Raising a family on a farm in northwestern Wisconsin, Art Wigchers’ mother didn’t have it easy.  The young widow had to survive without the support of a husband in a time when, “Women had a lot more challenges than they do today,” said Wigchers.

And so, in 2003, when Wigchers began to make regular trips to the Oromia region of central Ethiopia with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), he thought often of his mother. He saw her situation reflected — and magnified in the young women he met there. Women who were filled with potential, but who suffered under the practice of sometimes brutal tribal traditions. These include female genital mutilation (FGM), arranged marriages from birth, abduction for marriage and “widow inheritance” whereby women are deprived of property upon the death of their husbands, unless they marry his closest male relative.

At the heart of these issues was their unequal access to basic education. Wigchers’ mother had only been to six years of school, and she always insisted on the importance of education. “My mom used to say, you’re going to go to college. You’re not going to end up like me,” he said. “So, I realized the power of education.”

Today, Wigchers is harnessing that power to improve the lives of young women — and men — in central Ethiopia through his work with CRS. Through the Train the Trainers program, Wigchers and about 15 Milwaukee area educators provide workshops and training sessions for Catholic school teachers in the vicariate of Meki, focusing on classroom management and improved English skills.

And since 2012, Wigchers has worked with the Girls Empowerment Program, which seeks to address and remedy the most significant issues facing the girls of the country.

Wigchers, the retired CEO of Zilber Ltd., lives in Brookfield with his wife of almost 49 years, Mary Ann. The couple, parishioners at St. Joseph Parish in Wauwatosa, became involved in the work of CRS in 2000 after they made a sizable donation from the estate of Mary Ann Wigchers’ father. After visiting the country in 2003 and 2004 to see the growth of the school that benefitted from that initial donation, Wigchers said, he was “hooked” on the work.

It was Bishop Abrahan Desta of Meki, he said, who first pointed out to him the importance of focusing on issues of gender inequality.

“He said, ‘You guys are doing wonderful work. But, we can only bring our society to a certain level, and we won’t break that barrier until we stop our harmful practices against girls,’” recalled Wigchers.

Kelly Lemens, pastoral associate at St. John XXIII Parish in Port Washington, has been working with the program and traveling to Ethiopia for the past four years.

“We were working one-on-one with teachers on techniques and methodologies to improve classroom management. In the classroom, you have 60 kids for one teacher — just imagine for a minute how hard that must be,” she said.

But “the backdrop” of this mission, she said, was talking about gender equality, “To open up a dialogue with teachers about what was happening to girls.”

It was a slow process at first. Madeline Wake, Ph.D, RN, is a faculty member at Marquette University College of Nursing and the former MU provost. She has made seven trips to the country with the Train the Trainers program.

During their first visits, she said, church officials and mission workers alike warned the group that any discussion of gender was off-limits and could result in violence against church employees.

Every August, she recalled, dozens of prepubescent girls would disappear from school due to injuries sustained during FGM. It was the traditional time of year for “cutting,” as it is referred to locally.

“As we started to get to know people, we developed strong friendships and relationships,” she said. During informal discussions, it became clear that many of the teachers and school families were opposed to practices like FGM, which she describes as a “power move” meant to dehumanize women. But, they felt that they lacked resources to combat
the issues themselves.

In 2013, the Ethiopian Episcopal Conference released a statement explicitly condemning female circumcision and forbidding its practice in any church members. At the request of Bishop Desta, Wigchers, Wake and their colleagues began to explore the topic with their Ethiopian teacher-students.

“All the teachers, without exception, said, we are with you, tell the bishop we will do whatever we can do to help. It is time for a change,” she said. The teachers all signed a letter pledging their support for the anti-FGM statement and vowed to begin dialogue and education about the subject in their school communities. “They were ready. They were just waiting.”

“Once you give permission for the dialogue and you create a space where it’s safe to have that dialogue, amazing things happen,” said Lemens. “People begin to feel empowered to speak up, and they feel empowered to effect change. You give them permission to take ownership of their lives and their community.”

Today, the Girls Empowerment Program is run exclusively by about 30 young Ethiopian women trained by CRS staff.

“By the end of the year with the expanded outreach, we expect to have a fulltime staff of over 50 powerful young Ethiopian women,” said Wigchers. “They’re building stronger girls, which leads to stronger families and communities.”