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iZosh ladies bring their hearts, minds and checkbooks to issues of female oppression around the world.

It all started with a book group and a feeling of hopelessness.

The book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, reveals the trauma women, especially poor women, endure around the world.

When Sally Dunning moved to Maine from Michigan, she brought the idea for iZosh with her. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Sally Dunning, a retired clinical social worker, had plenty of experience seeing people facing tremendous difficulties and had often been frustrated by how little she could do to help. But this time Dunning wasn’t alone in her desire to do more; her book group wanted to go beyond discussion to practical response.

It took some time to figure out how, though. With global issues so vast—women being treated as second-class citizens, being denied education and health care, being abused sexually, physically and emotionally—how could a half dozen women make any difference at all?

By focusing on a tangible request from one woman at a time.

“They wanted to do more than a book club,” says Leslie Wilkins, an active volunteer with the resulting nonprofit, iZosh International. “The idea is you gather at these events, and some people can give $20 and some can give $200 and no one but the treasurer knows—or you can give anonymously—and it’s all pooled together. The money is spent that night on microloans for women in extreme poverty, living on the equivalent of $2 a day or less.”

The founders got the name “iZosh” from a word in the Amharic language, spoken in Ethiopia. It’s a compassionate word of comfort, basically saying, “I hear you. I see you.”

“So little, from our perspective, can do so much,” says Dunning, who was one of the founders in 2012. “It’s not the total answer, of course, but it certainly matters to one person.”

When Dunning moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where iZosh was founded, to Falmouth last year, she knew she wanted to start a chapter here. “I brought it in my luggage,” she laughs.

She planted the first iZosh daughter chapter in her new neighborhood, OceanView at Falmouth, which provides meeting space, and her new faith community, Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland, which handles administrative costs. Nationwide these pockets of feminist philanthropy have funded more than 600 women around the world with more than $220,000 in microloans. The money is then funneled to a microfinance institution, usually a bank, and the recipient pays it back to that institution.

“iZosh is an organization dedicated to giving women a hand up,” says member Linda Brewster, pastor of Tuttle Road United Methodist Church. “It’s compassionate support, women supporting women.”

Maine’s iZosh chapter has funded loans for Ethiopian women to buy sheep or goats to support themselves. Photo courtesy of iZosh

It gives women a chance to put their money where their faith is. “People who are outcasts living on the edge of society have a hard time and tend to have a much deeper faith than any of us have,” Brewster says. “They rely on God for just about everything in life, while we rely on our money. When we give $250, that goes a long way in a place like Ethiopia and we hardly miss it.”

Giving is made personal because the iZosh members learn about the lifestyle, challenges and business goals of women from the other side of the globe and vote on whose micro loans to fund.

Each iZosh event has an educational aspect—a film, book or article giving context on a particular struggle somewhere in the world. The April event in Falmouth started with a showing of the documentary “A Walk to Beautiful” about the efforts to heal Ethiopian women who have endured injuries in childbirth called obstetric fistula, a traumatic injury during childbirth that leaves them incontinent.

“Fistula is a preventable childbirth injury eradicated in the United States in 1895,” said filmmaker Allison Shigo, a New Hampshire native who was the guest speaker.

At least 35,000 women in Ethiopia live with obstetric fistula, unable to control their urine and sometimes their bowel movements. Poor nutrition, heavy work and a tradition of marrying young means that many expectant mothers, without access to a hospital or even a midwife, suffer through days of labor—long enough that often the infant dies and the mother tears between the birth canal and bladder and sometimes between the birth canal and rectum.

iZosh members vote for the cause they want to support by placing small stones in a proposed recipient’s basket until a majority is reached. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Makda Teklemichael, who grew up in Ethiopia and now lives in Boston, gave the iZosh ladies some context: “They are considered cursed by God, are outcasts and are treated like lepers.”

If a woman with obstetric fistula hears that her condition can be treated surgically and she gets herself to Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa, where there is a fistula hospital, her incontinence may be healed. But not all the damage is physical. The filmmakers encountered one young woman who had the surgery, but afterward, had nowhere to go. She was adrift emotionally. They helped find her a job at an orphanage, giving her not only employment but a home and community. “I saw that there was a critical gap that although there was treatment there was no support system afterward and no prevention efforts,” said Shigo, who founded the nonprofit Healing Hands of Joy to fill that gap.

Women who have recovered from fistula surgery are invited to become Safe Motherhood Ambassadors. After two weeks of training and counseling in a residential program, ambassadors go door-to-door, sharing information and helping to identify women with fistulas who may be treated. Each ambassador gets a kit that includes a mobile phone to call for emergency assistance, shoes for walking long distances and a purple umbrella to shade them from the heat of the summer and identify them as an ambassador. Part of their educational outreach tools are a didactic book for sharing medical information with women who can’t read and an audio New Testament.

Healing Hands of Joy has trained nearly 1,500 fistula survivors to be Safe Motherhood Ambassadors. But these women—many of them shunned by their husbands, families and communities while they were incontinent—need a small loan to buy sheep or goats, something to give them some economic security. Maine’s iZosh ladies fully funded 16 of these micro loans.

When a project is funded, they ring a cowbell to celebrate. Photo by Heidi Kirn

When it comes time to make decisions about what to fund, it is a democratic process, but with a sweet visual ritual. Members of the group place stones in baskets designated for each loan applicant until one basket holds a majority. Visitors to the group (or members who came without their checkbooks) get to vote on additional loans. Loans of a few hundred dollars at a time help a woman start a business, get an education or build a house. Each time a loan is fully funded, the iZosh ladies ring cowbells to celebrate.

“We have a real good time giving those loans out,” says Linda Jensenius of Cumberland, laughing.

iZosh members pledge how much they plan to donate during each semiannual event so that organizers have an idea of the total funding to come in. During the event itself, checks are collected—written out to the church—and the total amount is put on a church credit card that night to immediately fund those loans through micro loan institutions such as Kiva and Opportunity Alliance. No funds are held by iZosh.

“After the meeting the other night, I was able to announce in church that we raised $4,090 and fully funded 16 women’s business loans,” says Cheryl Roberts of Yarmouth, one of the volunteer loan officers.

“These micro finance institutions have people on the ground in these countries working directly with these women, helping to be sure their business plans succeed, monitoring the process and receiving repayment of the loans,” Dunning says, adding that the local iZosh chapter has already begun rolling over repaid loans into new loans. “There’s a snowball effect.”

Ninety-year-old new member Connie Dayton of Falmouth left her first event elated. “Look at what we did tonight,” she says.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

The next Cumberland County iZosh event will feature guest speaker Abusana Michael “Micky” Bondo, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who co-founded In Her Presence, a local nonprofit that hosts English language classes and other workshops to help immigrant women better integrate and succeed in Maine. Bondo will talk about the work she does in the Congo with a group of women trying to form an agricultural collaborative. There will also be an opportunity to vote on and contribute to micro loans. The event is Oct. 9 at 6:45 p.m. at Blueberry Commons, 20 Blueberry Lane, OceanView at Falmouth retirement community.

This article has been corrected online to reflect a different start time for the Oct. 9 meeting in Falmouth.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer who is profoundly grateful that she had access to a C-section when she needed one. She lives in Scarborough.