I meet Meseret in a town in Ethiopia called Nazareth. We are sitting in a small room, rain falling on the tin roof. As she speaks, I know that her story is one that will stay with me forever.
Conflicting emotions accompany me to Ethiopia. On the one hand, my excitement is uncontainable. Meseret is a member of a Self Help Group (SHG) program. The SHG approach is recent and has been transformative, literally eradicating extreme poverty from the inside out. It is the first approach, in 15 years of field work, that I feel could change the face of poverty within our generation.
At the same time, there is a nagging fear. I love my work, but it often leaves me feeling raw. In Ethiopia, I have had to come to terms with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Deemed a human rights violation by the UN, FGM is a common practice. One of the great gains of the SHGs has been a reduction in FGM. It was a term I had heard plenty of times. But when you spend time with people where such a practice is commonplace, the pain moves from a cerebral understanding ("isn't this dreadful") to a place in your heart where it does not dislodge. I struggle deeply to come to terms with the fact that women elders are implicit in its outworking, holding down the girls and performing the ceremony without any form of anesthesia, in order to protect the girls' purity for their future husbands. The knowledge takes my faith in humanity and buries it deep down in the ground, in places so dark that I struggle to reconnect.
And then there are the stories that provide the lifeline to my faith in the power of good. Enter Meseret. She wants to be able to write her story so that other women will know that they can also change their future-and I offer to write it on her behalf.
This is what she tells me.
"I grew up in a town called Fiche, the eldest of five. I came from a poor family, but we managed to get by. I went to school and had plans to attend university.
When I was 14, my world changed. My father fell ill and died four days later. Every day I would come home from school to find my mother crying. She had been completely dependent on my father, and we had no income. As the eldest, I had to find a way to support my family, and I began to make and sell a local beer after school.
When I was 18, my mother arranged for me to marry an older, richer man; I did not like him. I had promised my childhood sweetheart, Belay, that we would marry when we were old enough. Belay had his family send the elders to ask for my hand in marriage, and my mother agreed.
The next year I had my first child, a daughter named Kalkidan. The three of us moved to Nazareth-a bigger town-to find work. We came with 50 Birr ($2.50); it was all that we had. We rented a very small room and slept on the floor. There was no money for food, and I struggled to nurse my baby. My husband managed to find work as a laborer. They provided him with lunch, and he would save aside a small portion in a plastic bag and bring it home to me.
Some of the women who lived near me invited me to join their self help group. I would notice them meeting each week, and they explained to me that they were supporting each other, finding ways to improve their community, and saving small sums of money to support their efforts and start small businesses. At first I thought "how can you even think that you can change your life by saving 1 Birr a week?"
As I became more involved, I started small business activities and my income started to grow. I also found myself growing in confidence. I applied for a local job at the government offices and was given the post-this was a huge step forward for me. But my husband didn't like it; I was disrupting the traditional roles. He began to beat me every single night. And every morning I would walk down to the government office for my day's work, sore from my beatings, knowing what was awaiting me at home.
My husband finally gave me an ultimatum: him or my work. I chose my work. I knew that I deserved to be independent, to ensure a future for my children. I had also witnessed my mother's struggle to cope even with everyday life after my father died. My parents had worked hard to give me an education, and I was determined to honor that and make my own future. My husband left for another city to go and find work.
Shortly after my husband left, my mother died. The women in my SHG took turns, each one staying with me for the day and then overnight. They were like surrogate mothers, holding me as if I were their daughter.
My income from my small businesses started to grow, and my job promoted me. I was able to send my daughter to school, I built a small house, and bought furniture. My husband came back after two years, and was amazed at what I had accomplished. I told him that he could never come back into my life unless he was prepared to respect and honor me, and that if he ever raised his hand again, I would leave him immediately. It was hard, but we found ways to reconcile and forgive. Now, he always consults me whenever there is a problem in the community, and he looks after the children so that I can go to night school."
When I ask Meseret, or any of the women in the community, how long she thinks her self help group will stay together, her first response is a confused expression. Then the smile creeps across her face, and she begins to laugh, as if I had been trying to pull a joke. "We will be together forever. We are sisters."
On my last day in Nazareth, Meseret tells me how they have recently stopped a woman from giving away her child, whom she couldn't afford to keep. I can't even begin to imagine having to choose between children, selling one so that I might feed another enough to prevent starvation. The women in the SHG convinced the woman to keep her child, and told her that they would support her.
Meseret is now the chairperson of women and children's affairs for the local government, acts as a leader for the SHG group network, and is getting her degree in human resources management. "I hope to continue to help other women to become part of SHGs," she tells me, "so that they can also change their future."
I often put her picture up on my computer while I am working. When I look at her, I see the incredible brightness in her eyes that tells me that this is a woman who has overcome, and who knows she will help others to do the same.
Tearfund, a UK relief and development charity, currently has 200,000 SHG members in Ethiopia, impacting over 1 million people.
One Hen, a Boston-based charity, is helping to expand this approach with youth.
The photo was taken by Cally Spittle, Tearfund.