In 2005, Community Friends began its high-impact investment program helping women start new micro-enterprises by providing training and critical access to capital. Investing in women is a way to help families overcome poverty by creating sustainable livelihoods. Money is power and when women control more of the money in a family, they often have more control over every aspect of their lives including family planning which means smaller families. Smaller families are a climate solution. We believe that financial self-sufficiency is the key to making change possible for women. Investing in women creates profitable income-earning opportunities that teach individuals to believe in their own abilities and become economically empowered and self sufficient; potentially changing the quality of life for multiple generations.
Through our work in rural villages, we have found that teenage girls are the most vulnerable, neglected and sometimes abused segment of the village population. Young women in remote Sri Lankan villages are at particularly high risk with few positive opportunities. Often, they are viewed as a financial liability by their families. Girls approximately 15 and over frequently end up being placed into arranged marriages or working as maids in foreign countries, where they experience physical abuse or worse. For these reasons, we focus on girls and young women with our micro-enterprise program. In this way, we help to lessen economic gender disparities and relieve poverty.
We have designed a small-business collective model consisting of six girls, two parents and one school teacher. Our first micro-enterprise was a chili collective. Before the chili collective, the village sold chilies to an out of town chili factory that ground chili into powder or flakes and then resold the packaged goods back to the villagers at a higher price. We started the first chili collective followed by a rice flour collective with $400 of capital to purchase each grinding machine. With the grinding machines, money from chili and flour products stays in the community, circulating and multiplying to support the local economy.
We collaborated with local partners to purchase a Sri Lankan tea estate where the majority of workers who pick the tea are women. The workers are fifth generation Tamal people whose descendants were brought to Sri Lanka from India in the late 1800s under the British colonial system of indentured servitude. Even today, the women are often paid so little that they cannot even afford to drink the tea they harvest. They have no access to health care or other basic services given the remote location of the plantations. These plantations are largely owned by wealthy absentee owners who maximize their profits and this money leaves the community. We changed the colonial model by reinvesting in the community. We raised the wages, established a health clinic and brought electricity to the village for the first time.
We believe in economic empowerment of women through education. An African proverb says it well: “When you educate a woman, you educate a family. When you educate a family, you educate a nation.” We have supported a remote school in Cambodia for the poorest of the poor. Part of our initial support was to simply buy clothes so that the poorest children could simply attend school. The school promotes bilingual literacy to children, some with HIV. Multi-lingualism is a profound enabler of self-sufficiency and in the context of Cambodia, an outstanding alternative for young people who are looking for a better path forward. Again, this program focuses on girls and young women who are at greater risk and can gain economic power through this program.
Through our economic development programs, Community Friends is committed to helping women work toward a more positive future through social enterprise. The business case for investing in women-owned businesses is not about philanthropy. It is about providing access to capital allowing women to create profitable income-earning opportunities and become economically empowered. Our efforts are a deliberate strategy to help restore the balance and celebrate the accomplishments of women as role models for all of the future generations of women.