With access to capital, Brigitte turned five chickens into financial freedom, and changed the world around her. Investing in women like her makes us all safer, healthier and more prosperous.
Four years ago, I met Brigitte Uwababyey. Four years ago, she changed my life.
In 2019, I met the 43-year-old mother of four on a farm outside a hillside village in rural Rwanda. This was not just any farm. Not a farm her husband bought. Not a farm she inherited, or given to her by the government. This was her farm. A successful vegetable farm with over 1,000 chickens harvesting nearly 850 eggs a day. She was a small business owner, an entrepreneur, a pioneer and a pillar of her community.
But Brigitte wasn’t always a businesswoman.
Years before, she was completely reliant on her husband financially. Choices like buying clothes or extra food for her children were subject to his veto. She was in an oppressive situation and a troubled marriage.
But Brigitte didn’t just change her reality—she realized her dreams.
Penny by penny—saved furtively—she built a small fund to make and sell soap. For communities with entrenched gender imbalances, even this tentative step to financial independence by a woman was risky.
But Brigitte was a risk taker.
She used that money to join a Village Savings and Loan association (VSLA) organized by CARE, the global humanitarian organization. These are self-managed groups of 15 to 25 women from within a community who meet regularly to save their money in a safe space, access small loans, and get insurance.
During one group meeting, Brigitte was asked what her ultimate dream was. She said it was to own five chickens.
Within a few months, with a loan from the group, she bought her chickens. A few months after that, she paid off her loan. The five chickens then turned into 100, and the profits from their eggs were soon invested in a plot of land. And the plot expanded into a large vegetable farm.
By the time I met her she owned over 1,000 chickens, employed five men, and was much happier in her marriage. Moreover, she transformed the lives of her whole community, supplementing her neighbors’ diets—which had been based on the low-nutrition staple cassava—with protein-rich eggs, meat and a more diverse selection of vegetables. With access to capital, Brigitte turned five chickens into financial freedom, and changed the world around her.
The five chickens then turned into a hundred, and the profits from their eggs were soon invested in a plot of land. And the plot expanded into a large vegetable farm.
Around the globe, women like Brigette already know how to get things done. To stretch resources, to innovate, to adapt. And, when invested in, they know how to thrive.
But millions of women never get this equal access to opportunity. Instead, they are subjected to grinding poverty, brutal wars, food insecurity, political disenfranchisement, sexual violence, oppressive patriarchies and apathy—turning their potential to thrive, into a struggle to survive.
In Ukraine, over 90 percent of the displaced are women, girls and the elderly. Forced to leave their countries, not speaking the local language, Ukrainian mothers are still putting their children through schools, still caring for their parents, still making it work.
About 70 percent of the world’s frontline and community health workers are women. These are the people who saved us—and are still saving us—from COVID and many other diseases. Yet many are unpaid or, at best, underpaid. And, as women they also carry the unpaid burden of domestic work in the home.
But Brigitte taught me that, given the smallest space, the smallest crack in the walls, women grow. That if you address inequality—like providing unbanked women like Brigitte access to loans and financial tools—women know how to do the rest.
That is why I carried Brigitte in my heart when I joined dozens of CARE advocates from across the United States on International Women’s Day to gather congressional support for programs that empower women as key leaders in ending poverty.
In more than 50 meetings with members of Congress, we asked for their support for at least $72.9 billion in State and Foreign Operations funding for FY2024, with specific attention to at least $400 million for the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund.
Overall, this is a tiny percentage of the federal budget—one cent on the dollar —but can have a profound impact on the lives of women and girls across the world. It can address the root causes of poverty, promote empowerment and agency, and build stronger, more resilient societies.
There were times when we were questioned by some members; how is this good for America? Why invest in women “there” when we can spend the money here? Where did this all fit on the yardstick these policymakers used to measure a better future for America?
In response, I was proud to tell Brigitte’s story, and how she showed me U.S. foreign assistance is not a handout, and how she transformed her community, made it healthier, more prosperous and peaceful.
Investing in women like her, whether they are entrepreneurs, teachers or frontline healthcare workers, makes us all—including here in the United States—safer, healthier, more secure, more prosperous and peaceful.
I told them that women like her are the reason U.S. assistance works—that she was a partner, not just a passive recipient of that aid. And that yes, Congress should also invest in bettering the lives of women in America and abroad. It wasn’t a zero sum game, but a win-win.
At the end of the day, when women have the equality they need, they have the ability to make exceptional lasting change to everyone’s lives. They know how to lift up their families, communities and countries. That they know how to build a better future for everyone on the planet.
If you have any doubt that women know how, there is a hillside farm in Rwanda you should see.
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