $57 goes a long way in Uganda, she said.

WGEF operates on an annual budget of about $150,000 from individual donors and family foundations, and last year, 94 percent of those funds were allocated to the program.

It works by lending money to groups of women, and those groups elect leaders and then decide how to disperse money throughout the group. The women have used their loans to do everything from setting up food stands at the local market to opening small hotels.

Sugar was introduced to microfinance while getting her master’s degree in political science at the University of Colorado Denver. Her decision to launch the fund “was one of those Oprah ‘aha’ moments, and the jury’s still out whether it’s brilliant or insane or some sort of combination of the two,” she said.

Microfinance has several definitions, but basically means to provide small loans to people, often poor, who don’t have access to traditional financial services.

Sugar said from a business angle, global data show that women are a better bet as recipients of microfinance. “You have a better repayment rate,” she said. “And when you give a woman a microcredit loan, the health and well-being of her entire family is lifted.”

What appealed most to Sugar is what microfinance can do beyond the economic impact of the loan itself. “I saw what’s actually possible socially and politically as well. That’s what became really compelling to me.”

Sugar studied the best practices of microfinance organizations around the world, not knowing where, exactly, she wanted to start her fund.

“The criterion for me was, ‘Where on the planet did women have the most critical economic need?’ And northern Uganda fit that criterion to me,” she said. “It didn’t matter to me what language they spoke or the color of their skin or their ethnicity or geographic location. What mattered to me was the need.”

Northern Uganda is a post-conflict region, where women and children have experienced horrific violence and chronic poverty, Sugar said.

“The women in our program are former abductees, forced to become child soldiers for the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), former sex slaves or ‘wives’ of LRA commanders,” she said. “They have lost many family members, and for the most part, have been invisible to their government and the global community.”

For more than 10 years, about 1.5 million people lived in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where they faced danger, poverty and hopelessness. Through a peace process in 2006, the LRA left northern Uganda, and the region is recovering and rebuilding.

Ugandan Grace Arach joined WGEF in 2008, getting a $40 loan to set up a fruit stand at a local market. She had been abducted by LRA rebels and spent eight years in captivity, often being raped and beaten by them, according to a letter she wrote to WGEF in 2011.

Her family shunned her when she returned home, so she says joining a women’s loan group through WGEF helped her regain her self-confidence.

“After repaying our first loan, I realized to have saved $8, it was my first achievement in my life and it make me to believe in myself,” Arach wrote.

She’s now paying her own rent and her children’s school costs, as well as raising some livestock.

Her story is common among WGEF participants, Sugar said. “We had five women run for political office in 2011, where just a few years before that they were living in an IDP camp, not knowing what their futures held.”

Beyond loans, WGEF addresses cultural issues women face in northern Uganda, such as HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence. It hosts an annual drama competition where women in the program create original plays, highlighting their stories through music, drama and dance.

WGEF has three employees and 18 volunteer peer counselors in Gulu who work with the women on issues ranging from repaying their loans to stopping domestic violence. WGEF also runs a literacy program for participants.

Sugar said she’s inspired on a daily basis by the women she works with, who have done some “pretty amazing things” when given an opportunity.

“I learned a long time ago that as women, we’re all connected,” she said. “We all have a very unique experience walking the planet as a woman. We may look different on paper, but we have many of the same experiences.”