Actors of Change: Jennifer Aguti – CEO of Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO)

Stephanie Garde – April 1, 2015

On occasion of its monitoring visit to Uganda-based REALISE project, also coinciding withInternational Women’s Day, the ECLT Foundation interviewed Jennifer Aguti, Chief Executive Officer of REALISE’s implementing partner, Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO).  As UWESO’s CEO, Jennifer is in charge of livelihoods, the Child Protection and Technical Services Programs, and supervises the entities, i.e. the Vocational Training Institute, Success Microfinance, and Masulita Children’s Home.

Jennifer Aguti, UWESO’s CEO, posing with School Director in front of a mural painted on a beneficiary school within REALISE project.

Jennifer Aguti (left), UWESO’s CEO, posing with School Director in front of a mural painted on a beneficiary school within REALISE project.

This interview is part of a series of posts that aim to bring you the voice and faces of the leaders in the field implementing the ECLT Foundation programmes. Jennifer Aguti (left), UWESO’s CEO, posing with School Director in front of a mural painted on a beneficiary school within REALISE project.

The ECLT Foundation: Jennifer, can you tell us about yourself and highlight some of the steps that you had taken in your career to prepare you for your current role as UWESO’s CEO?

Jennifer: Prior to UWESO, I worked as a Senior Program Manager in charge of Housing Microfinance, Vulnerable Groups Housing, and Affiliate Programs at the national office for Habitat for Humanity Uganda. I also worked as a Finance and Administration Manager, and acted as the Executive Director at the Church of Uganda Teso Dioceses Planning and Development Office (COU-TEDDO) in Church of Uganda Soroti and Kumi Dioceses. There, I was responsible for the implementation of all program activities, accountability of all resources, and overall donor reporting.

I started my career at the now Trust Bank, where I held various portfolios in front office, back office and overall branch management. My extensive experience covers program, financial and personnel/overall management. Continuous professional trainings, hard work, honesty, integrity, treating all people with respect, and a passion to contribute to the improvement of lives of the vulnerable people are some of the steps I took to prepare me for my current role as CEO.

The ECLT Foundation: UWESO addresses issues that are key to the condition of women and gender equality in Uganda. How do you see these efforts having an impact on the lives of Ugandan women?

Jennifer: Women are child bearers and are largely preoccupied with the well being of their families. Nevertheless, women face many predicaments in the bid to fulfill this mandate, including poverty, gender-based violence, marginalization, and limited decision-making opportunities, amongst others. Despite the availability of universal government programs in critical sectors like health, education, and agriculture, some households are still critically vulnerable, and do not benefit from such free programs, therefore affecting their lives and that of their children negatively. UWESO targets such categories of beneficiaries to extend its interventions that promote the survival, development, participation and development of children. While some interventions target children directly, UWESO also works through caregivers to promote interventions that provide sustainable solutions to drivers of vulnerability within the households.

Owing to the above, UWESO introduced the Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) as a strategy to improve household income levels by inculcating the savings culture and promoting self-help projects among Orphan and Vulnerable Children (OVC) caregivers. Remarkably, an overwhelming number of rural women have enrolled into the practice. Results demonstratepositive trends in savings, establishment of Income Generating Activities (IGAs) through accessing affordable credit, and improved household incomes that help women to meet their own needs, and needs of their children. Currently through their programs, UWESO has over 6,680 VSLAs with over 167,000 memberships whose portfolio in savings is USD 3,551,762 and USD 2,986,823 in loans amongst members.

Women fend for the family in both good and bad times. They are responsible for the economic well being of their families, and for primary health care. Women being the managers and decision-makers of the home need all the skills necessary to make a successful and happy “home enterprise”. Through weekly meetings by VSLA members, UWESO has provided a platform through which women regularly meet to share ideas and experiences, not only on financial matters, but also on a range of issues varying from social, psychological, political and environmental for cross and experiential learning purposes. A household with a financially exposed woman is better off than one with an unexposed wife and mother. The benefits cover a wide range of areas, including improved health, nutrition, family planning, income generation and financial security. The meetings also act as mechanisms for identifying drivers of child vulnerability in communities, and brainstorming solutions for care and protection of children.  Not only have these community structures created a better quality of life for women themselves, but also for their children and perhaps the children of future generations to come.

UWESO has vigorously empowered these groups through capacity building programs. From group formation and dynamics, financial literacy, records keeping and proposal writing, to the extent of graduating them into Community Based Organizations that are legally registered at respective Sub County and District levels. As a result, UWESO groups are able to favorably compete and benefit from district funded projects, as well as attract universal government programmes, such as the National Agricultural and Advisory Services (NAADS) and Community Demand Driven (CDD) for self and community development.

The ECLT Foundation: In your position, what do you see as a top challenge that Ugandan women face and need to overcome for them to thrive and meet their maximum potential?

Jennifer: The plight of Ugandan woman can be understood broadly in the larger context of life in sub-Saharan Africa, where much of it is still poor and under resourced. Fundamental to the grasping of the situation of Ugandan women is the fact that they directly shoulder the impact of the social, economic and political crises that characterize the region. This is manifested in unequal accessibility to production resources, socio-economic opportunities, lack of education, division of labour, limited decision-making, limited representation in governance and leadership and gender-based inequalities resulting in discrimination and violence, to mention but a few. And, rural women encounter worse challenges compared to their educated and urban counter-parts.

The ECLT Foundation: What advice would you give to young girls and women who aspire to bring about change in their communities, and have the potential to become the next generation of women leaders in Uganda?

Jennifer: Young women and girls should embrace education. Whether formal or informal, education will give them the skills and knowledge they need to make better choices in life. It is also important for them to seek the right career guidance so that they are able to exploit every opportunity that comes their way. Above all, they must remember that society has always perceived women as incapable. Therefore, not only do they have to strive to succeed, but they need to strive for excellence in order to avoid the many factors that can bring them down due to their vulnerable nature.  

And finally, if women in leadership positions, whether in government or in the private sector perform their jobs well, they will improve the lives of women and girls everywhere. The women in government will raise issues which have been overlooked for a long time, pass bills that others oppose, and influence the allocation of resources to projects others ignore, thereby seeking an end to abuses others have accepted overtime. The success of those who have made it should only be measured by the number of disadvantaged women they have helped.

As said by Madeleine Albright, former Ambassador of the United States, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help fellow women.”

Stephanie Garde is Project Coordinator for the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation. The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation strengthens communities, improves policies, and advances research so that tobacco-growing communities can benefit from agricultural farming while ensuring that their children are healthy, educated, safe from exploitation, and encouraged to reach their full potential.