06/03/2014 06:46 GMT | Updated 05/05/2014 06:59 BST

Using Laughter to Fight Poverty on International Women's Day

This Saturday, March 8, is International Women's Day. To mark the occasion I want to talk about a ground breaking program that uses laughter to raise the spirits and incomes of young mothers living in poverty in the slums of Nairobi.

This Saturday, March 8, is International Women's Day. To mark the occasion I want to talk about a ground breaking program that uses laughter to raise the spirits and incomes of young mothers living in poverty in the slums of Nairobi.


Eighteen year old business woman, Halima (left) with her seven month old son and business partner Irene. Having benefitted from the Clowns without Borders program with Hand in Hand Eastern Africa Halima and Irene today own and run a film rental and print shop in Kawangware outside Nairobi.

The psychological dimension of poverty

On a day when we mark women's achievements, we should also note the psychological dimension of the challenges they face. Laws can be changed and attitudes can be influenced, but years of discrimination are not easily cast aside by the mind.

As someone who grew up in rural poverty, I speak from personal experience when I say living in poverty can create a mind-set that stops you from believing you can ever find a way out, let alone develop the skills you need to start an enterprise and generate an income. Even things as simple as managing your finances, opening a bank account and standing up and talking in front others seem to be impossible. I see that same mind-set today among women when they first join Hand in Hand Eastern Africa's community groups.

Our first task, therefore, is to open their minds and access their inner potential. Where they see poverty and despair, we see grassroot entrepreneurs, full of ideas and potential. This is exactly where our joint Young Mothers Program with Clowns without Borders Sweden comes into play. Funded by the Swedish Postcode Lottery, the project combines Hand in Hand's job creation model with psychosocial support - or, as it's referred to by participants, "freeing of the mind" - from Clowns without Borders Sweden. The project has been so successful we are now integrating its techniques into our mainstream program.

Laughter and the fight against poverty are not obvious bedfellows. Surely laughter is of no practical use to women who lack money, safe water, food and sanitation - or is it? According to an independent review conducted by Brinjal, a UK-based consultancy specializing in livelihoods analysis, "success is almost guaranteed" to women who complete the program.

Science bears out the findings. Leading American psychologist Professor Diener from the University of Illinois finds that, in general, "happiness" does not only make people feel good but also helps them function better. In Hand in Hand's experience, it can help people find a way up and out of poverty.

Young mothers in Kenya face discrimination and rejection by the society

Disadvantaged young mothers in Kenya are likely to have little or no education and even less confidence to confront the daily challenges they face. Pregnant teenagers are stigmatized and discriminated against by teachers, family and community to such an extent that 13,000 of them drop out of school each year (UNDP 2010). In this harsh environment, it is that much harder for a young mother living in poverty to open her mind to opportunity.

Starting a business and raising incomes

Hand in Hand Eastern Africa offers young mothers the opportunity to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and then increase their incomes by setting up small businesses. The first step is to encourage them to join community groups where they can support each other, save together and learn business basics.

Clowns without Borders' innovative techniques take group members away from their daily lives, if only for a short time, to help them create the inner calm they need to absorb the business training we offer.

The organization uses songs, storytelling and games to help group members shake off the stress of daily life, build solidarity and concentrate on the activities at hand. Said one group member: "Before I was alone, now I can at least mingle with everyone. I am free and happy."

In total we have formed more than 2,500 community groups in Kenya so far. Their members, over 80% of whom are women, have gone on to create some 40,000 small businesses and about 50,000 jobs.

We know that education is the key to the future for women and girls all over the world. Perhaps we did not know that laughter can open the door.