DORSET — The BOMA Project, a locally-based nonprofit that helps women in Kenya become financially self-sufficient so they can support their families, was awarded a grant of more than $500,000 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the foundation announced on International Women’s Day.

Almost 20 “Grand Challenge” grants were given, for a total of more than $24 million. BOMA was awarded $564,130.

The theme of the challenge was empowerment for women and girls by putting them at the center of economic development.

Kathleen Colson, who co-founded BOMA in 2006, said the grant would help them enroll 750 Kenyan women living in extreme poverty in its two-year program and expand it to add education around family planning, encouraging women to send girls to school, and educating women about their rights under Kenyan law and basic human rights.

“These are families that are very, very poor,” she said. “They have limited resources. But if you put what we call ‘productive assets’ ... (into the hands of a woman), then it is very likely that she will make her own decisions that benefit the whole family. It’s just that no one has tested this concept in the area where BOMA works.”

Colson said one reason testing is important is that about 40 percent of the African continent has the kind of arid lands like Kenya where BOMA, which means “to fortify” in Swahili, has been successful.

The BOMA program includes providing a small amount of money to start a business, and education on savings, training and coaching.

Colson said BOMA already tracks a lot of information, but the grant from the Gates Foundation will allow them to add features that will provide even more information she hopes will be useful to helping Kenyan women.

“We’re measuring how does an economic empowerment program that we implement... change household decision-making? Where we work, it’s a very traditional African culture, and it’s very patriarchal. There’s very solid evidence that when women become economically empowered, they start to take on making decisions on behalf of the family and they do that on their own or with their husband, when previously the husband was the sole decision-maker,” she said.

Putting economic power in the hands of women affects which family members get to go to school, which adult is buying food and livestock, and who in the family gets medical care.

In a statement, Melinda Gates, one of the leaders of the foundation, said the award recipients like BOMA were exciting for what information they can provide about what drives gender inequality.

“Empowered women and girls transform societies, but we don’t know with enough certainty what the world can do to help reduce gender inequality and help women and girls realize their potential,” she said.

Colson said she had recently come back from a meeting with the foundation’s representatives. She said the experience was a privilege.

“Here we are, this little Vermont nonprofit that isn’t so little anymore, and we were there alongside the World Bank and a Yale economist who’s done a lot of the work, and one other large NGO. We were the only sort-of ‘on the ground’ implementing organization that was at these meetings that were at a very high level with the foundation,” she said.

BOMA was one of 19 organizations that received an award from more than 1,700 applicants.

Colson, who plans to be back in Kenya this month, said BOMA will be hosting representatives of the foundation in the field for a week. She’s hoping Melinda Gates will visit BOMA’s operations.

“It would really raise the profile on what we believe is an unaddressed part of global poverty,” she said.

There are few organizations working to correct extreme poverty in the arid parts of Africa where BOMA is based, according to Colson.

BOMA has a goal of helping 100,000 women and children by 2018.

“We’re now thinking about, ‘How do we reach a million women and children,’” Colson added.

patrick.mcardle @rutlandherald.com

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