The sweet taste of financial independence

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Addise, a young woman in Ethiopia, was pulled out of school to get married when she was 15. Since joining Oxfam's beekeeping project, she has regained a feeling of agency over her life. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

A honeybee project in Ethiopia provides women with an education in job skills, literacy, and accumulating savings.

Addise, 26, lives with her husband and son in a provincial town close to Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia. Like many young women in rural Ethiopia, she was pulled out of school early and her parents pushed her into marriage at age 15. At the time, she was devastated.

“When the teachers asked what we wanted to be in the future, I used to say I wanted to be a doctor,” Addise says. “I have seen many women dying while giving birth. I was very eager to contribute something and help the mothers. It wasn’t just a dream. If I didn’t drop out of school I would definitely be a doctor.”

A photo of Addise hangs on the wall of her home. In it, she’s wearing a black graduation gown and hat. “This was taken when my brother-in-law graduated from university,” she explains. “I asked him if I could have a picture taken with me wearing his graduation gown to show my parents. I would have been just like him if I had the chance to stay in school.”

The photo Addise keeps as a reminder of the opportunity she missed. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Addise struggled silently with the abrupt transition from student to housewife. She was envious of her friends who had continued their schooling and taken jobs outside the home.

“I could have been very successful if I continued with my education,” she says. "Being illiterate has a huge emotional impact; it makes me feel inferior.”

She considered divorcing her husband or running away from home so she could go back to school, but worried about how her parents would react. “I might not go out of the house as I wish[ed], because I was afraid of what my husband might think and say,” she says.

A second chance at education

Addise heard about an Oxfam beekeeping project for women, and she was intrigued. Ethiopia is Africa’s largest honey consumer and producer, but Addise notes that beekeeping is traditionally considered a man's role simply because women aren't aware of the skills that go into beekeeping.

"At first, the women in the group were confused," she recalls. "There’s a huge cultural influence which creates a gender divide. I went to the first meeting feeling very excited. It took place under a tree in the neighborhood, and the staff explained how the project worked. Being part of that training and talking in public was the most exciting and unforgettable day of my life. It felt like I was in school again and starting a new chapter.”

That chapter was independence. As a housewife, Addise had been wholly dependent on her husband. She didn’t have any income or savings of her own, so she had to ask her husband for money, and she felt guilty doing so. She was insecure about her education, fearing that she wasn’t smart enough to get a job.

Addise is now the secretary of her beekeeping cooperative. She reviews records at a cooperative meeting. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Through the honey cooperative she received a bank account and savings book of her own, resources to build her savings from the money earned selling honey. And that’s not all she’s taken away from the experience. Along with beehive production, training on modern beekeeping, and business skills, the program integrates adult literacy, in which women learn about reproductive health and gain basic reading and writing skills. Addise learned how to read and write in school, but wasn’t confident in her abilities. With literacy training, she says she can read and write quite well.

Buzzing with pride

Six years after joining the project, Addise has two modern and one traditional beehive. She was elected secretary of a beekeeping cooperative. She reports that she is feeling better financially and is happy in her marriage.

“Previously I felt like I lived in poverty, but now I feel like I am in a better place because I learn, work, earn my own income. I feel equal to my friends,” she says. “I feel I am equal to men.”

The honey Addise and the women of the cooperative harvest might taste like any other good quality honey, but it’s entirely richer and sweeter when you know the beekeepers behind it are getting an education, gaining skills, and earning an income that will continue to reward generations to come.

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