March's Featured ICON
Each month we showcase an incredible woman to be our featured Amaiò ICON. This woman is someone who has style, grace, kindness, and integrity, all while inspiring us on a daily basis.
Our Icons have a certain je ne sais quoi. They carry themselves with poise, they have an effortless and distinct style, and they are more than skin-deep.
Karen Sugar, founder of WGEF
Meet Karen Sugar. Unlike our other ICONS, Karen isn’t a content creator, and her Instagram following is on a micro scale. Karen performs a very different type of work that is important beyond words and that is well worth celebrating.
With International Women’s Day around the corner (March 8th!), we couldn’t think of anyone more fitting to be featured as our Amaiò ICON for this month. Karen is and always has been an advocate for women less fortunate. She has been a voice for women suffering from poverty, sexual abuse, discrimination, and so forth. In founding Women's Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) Karen has built a community focused on providing economic, social and political opportunities for women. These initiatives work in unison to create sustainable empowerment, an end goal that so many others have failed to achieve.
Karen wanted WGEF's focus to be in the region of Northern Uganda, a region that she felt had “the most need,” and therefore one in which a significant impact could be made. A post-conflict nation, Northern Uganda’s women suffer from illiteracy and unimaginable traumas. Through her programs, these women have been able to overcome hardships and find support through economic, social and political programs.
Tell us about what WGEF is and what kind of work you do?
Women’s Global Empowerment Fund (WGEF) works with women in a post-conflict region in Northern Uganda, offering economic, social and political opportunities for women. We aim to advance the participation, access and voices of women in their communities. These women are rebuilding their lives and recovering after a very long and brutal conflict. Over the last 10 years it’s been truly inspiring to see what has transpired. It’s been beyond my wildest expectations.
These women really seize the moment and are rebuilding their societies and creating a new political order where women have a seat at the table.
That’s a pretty broad initiative! Can you tell us a little about the lower level initiatives that you guys are doing?
All our programs work together. We focus on micro enterprise, which is the cornerstone of our program. Giving women the opportunities to be entrepreneurs, to be farmers and have agricultural businesses. They also have access to our literacy program. We have a leadership development initiative that’s threaded throughout our entire program from beginning to end, and we have a health initiative as well.
Poverty is a very complex sphere to work in trying to create sustainable empowerment so all these programs work together.
Giving someone a micro-loan itself is not necessarily transformative. Sometimes, it’s not even a good thing…so combining that with a lot of support, training, and the opportunity to learn to read and write is something that really does create sustainability.
Given that you’re approaching poverty and empowering women in this holistic manner, coming at it from all these angles, how many women do you work with at a time where you’re able to offer all of these initiatives?
Gosh...I don’t have a total number, but to date we’ve given out a total of 19,000 micro credit loans 30% of that is AG (farm and agro business) and we’ve had 4,800 women go through our literacy program. One of our statistics that floors me every time is that we have over 570 women participating and serving in leadership positions across Northern Uganda, and that is such a game changer. When women have a seat at the table, things change.
Do you have a background in micro financing?
No! I still have to get out my calculator to figure out simple math (LOL)! I became a little bit of an expert in micro finance, not from a banking or finance perspective, but by determining what’s possible when you do micro-finance well. I’m its biggest critic because there are so many micro finance endeavors around the world that have really failed and have actually created more poverty and left people in debt. But when it’s done well…that’s what compelled me to create a model for it. So, I’m an expert because I’m working in it and I see the potential of it. I studied it for 2 years and I created a model of it from best practices around the world.
Can you tell us when and how you first establish WGEF?
I was in grad school. I had studied and worked on women’s poverty issues in the United States pretty much my whole life, and while sitting in a gender development class, I was introduced to the concept of micro-finance. In a moment of brilliance (or insanity) I decided, “hey, I can do that!” and because poverty is so stubborn and we set people up for failure so consistently, that was something that appealed to me. I felt that if it was something that was done well and combined with social programming, it really could make a difference and create sustainable empowerment. I was looking at it from a global perspective at that point, not just the U.S.
Why did you decide to establish WGEF in Northern Uganda?
