Growing up in the far north of Ghana, due to the extreme poverty of her family and their surroundings, Dorcas was no stranger to tragedy. Dorcas’ parents struggled to provide her and her siblings with even their basic needs. Hunger and sickness were their constant companions. Living in a mud-built thatched hut, when it rained, Dorcas, her mother and siblings would crowd into a corner to try to stay dry, an impossible feat during the rainy season. Over the course of her childhood, Dorcas lost three of her eight siblings to infection and disease.
In spite of these challenges, Dorcas’ mother, who married at an early age and never had the opportunity to finish school, was determined that her daughter’s life would be different. Without even a uniform or a book to her name, Dorcas would walk several kilometers barefoot and on an empty stomach to school every day. Each week brought the same impossible struggle, “If I go to school, what will I eat?” Regularly, she would miss school to travel to the bush to help her mother cut firewood to sell at the market, barely earning enough for sustenance from one day to the next. When it came to starting Senior High School, such was the gap between her earnings and the cost of school fees, for a time, it seemed that all was lost.
Not to be defeated, between school terms Dorcas travelled south in search of work. Like many from poor rural communities, her only option was to carry out back breaking labor at illegal mining lines, carrying heavy loads long distances on her head to earn just a few Ghanaian cedis. Such was her determination to complete school, Dorcas endured terrifying journeys alone, a punishing work schedule from sunrise to sunset and cruel treatment from employers, all without even a roof over her head. With remarkable resilience through years of unimaginable pain and sorrow, Dorcas persevered until finally she completed school.
Dorcas, pictured on her way to lectures, during her undergraduate degree in Development Planning. (Photo: Sarah Winfield/CAMFED).
What kept me going was that, I want to help other people so that they don’t suffer… I never give up. I want to get to the highest level so that I can help the deprived people in society.
Her hopes and aspirations for a better future for herself, her family and community, however, did not end there. In 2015, Dorcas was selected for the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at CAMFED, enabling her to continue to university. Soon after, she joined the CAMFED Association (CAMA), where she found inspiration from like-minded young women, harnessing their inner strength to bring about real and lasting change in their communities. An awareness of how different things could have been if her mother had been able to complete school strengthened Dorcas’ resolve to help young mothers and victims of early marriage. With fellow CAMFED Association members, Dorcas meets with students, parents and other community members to impress upon them the importance of girls’ education and the negative consequences of teen pregnancy and child marriage. She has personally already supported 13 girls to go to school.
At university, Dorcas pursued an undergraduate degree in Development Planning, with a special interest in health policy planning. She continued to volunteer with the CAMFED Association and was selected as Vice Chair of her university’s chapter. Whilst still studying she also decided to found her own NGO, Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls’ Education (ASIGE), in her home district in the Upper East Region. With a Board comprising the District Girl Child Officer, Queen Mother and other community stakeholders, Dorcas says their mission is to advocate for “those who are unable to get their basic needs… And in terms of girls’ education: teenage mothers, primary and secondary schoolgirls.”
Dorcas in action – training women in her home district in basket weaving skills through her non-profit organization ASIGE.
Using straw, rubbers and dye, the women create innovative baskets as part of a long-term strategy to eliminate poverty in their region.
When it comes to social exclusion, Dorcas is clear that poverty is the root cause. So, how is ASIGE addressing this? Primarily, through sexual and reproductive health education designed to tackle high levels of teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS, and the provision of income generating skills training such as basket weaving, tailoring and shea butter production for women in the community. By 2022, Dorcas’ cooperatives comprised 429 female artisans, and more than 80 male members engaged in leatherwork.
Dorcas has also been making strides towards broadening the impact of ASIGE by providing training to women in sustainable and innovative agricultural practices such as the cultivation of cashew trees. In parallel, she is developing a microfinance fund and financial literacy training program to provide women with the resources and know-how to build their own businesses and save for the future.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed the demand for products, Dorcas found innovative ways to ensure her organization stayed afloat. She encouraged all vendors of ASIGE baskets to open online shops, and pivoted part of the work into sewing face masks which are sold locally as well as being exported to the US, UK, France, and Japan.
Through all these initiatives, Dorcas is helping to turn the tide of poverty in her community through the empowerment of women. In two successive years (2017 and 2018), she was awarded small grants from the Pollination Project to invest in the ASIGE basket weaving project. Dorcas also sought funding to build a structure to provide the women with shelter, enabling production to continue during the rainy season.
In ten years’ time, I want not only to touch the lives of women in the Upper East Region, but to extend to all regions in Ghana.
In November 2021, Dorcas realised her vision of setting up a permanent Women’s Weaving Center in Bolgatanga district that will give year-round shelter from the weather to over 300 skilled artisans working as part of her growing cooperative. The joyful opening ceremony was attended by local and traditional leaders, community members, and other stakeholders and was covered by national press.
By 2022, Dorcas had also raised funds to run a vocational training program for 50 teenage mothers, who are learning skills including the weaving of traditional fabric, or Kente.
Through her initiative, energy and vision, Dorcas demonstrates the core values of the CAMFED Association: philanthropy and leadership. With limited resources and in the face of extreme hardship, Dorcas is making an incredible impact in her community. Although she grew up in a village “that you can’t find on a map” she is working tirelessly to ensure that girls like her are visible, valued and have opportunities their mothers could only dream of.
500,000 – the number of women Dorcas aims to empower through her non-profit organization Advocacy for Social Inclusion and Girls’ Education (Photo: Sarah Winfield/CAMFED).