Empowering rural women: more than money

Early April is the best season for tea picking, and it is also the busiest time for Yu Lan, a villager in Jiayao Village, Guizhou Province. Every morning after sending her children to school, she begins her daily working routine — producing short videos, packing bags of tea and communicating with online customers.

Yu recently told Chinese Philanthropist magazine that she first familiarized herself with the online business world thanks to “Orange Moms”, a rural women’s economic empowerment project of a Chinese poverty alleviation foundation called YouChange Foundation.

Working from home

E-commerce poverty alleviation was one of the 10 targeted poverty alleviation projects launched by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development in 2015, Zhang Jing, YouChange’s deputy secretary general recalled.

At that time, YouChange was preparing a joint project with the Wal-Mart Foundation. Since one of the Wal-Mart Foundation’s global strategies was related to gender equality, they came up with the idea of ​designing e-commerce strategies for women in China’s rural areas. As a result, they launched the “National Retail Training Camp”, which is the predecessor of Orange Moms.

Volunteers experienced in the rural e-commerce sector were recruited from all over the country to design the project, which combines online learning (using MOOCs), offline training and follow-up monitoring.

With the technical aspect of the entire platform established and the content available, YouChange partnered with some selected county governments in Sichuan, Hebei, Guizhou, Gansu and other provinces to recruit women into the project.

Development as well as income

Staff from YouChange made initial visits to rural women to identify their needs.

“Our purpose at the beginning was just to help the women open their businesses to increase their income, but we didn’t dig deeper to learn about their additional needs other than earning more momey,” Zhang said.

Rural women often face challenges other than poverty. Many experience strained parent-child relationships, as well as problems with their marriages and in-laws — so they are constantly in a very anxious state and need mental health support. Therefore, YouChange adjusted their economic empowerment plan for rural women to add training sessions about women’s leadership, and courses on parent-child relationships and stress relief, for example.

Five years into the project, with more in-depth understanding of rural women, YouChange found that in addition to increasing their income over a short period of time, they also needed comprehensive and sustainable development. To be more specific, they needed information and news from sources based outside of where they live, in order to broaden their horizons and connect with the world.

YouChange considers the most updated version of the program, Orange Moms (the word orange in Chinese, “Xiangcheng”, is a homonym to “rural and urban areas”), a university without walls — helping the targeted women to learn and develop their skills in an all-round way. The program provides courses from technical aspects of e-commerce, to operation, management and marketing skills, as well as mental health support.

Achieving a higher success rate

Basing its decisions on the actual situation, the Orange Moms program often tends to choose younger women with a certain degree of education, in counties where local governments have set their own goals to develop agricultural e-commerce, introduced related policies, and established a relatively functional supply chain.

“Unfortunately, it’s too hard for us to run the program in areas too closed-off or with women who are unwilling to learn new things due to their knowledge level or age,” Zhang said, pointing out the limitation of the NGO.

According to the design of Orange Moms, the cost of one training class per county is about 500,000 yuan ($74,141) per year, and the average investment of each student is 10,000 yuan — including online and offline courses, incubation and research costs — all covered by YouChange and its donors.

For each one-year training period, the offline training is only about 10 days, and the research and study period is about 13 days; the rest of the training and incubation are online. Therefore, how to increase the success rate of each training session and reduce the turnover rate of trainees is essential for YouChange.

YouChange has therefore strengthened community operations in the incubation stage, for example, they established a WeChat group for each training class and regularly post activities with various themes in the group, such as time management, live broadcasting skills and family care.

The empowerment of rural women may result in the improvement of their economic status and self-awareness, which may create a gap between the women and their family members.

Zhang said that the project is not designed to directly teach its students the concept of gender equality, instead, it focuses on teaching them e-commerce skills and encourages women to communicate with and to subtly influence their families.

Article photo: Chinese Philanthropist