I wanted to go where it was really needed. I looked at South America and a couple other places and then I was introduced to someone from Northern Uganda who told me about the history of his country and how it was just coming out of a very long and brutal conflict.
I spent a couple months doing my homework and I decided, again in a moment of either brilliance or insanity, I would go into a place that was a post-conflict region, which was really tender and very vulnerable. I decided that’s where this program would land and I would be part of the rebuilding process. In the beginning a lot of our clients were formerly abducted child soldiers and sex slaves that had been abducted as children and held and had experienced unimaginable sexual violence and horror. These women would come back with children and were sometimes ostracized coming back to their own families. I think the thing that was so empowering for me, was that like women globally, they were so courageous and so dedicated to turning this around and that not being their story. They wanted to live a dignified life, and isn’t that what we all want?
Can you tell us about any specific success stories that come to mind?
You know I have so many, it gives me chills to think about. Really touching, amazing stories that seem simple but are so important. A few years ago I took my old professor whose class I was in (she was my first board chair and donates every year to WGEF) with me, along with a journalist and one of our interns, to a WGEF sponsored literacy class. When we got there, there were probably 50-60 women sitting around under a jack fruit tree.
I got the opportunity to ask them “What has been the most important part of the program for you?” This woman stood up and said “Now, I can write my name”. She was probably 25-30. And I asked her “Will you share that with us?” So she walked up to the chalk board leaning against the jack fruit tree. She took a few minutes, but she wrote her name and she was just incredibly proud of herself. For me in that moment it was so moving, and I’m crying thinking about it right now. She was so empowered and so proud of herself at something that is seemingly simple. It’s those moments that are seemingly simple…those, for me, are how I measure being successful. I’m not really a quantitative person, I want to treat every story like that the same. I am just as proud of having her story or one hundred of those stories, and we do. We’ve had 4,800 women who’ve gone through our program in the last 10 years. We have so many of those stories, but in that moment I just thought, “Wow. This is success.”
Have there been any men in the course of running this program that have struck you with their support and generosity?
Absolutely! One of the village elders in the beginning was really nervous about WGEF and definitely a “big man in charge,” but he’s become one of our biggest fans and goes to bat for us every time.
There are definitely some elders who have no desire to see women empowered and want to keep women uneducated and captive. You run into that in the rural and deep in the bush places, so this elder has been a great ally for us, because people really respect him.
I’ve met some of the most visionary men in Africa and they understand that to move their communities forward, women need a seat at the table and to be treated with dignity.
What is your vision of the future for WGEF and for the women of Northern Uganda?
My vision is one in the same. WGEF is so unique and special in what we’re doing and I want to continue to grow and offer more opportunities in literacy and other programs we have. I want to see young girls have the opportunity to stay in school longer and see what they accomplish when that happens. I want to see women in that region continue to thrive, engage and change the landscape. I want to see them run for office, make changes in their own country and create more opportunity. I also want to increase food security. I’m always curious and excited to see every year what the drama festival is like and how many loans we can give out.
Also our “Healthy Periods” initiative has become an important part of that region and I want to see that grow. We’ve only been doing the Healthy Periods initiative for about 3 years and are going to do a study this year to see how that’s impacted their lives so far.
The work I do is so day to day, so I can’t really look at it from a 5 year goal. It’s more year to year. This year we’re focused on women farmers and making sure they have the information they need on climate change.
You mentioned you’re doing a study this year on the Healthy Periods initiative. Is this the first quantitative analysis you’ve done in this particular area?
Yes it’s our first study regarding the healthy periods initiative. In the past we’ve worked with students from the Oxford University to determine the impact of literacy on micro-finance recipients, and if there was a direct correlation between viability and profitability. There was a striking correlation.
This year we’re working with grad student at Boston College and PHD student at the University Of San Francisco to do analysis of the healthy periods and the impacts of this initiative.
What kind of quantitative data are you looking for?
Probably the percentage of school and work attendance. Overall community, whether the program reduces child marriage, also, self-esteem. If they feel more empowered, confident and how their health is.
Tell us more about the healthy periods initiative WGEF has established?
