Our helpers make our lives easier in so many ways, but have you ever paused to consider the future of your foreign domestic worker after she moves on from your home? Many women turn to Singapore-based organisation Aidha, to learn new skills and improve their prospects for a brighter future. We spoke to the CEO and three students about a story of optimism and hope, against a background of poverty and global inequality.
On any given Sunday, 18 classrooms at UWC Dover are abuzz with 350 to 400 eager students and 50 volunteer mentors. The enthusiastic learners are foreign domestic workers (FDWs), who have enrolled at Aidha, a non-profit organisation launched in 2006 to provide women with financial skills to enable them to make good life choices, and perhaps to start a sustainable business.
CEO Karen Fernandez is passionate about the huge opportunities this education creates for women when they decide to leave Singapore and return to their home countries. “Almost all of these women have no savings prior to starting at Aidha, which is very sad when you think that it’s the very reason they came here.
Sometimes it’s because they just don’t know how to save, combined with the overwhelming pressure to remit money home for sick relatives, for a leaking roof, or for feed for livestock. It’s difficult for them to say no.” One of the teaching modules focuses on how to educate their families, and how to think long-term. “It’s a huge mindset change for them.” Most women take two nine-month modules, graduating in 18 months. “They work hard at people’s homes six days a week, and on their one day off they come to classes for three hours, plus do homework,” says Karen. Topics focus on practical skills.
One component involves tallying their spending and saving; in Communication class they prepare speeches and learn how to speak to customers and suppliers; in Entrepreneurship they write a business plan and learn about marketing. “At the end of 18 months they are justifiably very proud, as are their employers; it’s a big achievement.”
According to Karen, seven out of 10 graduates have gone on to set up their own businesses and make investments – an obvious source of pride and achievement for her. “One 30-year-old Indonesian set up a coffee plantation; it was a very special moment when she brought a bag of her coffee to class. Another bought a cow, and sold it when the time was right at a large profit; she now has five cows. In general, they are building and investing in small businesses, land and livestock.” The flow-on effect on the women’s families and community is significant. “Our research found that educating one woman impacts approximately nine lives – family, children and relatives – and the whole community benefits.”
Education doesn’t end at graduation. A new alumni development programme provides ongoing support, especially when the women hit snags. “The business plan clinic, run with the financial support of Goldman Sachs, is a morale-booster for the students, plus there are four other practical, business-oriented workshops.” They also have the opportunity to enter “The Big Pitch”, presenting their work to a panel of donors who are prepared to finance a business with $500 to $1,000, and provide mentoring for a year.
“At the first Big Pitch, all seven students received funding, an immense achievement and one that they never expected!” As for the people who employ these women in their homes, Karen is quick to allay any unease they may feel. “The location at UWC is a safe and structured environment. Rather than hang out at Lucky Plaza, the girls have this much nicer space where they can be with new friends. They’re very isolated during the week; here they find familiar faces, and learning. Why wouldn’t employers want to give their FDWs this chance?” Many of them have come here to escape poverty at home and to build a better future for themselves and their children. “There’s a quote: ‘Talent is universal, opportunity is not’,” says Karen. “With a solid education, they have new opportunities and choices.”
Tumini, Indonesia, 14 years in Singapore
‘When my two brothers were very young, and they needed me to support them. My first employer sent me on an English course as I didn’t know the language at all. My family is doing well now. I support my grandma, my mum and my two brothers at home. Both of my brothers have now finished their studies, and my first brother has gotten married and has a son. Both now work in Kalimantan. It makes me proud – even though I don’t have my own child, I have my brothers. I’ve learned a lot at Aidha. They have taught me to save more money. Before Aidha, I always sent all my money to my family and I never thought about my future or myself. The more I come here, the more confident I feel. I come to Aidha often; I’ve found friends here, it feels like family, it’s like my second home. I feel comfortable and safe. My employers are also very supportive – when they see that I’m wearing the Aidha T-shirt, they are so happy. My goal is to have my own salon. Last year I won The Big Pitch challenge, which means my mentor donates money to my business, teaches me, and meets with me every month. He talks to me about going back and finding the right place; talking to suppliers, setting up something, doing marketing, everything. I would strongly recommend Aidha. On my days off, I see some young girls just doing nothing important for their lives. I want to tell them what I’ve learnt, and let them know that if I can do it, they can do it also. It gives you hope for the future.’
Khan Mai, Myanmar, 8 years in Singapore
I came to Singapore because we didn’t have enough income. I have eight siblings and my parents back at home. After high school I took some training in early childcare and worked at a kindergarten for five years, but my income was so low, it wasn’t enough to feed my whole family; so I came here, looking for a job. It was my choice, and also necessary. I got married in 2013 in Singapore, as my husband is also working here. He’s from Myanmar and I am moving there with him soon. I come to Aidha every Sunday. Right now I’m in the computer workshop, where we learn web design and how to use Facebook and Gmail. Before coming to Aidha, I couldn’t save at all. I decided I wanted to learn how to manage my finances. I’m now really looking forward to setting up my business. I have already invested in land. When I go home I will resell it, so I can start the business. With ten others, I’m planning to open a restaurant in Yangon. But that’s not my ultimate target: my target is that, in 2020, we’re going to build a water park; that is our big plan, because my city doesn’t have any place for families to hang out. Since joining Aidha, I’ve recommended it to friends. I always tell them that it’s good for you, that it will help you open up your mind. Two of my friends signed up and now we take classes together. I’ve learnt lots from Aidha, and it has helped me find out what I really want to do.
Gladys, Philippines, 10 years in Singapore
I’m a single parent of four, and all my children live in the Philippines. Before coming here, I worked for a couple of years in Saudi Arabia. In Singapore, the pay is much better than in the Philippines, and it’s closer to home – that’s another factor. My youngest daughter is 19 and she’s already in her third year of college; she’s doing a degree in hotel management. That’s why I moved to Singapore: to work for the investment into her studies. I joined Aidha in 2010. In our first module we were taught how to be financially prudent and how to differentiate between a need and a want. After I got my certificate, I immediately started as a trainee. I’m still learning; it’s giving me positive energy. My past and current employers are very happy about the activities at Aidha and are very supportive. I want to become an entrepreneur, which is why I started here; I want to manage my own business. Right now I’m learning about the internet, because you can’t just ignore the internet – it’s very powerful! I would recommend Aidha to anyone I met. It gives me a better hope for the future, not only for myself, but also for my children, for my friends and for the rest of the people in the community.
Some facts about Aidha:
Aidha is a Sanskrit word meaning “that to which we aspire”
Around 800 students are currently enrolled
Training and materials are provided to volunteers, who must have three years’ professional experience
Aidha is a non-governmental organisation supported by corporate donations, subsidised tuition fees and fundraising initiatives; donations to the charity made before 31 December 2015 are 300 percent tax-deductible
Education makes a great Christmas present: the cost is $400 for one module or $650 for two, and there’s a monthly intake of students
Bike-riders should look out for the Fourth Aidha Tour de Singapore, to be held on 28 February 2016. The $100,000 raised in 2015 by 140 cyclists supported 150 scholarships. Registration from 1 December. Call 6341 5287 or email email@example.com for more information.
This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of the magazine.