Miriam programme empowers single mums on benefits

Summary

The second round of the Miriam project is finishing up across Belgium, with Ostend handing out certificates last week to 12 women who spent a year receiving intense coaching and counselling

‘I now understand how things work’

Certificates earned by women taking part in the Miriam 2.0 programme in Ostend were handed out last week. The programme focuses on women living on welfare benefits.

The coastal city last year assessed that more than 14% of those enrolled with welfare agency OCMW were single parents, a large majority of them women. Because of child care concerns, single parents with limited education or work skills have a more difficult time securing and retaining jobs.

The first Miriam (1.0) was launched in 2015 as a pilot project to give a select group of these women personal coaching and assistance for one year. Support groups are also part of the programme.

The women selected for the pilot – which was carried out in five Belgian cities, including Leuven and Ghent – were then followed up for two years. The second round of the programme, called 2.0, was then launched in six different cities last year, including Antwerp, Genk and Ostend.

Social isolation

While many cities have long worked with welfare recipients on job coaching, it is clear that single mums experience the most social isolation and have the most difficult on the jobs market. So Miriam offers not just help in seeking a job and preparing for an interview but in many social aspects of daily life, such as self-esteem, adapting to your environment and building up a social network.

In Ostend, specialised social workers worked intensively with 15 women over the last year in a buddy system. They delved into such issues as personal relationships, family, child-rearing, free time, language difficulties, legal rights and creating a budget.

The city was the first to hand out Miriam 2.0 certificates of completion last week. Of the 15 women who started the programme in the coastal city, 12 finished it. “I found everything so difficult before,” one Ostend participant said. “This year, it’s going much better, also with my Dutch. I completed an internship, and now I’m working. I now understand how things work in Belgium.”

Everyone brings their history with them but also their own experiences, enthusiasm, resilience, creativity and potential

- Magda De Meyer of Vrouwenraad

Miriam includes weekly support groups that see the women coming together. This led to lively discussions about common concerns and obstacles. There were also guest speakers on topics like healthy foods and social housing.

“These group sessions were very empowering for the women,” said Magda De Meyer, chair of the Vrouwenraad, or Women’s Council, one of the programme’s partners. “In Miriam, single women are not just passive participants – quite the opposite. Everyone brings their history with them but also their own experiences, enthusiasm, resilience, creativity and potential. In the support sessions, all of that came together!”

De Meyer handed out the diplomas in Ostend together with welfare city councillor Natacha Waldmann. “It is clear already that the results are positive,” said Waldmann. “Three women are already employed, three have started training programmes and another is doing an internship. A few participants have moved on to a further training course for women in Ostend.”

The Miriam project is a co-operation among city councils, the Vrouwenraad, the federal agency for social integration and UC Louvain’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Work, State and Society.

Photo: City councillor Natacha Waldmann (far left) and Miriam co-ordinator Tina Bacquaert (far right) together with several graduates of the programme
©Courtesy Het Nieuwsblad