Women in the global south often don’t have access to proper sanitary products. Girls will miss up to 70-90 days of school a year which is a problem since they already face challenges to stay in school. Once they hit 12-13 years old they don’t have what they need to manage their menstruation, whether it’s products or information.
India has created a machine that makes low cost sanitary pad pads. We acquired these machines and brought them to Northern Uganda. To date, we’ve distributed almost 4 million pads to 16 schools across the region on a monthly basis. We take a doctor with us every month to the schools and go really in depth on full reproductive healthcare and menstrual health. For most of these girls it’s the only time they can ask about their bodies and maybe even see a doctor. We also have a healthy periods initiative in refugee camps in south Sudan.
We have a micro enterprise part of the “Healthy Periods” initiative where young mothers who have no way to make a living take this product and make it their own. They sell it and will even do their own marketing. We’ve kind of created this entire local economy around sanitary pads. It’s interesting to see the excitement and support around this, even from men and boys, which is amazing because it can be such a stigma.
Tell us again, why Uganda, and for those of us who want to get involved, how do we know if helping women in UG, help women worldwide?
All women are connected. I don’t think the geographical location should make their problems more or less important. There’s a lot of need everywhere, you just have to give to things you’re passionate about. WGEF is a program that works, is inspiring and making change.
You never know if that girl who gets to stay in school longer will become a scientist and cure a disease. Or she could become a teacher and go on to teach and mentor more children. Or even avoid being trafficked and not get pregnant at 13. We live in a globalized world, so what happens over there, makes a difference here. I always say get involved in your community because you can make a difference, but don’t forget about the global community as well.
Even in prisons and homeless shelters in the U.S. we don’t always have what we need. Women shouldn’t have to choose between food or basic sanitary necessities.
For people who read this, how can they help WGEF?
This is the most important question for me. I find myself in the amazing position of “let’s do a lot of outreach and get women inspired, find new women and new partners”. I can’t do this alone and continuously look for women who care about social injustice and equality, dignity and human rights, globally and nationally.
They can go to our website, donate monthly or even just one time. Even to come to Gulu with me. Our next trip is in October and it’s open to a few volunteers/donors. We’re also looking for board member which are opportunities as well. We are happy to be introduced to anyone’s community. Sign up for our emails and communications, follow us on social media. But donating is always a lovely way to support us since we’re such a small company.
Amaiò donates a portion of our proceeds to WGEF, can you tell us how other companies can look into partnering with you guys?
We are always open to creative collaborations of any kind. We’re looking to partner with anyone who can bring awareness and promote equality and justice. For example, with Amaiò, you support us on International Women’s Day, like us on social media, you post about us. You’ve had different campaigns where a certain amount of proceeds are donated to WGEF.
Even if companies want to travel to Uganda and get involved on the ground, we're always open to that.
What does it mean to you to be an Amaiò ICON?
I don’t necessarily see myself as an “ICON” so whether I’m an icon or not, I don’t know. But I appreciate that my work is recognized. It can be a lonely journey and I really appreciate that Amaiò reached out and wanted to learn about what I do and why, and wants to support women in a sustainable and empowering way. So that support and encouragement makes me want to continue on and means more than you know.
Amaiò Swim is made for women, by women. At Amaiò, it is our goal to not only help women look beautiful in our pieces, but to create a community of encouragement and support. Each piece is designed with each woman in mind. All the women of Amaiò are thought of in the design process and all of these women inspire us daily. We want every woman who wears our pieces to feel elegant and channel their inner Bardot.
We pride ourselves on positivity and constant personal growth. With this being said, our Amaiò Icons initiative was born. This initiative was created to continue the support and growth of other women alike, women who inspire us, who uplift us, and who do all of this while looking effortlessly chic.
Amaiò Icons are mothers, career women, wives and friends. She has no boundaries of who she is or where she wants to be. She is always evolving, always progressing. Her style evolves with her growth; sometimes she feels sophisticated, other times she feels playful. She has a taste for adventure, for experiencing all the world has to offer her, and of course, a taste for fashion and beauty.
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We're always looking for the next inspiring woman to feature. Let's continue to fix each others crowns, shall we? An Amaiò ICON can be from any walk of life and in any career field. See below for more information how to nominate someone, or even submit yourself!