As we reach the midpoint of Women’s History month and celebrate International Women’s Day, my inbox and social media pages are filled with stories and posts of amazing women. Many of these women have broken barriers, shattered glass ceilings and risen to the top of their respective fields. And make no mistake I am glad we celebrate their accomplishments. But, Janice’s story reminds us to make space to celebrate the power and “essence” of every woman, particularly those who are working to build better lives for themselves and their families. At Imago Dei Fund we are filled with gratitude for the grantee partners like 10Thousand Windows who offer intense support for women and alongside them as they create lives filled with dignity and empowerment. In my mind, this is what International Women’s Day is all about – celebrating the courage, power and love that women can offer themselves, each other and the broader community, especially during challenging times. I hope you will take a moment to read Janice’s story. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

It was the summer of 1994, at the age of twelve, when I encountered the question “What for you is the essence of being a woman?” It was the final question asked during the Miss Universe pageant held in Manila, Philippines, my beloved country. I cannot remember the answers of the candidates but the question stuck in my head. I even remembered scanning our dictionary for the meaning of “essence.” Miss India brought home the crown and her answer that impressed the judges was, “Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate.”

Many years later, I found the courage to answer my childhood Miss Universe question. After seven years of working hard building a career in the corporate arena, I just had a powerful urge to leave and join the social sector. I realized that for me, in my life, the essence of being a woman is to make a significant impact in the community by helping vulnerable, under resourced women realize their dreams and potential. I welcomed and embraced the mission of 10ThousandWindows of helping women experience economic empowerment so they may live safe, free, and hopeful lives. I made that scary yet exciting decision 11 years ago and I am glad that I did! I never looked back nor had an ounce of regret in the decision that I made because the work in 10ThousandWindows, which I am privileged to be a part of, has empowered me to empower other women. I believe that every empowered woman has the natural capacity to empower others within her circle of influence. This circle of influence keeps growing and gets bigger and wider as more resources, passion, and dedication are being poured in by us all. Together with the colleagues and partners of 10ThousandWindows, we support and lift each other up in facing the challenges as we serve these women, who dream of having a better world for themselves and their children.

At 10ThousandWindows, 81 percent of the clients that we serve are women. These women joined our program because they do not know where and how to start living their lives again with dignity after it was disrupted by the most unimaginable things that happened to them, which left them traumatized, scarred, and vulnerable. A majority of the women had not even completed basic education or a high school diploma making it difficult to access safe and sustainable jobs. A majority of them had children to care for and were dependent on the meager income from partners, family members, and relatives who mostly worked in the informal sector such as jeepney drivers, street vendors, and stevedores. Many of them were already the breadwinner in the family at a young age because of the loss or absence of functional parents or adult carers. Many of them were displaced and ran away from home because of neglect and multiple abuses. Many of them turned to peers, friends, neighbors, or individuals they thought they could trust but influenced them to engage in risky, unhealthy behaviors, manipulated, deceived, and harmed them.

This brings up a lot of great questions such as “what can we do to make a difference in the lives of these women?”, “what approach or method can we use to empower them?”, “how do we start?”, “what are the resources that we need?”, “who are we going to partner with?” Question after question. There are no quick fixes and there are no perfect solutions because we are dealing with unique individuals with unique circumstances. Each of these women have their own personalities, different stories to tell, and different battles to fight internally and externally.

With the help of field experts and through research and related studies, 10ThousandWindows developed its theory of change. If we prepare these women to meet local market needs by providing them with education, relevant workplace skills training, career guidance, and psycho-social support in a supportive and trauma-informed environment, we reduce their vulnerability. If we can prepare employers so they may develop safe and inclusive workplaces through training and awareness, we can increase the likelihood of success for these women. When this happens, these women will be empowered to protect themselves in the workplace, be able to sustain employment in their communities, and improve their ability to provide for themselves and their children.

UN Women shared some insights about women economic empowerment:

  • Women’s economic empowerment includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household to international institutions.
  • Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification and income equality in addition to other positive development outcomes.
  • Increasing women’s and girl’s educational attainment contributes to women’s empowerment and more inclusive economic growth.

Since inception of 10ThousandWindows in 2010, a total of 635 women participated in the soft skills and job readiness training. They also received intensive career guidance counseling and case management services to support them in the process of achieving their career goals. The majority of these women advanced in their education levels while actively engaged in the program. Through the scholarship program offered by 10ThousandWindows, 113 women graduated high school, 24 completed vocational courses, and 34 graduated college. Presently, 43 women are enrolled in various education levels. The challenges of online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic did not stop them from pursuing their goals. Their perseverance fuels us to keep doing our best in providing the much needed support for them to keep on fighting for their hopes and dreams.

On the other hand, the majority of women with high school diplomas decided to focus on finding employment rather than pursuing a college education. Others chose to become full-time caregivers of their children and some also engaged in self-employment or small-scale entrepreneurship. In addition to career guidance, soft skills training, formal education, and vocational-technical training, those who wanted to pursue employment availed of the job referral assistance program of 10ThousandWindows. As a result, 255 women were hired in safe jobs and they were able to sustain their work for three months and more. Critical to the success of these women was the continued regular career guidance and psychosocial support for at least three months after they were hired. Part of the strategy that also proved helpful was getting regular feedback from the partner companies about the women’s progress and further collaboration on how to develop mental health and trauma-informed practices in the workplace.

At the height of community quarantine and lockdowns due to the pandemic, many of the women suffered loss of income and jobs. The immediate response of 10KW was to provide food packs but since the quarantine continued for several months, a more sustainable solution was needed. The idea of providing short-term work from home by sewing facemasks was developed. While they were engaged in the work-from-home program, they were assisted by 10KW counselors in finding new jobs. The counselors were also available to provide support for women who experienced physical safety risks and mental health crises.

The path that we are taking alongside these women in their journey towards economic empowerment has never been more challenging with the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. However, the heart that is planted in me and in every woman in the universe would continue to beat, aspire, endeavor, and fight for a better, safer, and inclusive world for all women to not only survive but to thrive in this beautiful yet complicated world that we live in.

Photos courtesy of Janice Ubaldo, 10ThousandWindows