Kidist Belete (center) stands with women taking part in a meeting of grandmothers at SFT (Photo by Meaghen Simms/SLF)

Ten years of community building at Developing Families Together


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Excerpt from a speech by Kidist Belete of Developing Families Together (DFT) in Ethiopia.

My name is Kidist Belete and I am the founding Executive Director of Developing Families Together. For more than ten years, our community-based organization has provided a range of support services to highly vulnerable persons and households in Ethiopia.

These services include support to orphaned children and their elderly caregivers; programmes that promote women’s empowerment and self-sufficiency; HIV education and care; the provision of water and sanitation facilities; and education. We are working in five regional administrations, and provide care and support to over 10,000 adults and children.

I wanted to talk to you about one of our programmes that has been making a considerable difference in the lives of one of the most vulnerable social groups in our society—namely, grandmothers who are burdened with the raising of their grandchildren orphaned by HIV/AIDS. I wanted to talk to you about this programme because it also illustrates how much positive change can be brought about through carefully planned and targeted interventions that involve the community. It is a story about bringing change through regenerating hope where there appears to be very little hope. It is about what can happen when very limited resources are deployed for things that beneficiaries can themselves do and that bring about visible and immediate change in their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

In Ethiopia, as in many societies in Africa, grandmothers play a central role in sustaining the extended family. Very often, because women of childbearing age are engaged in productive activities that leave little time for childcare, grandmothers provide the much-needed service of caring for children, including providing for their moral cultivation. That is under normal circumstances. Under extraordinary circumstances such as the one produced by the AIDS pandemic, grandmothers are called upon to carry the burden of providing for their orphaned grandchildren materially as well.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

A woman shares her story at a grandmothers’ meeting at Developing Families Together.

Because of the crippling poverty that sets in almost immediately upon the death of the bread-earners, grandmothers find the task of feeding their orphaned grandchildren, or of sending them to school, daunting. Things become a lot more complicated when the grandmothers themselves are advanced in age or have health problems. Despite these adversities, there are many stories of elderly women stepping forward courageously into this role even while grieving the passing of their own children, and doing so with boundless love, sacrifice, and emotional resilience.

But often, grandmothers cannot do all the work alone. And this is where the kinds of interventions that our organization makes become crucial.

Our work is with the poorest of the poor, and one by one, we can help them turn their lives around. Support one grandmother, and you are making a difference in the lives of generations.

Since 2007, with support from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, DFT has been implementing a care and support programme for grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren in two localities of north-central Ethiopia. When we started, all the women in these programmes, about 300 of them, were at the end of their rope. Many of them had several orphaned grandchildren left behind by more than one of their children. In many cases, the women themselves had been widowed, or had no one else to work the fields or engage in income-generating activities to help them. Many were thus reduced to begging in the streets or engaging in daily manual labour, often hard and painful at their age. Quite a few suffered from various kinds and degrees of trauma-induced psychological problems. In fact, in many cases the women had withdrawn from communal activities and became isolated, in part because they were unable to afford the little resources that were necessary to sustain active social engagement and in part because of the hopelessness that set in with the devastation of their households by AIDS.

The orphaned children themselves were in various conditions of stress. Many did not attend school, while some, particularly the older ones, had to engage in income-generating activities such as selling parched grains in the streets or engaging in hard daily labour to try to feed their younger siblings.

In both localities, our interventions have two components—one component being what we do for the women to help them get on their feet, and the other being what we do with the communities in which they live.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

DFT provides capital for grandmothers to launch businesses to support themselves and their families.

In terms of direct support, we provide supplementary food and sanitary materials, and financial, technical, and motivational assistance to engage grandmothers in income-generating activities and provide them with start-up capital.

Of course, there are some cases of grandmothers who cannot for one reason or another take full advantage of the income-generation activities. For these women and their grandchildren, the project provides direct means of sustenance like wheat, edible oil, and sanitary materials. Even though you might argue that this is not sustainable without continued outside assistance, we see it as an investment. Everyone in the household is getting better meals and more cleaning materials, they are staying healthier, and the grandmothers are better able to send their orphaned grandchildren to school.

In terms of community mobilization, we educate and work with local leaders and government bodies around specific needs of the grandmothers. We have also begun working together to organize the community to contribute materials and labour to rebuild or maintain the grandmothers’ homes.

Due to these economic and psycho-social support mechanisms, hundreds of grandmothers have become self-reliant and have, perhaps more importantly, begun to feel much more optimistic and hopeful. How do we know this? Well, in addition to the usual monitoring data, it is common to see the women participate in communal cultural events—such as holidays—with their neighbours, things from which they had previously withdrawn. Grandmothers themselves tell us that they feel relieved from chronic psycho-social and economic problems and can send their grandchildren to school and take them to health institutions when their grandchildren get sick.

Photo by Alexis MacDonald/SLF

Grandmothers embrace at a DFT support group.

As a woman and as an Ethiopian, I can see that women suffer a lot here—like in other parts of the world. Extreme poverty makes women vulnerable to HIV and other diseases, and to depression. Grandmothers are the most forgotten part of the society. There is no social security system that provides support for grandmothers. When things are bad for everyone else, it is worse for them.

Our work is with the poorest of the poor and, one by one, we can help them turn their lives around. Support one grandmother, and you are making a difference in the lives of generations. They are an inspiration to everyone who meets them, above all to their own families. There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to see how one person’s life has changed—and from that, how a whole family is uplifted—all because of our project’s intervention. Together, we can change the world, one woman—one grandmother—at a time.


Next: Women at the heart of the response to HIV/AIDS >>

Previous: << Message from Stephen Lewis

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