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Photo of Julia Bennett and fellow UW SWEIO travelers in Uganda
March 11, 2020

SWE trip helps empower women and children in Uganda

Written By: Jason Daley

In January 2020, while many undergrads were taking a much deserved holiday break, 10 students from the UW-Madison chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) traveled to Uganda to learn about the culture and do what they could to help women in the African nation. Among those who made the journey was Julia Bennett, a sophomore from Hudson, Wisconsin, majoring in computer engineering.

The trip was the second for the SWE International Outreach program (SWEIO), which sponsored its first outreach effort in Jodhpur, India, in January 2019. The goal of the trips is to promote women’s empowerment, teach STEM concepts, and conduct volunteer work.

Julia Bennett with women in Uganda
Julia Bennett enjoying connecting with women in Uganda.

Bennett, who is the Evening with Industry officer for SWE, says that part of the challenge of the trip was deciding where SWE could do the most good. The planning committee, she says, narrowed the location of the visit down to areas in Kenya, Thailand and Uganda. After looking through available volunteer opportunities, she says, they believed they could make the most impact in Uganda, a tiny nation in east Africa. “We liked that the women empowerment centers there were really involved in teaching skills and building independence,” she says.

In Uganda, the participants divided into three groups, with one going to a women’s empowerment program called the Resilient Women’s Organization and another volunteering at a youth skills camp called JB Caring Hearts. Bennett volunteered at an empowerment group called Mutima Uganda, a program that supports and teaches life skills to HIV-positive women near Entebbe, many of whom have been abandoned by their partners and families.

Bennett says the women they worked with ranged in age from 20 to 85. “Everyone there was so loving,” she says. “Every time we would enter the place, everyone would give you hugs and every day they’d be sad to see you leave.”

The team decided not to focus on teaching engineering skills. Last year, during the trip to India, SWEIO members found that the women they encountered were more interested in developing skills that would directly contribute to helping them support themselves and feed their children, and didn’t relate to a focus on STEM education. On this trip, SWEIO focused on teaching financial literacy, practicing English, helping out in the garden and simply connecting with the women.

But Bennett says they couldn’t help but put some of their engineering skills to good use. The women at Mutima run a business crafting hair scrunchies. The SWEIO team fixed a sewing machine that was out of commission and also helped the women refine the process they use for cutting and sorting fabric pieces to speed up production.

Though the trip was only two weeks long, Bennett says she and her traveling companions are committed to staying connected with the people they met in Uganda. Several have begun sponsoring children they worked with. The crew that spent time at Mutima continues to buy scrunchies and sell them at SWE meetings and also helped the program rent a plot of land where the women can enlarge their garden. To buy necessities, many of the women told Bennett they would skip meals. “The women said having a garden and access to food is so helpful because the HIV/AIDS medication is so strong,” she says. “If you don’t take food with it, it will destroy your stomach.”

While Bennett says she would love to volunteer with SWEIO again next year, wherever the group may travel, she says she will probably give up her spot so other freshmen and sophomores can take the trip. “I had my experience and it was amazing,” she says. “I want to make sure everyone gets to have that.”