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Erin Huiting ’17: Volunteering in Uganda with the Women’s Global Empowerment Fund

By Peter Tschirhart on February 24, 2017

Wall from the GWRC

The following post was contributed by Benton Scholar Erin Huiting ’17. She recently utilized Benton Scholars’ “Mini-Grant” funds to complete a volunteer-based research project in Uganda.

I came across the Denver-based non-profit Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) as a young, curious student almost seven years ago. However, I still remember meeting the founder, Karen Sugar, with such clarity – her voice was kind and welcoming, yet overcome with raw despair. She spoke of a 23-year long civil war in northern Uganda that led to millions of internally displaced people (IDP), of which women and children were disproportionately affected. Today, even as a recovering post-conflict region, female education levels have remained extremely low and young girls are not actively encouraged to stay in school. This has left many women illiterate, and as a result, both economically and socially disenfranchised. In response, WGEF partnered with a community-based non-profit Volunteer Action Network to provide women of post-conflict northern Uganda with microcredit loans and social programing. After hearing this story, I became WGEF’s first volunteer. Little did I know this was the beginning of one of the most impactful experiences of my life.

Throughout high school, I found myself at several fundraisers, performances, and collaborations emphasizing WGEF’s work. I remained involved with WGEF as I left for college, and during my senior fall, Karen invited me to accompany herself and WGEF to the northern Gulu District of Uganda. After a long day of travel, I found Karen discussing her work in social justice amongst a group of women. One of which was writing an article for Marie Claire magazine about WGEF’s partnership with Urban Decay Cosmetics’ initiative to empower women, while the other women were apart of Urban Decay’s design and communication team. Given that I had personally witnessed the struggles of WGEF starting-up as a non-profit, meeting these women was a moment of both a joy and relief. Their support would enable WGEF to continue providing resources and information for the women of northern Uganda.

The next morning, I hopped on a ‘boda boda’ (motorbike taxi) and met everyone at WGEF’s opening of the Gulu Women’s Resource Center (GWRC). The center provides women a community meeting space, as well as computer and life skill trainings to facilitate conversations and develop solutions to relevant issues. There was a strong sense of pride and excitement as we watched the center open. The same day, I was introduced to one of WGEF’s clients, Akello Grace. I learned that despite spending more than 15 years in IDP camps, she is now an entrepreneur, community leader, and district council representative fiercely advocating for women’s rights. Grace remains one of the most powerful, selfless individuals I have ever met.

Riding on the boda boda, photo by Arnelle Lozado

Cutting the ribbon to the GWRC

From left: WGEF program associate Okumu Kevin, client Aloyojok Prisca, program associate Arena Monica, founder Karen Sugar, and client Akello Grace

The trip coincided with WGEF’s annual drama festival ‘Kikopo Pa Mon’ (creating a voice for women), where women perform dramas, dance, and song in the local Acholi language. Performances have previously focused on the issues of inequality, education inequity, HIV, and violence. Because these issues are sensitive and difficult to address, this unique opportunity allows women to communicate directly with men and community leaders in a stigma-free space. This year, the women chose the theme “Access to reproductive health care is my right.” While all of the women’s stories left me inspired, I was in awe of the younger girls who performed. Two girls in particular stood out – they were from a nearby primary school and chose to recite a dialogue demanding proper access to sanitation and menstrual care in schools. The audience cheered in support.

Photo by Arnelle Lozado

Photo by Keb Doak

On the flight home, I couldn’t help but smile and be overtaken with gratitude. I had the privilege to meet and listen to so many extraordinary women and girls from the Gulu community, and witness a sisterhood that enables women to find their voices. I am forever grateful for these moments and these women. And although there is much left to be done, I know the women of this region will persist and continue to accomplish great things. This is just the beginning.

Flying over Lake Victoria, Uganda

2015 Benton Scholars Travel to Uganda

By bentonscholars on April 16, 2013

“Historically, this has been one of the most contaminated water sources we have ever tested,” Professor Peter Scull mentioned as one of my classmates collected a sample from the murky stream. Suddenly we heard a joyous shout and turned just in time to see a small boy perform a cannonball directly into the middle of the stream. In a lot of ways this symbolizes the challenges encountered by the 2015 Benton Scholars on our trip to Uganda this past May. With Professor Scull, biology professor Frank Frey, and political science professor Tim Byrnes as our leaders, we visited Rwanda and Uganda with the primary intention of helping Bwindi Community Hospital (BCH) in Buhoma, Uganda conduct water testing and household sanitation surveys.water collection

After landing in Kigali, Rwanda and visiting Parliament and the Genocide Memorial, we faced a hair-raising drive north along the edges of cliffs to BCH in southwestern Uganda. We worked alongside the BCH staff for the next two weeks to devise and conduct household sanitation surveys across seven villages. In presenting our findings to the hospital, we hoped to provide the BCH staff with the data needed to plan and implement effective sanitation initiatives in the surrounding villages. Besides our hospital work we took several opportunities to play soccer against a few local teams, including an ongoing rivalry with Colgate FC based in Buhoma (they don former Colgate uniforms). After parting ways with our newfound friends at the hospital, we drove north to Queen Elizabeth National Park and then east to Kampala, where we met with Colgate’s expert on Africa President Herbst; there we discussed Uganda’s economic and social future with a number of business and political figures, including a high-ranking general, the Minister of Trade, and the owner of a coffee factory.

I can assuredly say that I was wholly impressed by the challenges we took on as a group and the lasting bonds we formed with people we met along the way (many of us continue to chat frequently with the friends we made via Facebook). My classmates showed a deep respect for the local culture, and our enthusiasm in conducting the sanitation surveys made the work all the easier in the humid equatorial climate. Although our work at the hospital comprised an invaluable portion of the experience, I believe some of the greatest opportunities to learn about and learn from the local residents came through service projects conducted separately from our hospital work.FC Colgate The Photo Project aimed to provide children at a local school and mothers at the hospital with pictures of themselves; a fundraiser conducted prior to the trip raised enough money to provide 4000 condoms to the hospital; and a soccer club in Massachusetts donated 90 pairs of cleats to the local soccer clubs.

Our journey was at the same time eye-opening and thoroughly enjoyable; we were able to come face to face with some of the starkest challenges facing this portion of the world, but the possibilities for improvement in health and standard of living have never been greater. Everyone we met along the way was excited about taking on these challenges, from the hospital staff to our faithful drivers to the political figures in Kampala. I am honored that the Benton Scholars class of 2015 so enthusiastically worked alongside Ugandans to tackle these problems, and we will strive to spread the message of Uganda’s bright future throughout Colgate’s ca  mpus and beyond.


Colin Shipley
’15 Benton Scholar