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Mother’s Day: How a mother’s love has empowered single mums in Ethiopia

Mum-of-seven, Rachel Duke, who lives in Royston, founded Meseret for Women, empowering single mothers in Ethiopia to recover from the trauma of abandonment, sexual assault and birth

Rachel at Meseret
Rachel at Meseret

Meseret for Women was founded in Addis Ababa in 2016, but how did the story begin?

It started off the back of my husband Tom and I adopting our daughter Solome from Ethiopia. It was always a dream of mine to adopt internationally, so after we had our sixth child Noah, who is now 12, we looked into it. I won’t lie; it was the longest hardest pregnancy I’ve ever been through!

How long did it take to adopt Solome?

Three years, so it’s not for the faint-hearted, and we felt blessed that we were able to adopt Solome. She was living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa run by a lady called Weinab Seyfu, who is now my partner in Meseret. When we arrived, although Solome was six months old, she looked much smaller, her head was shaved and she was in a dirty old car seat. I remember taking her in my arms, and feeling quite scared, but over the course of that day, she became mine – and now she is nine!

How did Solome’s adoption motivate you and Tom to launch Meseret?

We believed that if Solome’s mother had been given a choice, she would still have her daughter with her. And it was the plight of mothers like her that we felt needed support. A lot of these mothers, through no choice of their own fall pregnant and they have no rights, so if they get raped – and a lot of them do – it’s an immediate life sentence. As soon as you are a single mother in Ethiopia, you’re separated from society, nobody wants to employ you or give you shelter and your family reject you.

The children being looked after at Meseret
The children being looked after at Meseret

What does Meseret offer these vulnerable single mothers?

It’s a refuge for women if they have no shelter, although ideally we want to help them in their own environment. We also offer free daycare so we look after their babies, feed them, love them, nurture them, and provide medical care, so the mums can go out to work. We also educate the mums about feeding, cleaning and changing their babies.

You’ve helped hundreds of women. Do any stories stand out?

One of the girls was 16 and working in a house cleaning but got raped by the husband and fell pregnant. She bravely went to the police, but unfortunately the man who raped her was a policeman so she was told to never come back and feared for her life. I’m so proud of her because she lives in this little mud hut with very little resources but she has made it tidy and organised, with a little mattress for the baby, who we look after at Meseret House so she can go out to work, knowing her baby is safe, loved and cared for.

Sadly, your husband Tom died five years ago. How did you find the strength to carry on?

Because we were self-funding Meseret, we wanted to be on the ground, so took the kids out of school and moved to Ethiopia for six months. Because Tom was a farmer he flew back and forth. Just before we were due to come home, Tom was on his last training session to do a charity bike ride for Meseret and he suffered a massive heart attack.

There’s no right or wrong way to deal with grief but on a personal level it was Meseret and these mothers that saved me and supported me. They had all lost as well: some had lost husbands; some had been raped. They all knew Tom and loved him, and they were there for me as I was there for them.

Rachel with a mum and baby
Rachel with a mum and baby

How do you feel about the fellow mums you help?

I’m so proud of them! They come to the daycare and their children run to them and they pick them up, and they have that sense of joy and I think ‘wow, look at you ladies, you’re amazing!’

What can we do to help?

We need funds desperately. We’ve got a queue of women who need our help and what we are doing is working because we are holding onto these babies in our daycare until they go to school so they have a chance. We are officially breaking the cycle.

Find out more about the work of Meseret at meseretforwomen.org

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