Women at Work in Kosovo

A few days after leaving Afghanistan, where I had my first experience with Women for Women International’s program, I travelled on to Kosovo, the second stop in my tour. WfWI opened its office in Kosovo in 1999, the same year the Kosovo War ended, and so far has served over 30,000 women there.

Shortly after arriving, the differences between the women we serve in Afghanistan and those we serve in Kosovo became quite clear to me. During a visit to a vocational training center in Sllatina, I was struck by the fact that even though the Kosovar women were socially excluded and from households with limited assets they were eagerly recording tips on how to improve production of lettuce in their gardens and greenhouses in their notebooks. This was a stark contrast to Afghanistan, where few of the women enrolled in the program had basic numeracy or literacy skills.

While on the whole women in Kosovo face far fewer dangers than those in Afghanistan, their lives are far from easy. Their struggles are very different, but the will and determination to move past them is the same.

One of the major challenges facing women in Kosovo right now is a deeply troubled economy. Over the past few years, Kosovo has had very little economic growth. The unemployment rate stands at 45%, among the highest in Europe. But for women, the economic situation is even worse, as women’s unemployment is at 55% and only 6% of businesses are owned by women. Nearly half the people of Kosovo are living in poverty.

Signs of limited economic opportunities were everywhere in the homes we visited with several family members crowded into limited space, in the costs of food in the markets and the income earning potential of the women we worked with, in the numbers of youth gathered in public spaces with little or no prospects for work.

Early in my travels in Kosovo, I met a woman named Lindita Balas, a thirty-year-old mother of five who was participating in WfWI’s program. Five days after giving birth to her youngest child, Lindita decided to enroll in the program. Just two months in, Lindita has already learned skills that are going to help her increase her economic independence by selling vegetables she grew in her kitchen garden. She told me how the opportunity to meet other women and network with them had given her encouragement and confidence to try something new like this. Lindita was married at 16, and hasn’t had many opportunities to do something for herself, but she told me she enjoys gaining a broader understanding of her rights and building relationships with other women.

Across the country, women are seeking opportunities to earn an income to support their families. For the women enrolled in WfWI’s core program, the business skills training they receive is giving them crucial skills for success. In learning how to price their goods, how to market and sell their products, and how to plan investment needs, women who before had few economic opportunities begin to understand how they could take the leap into business.

Many of the women I met were eager to try to save enough money to build their own greenhouses. It was clear that any seed capital for these budding entrepreneurs would go a long way to opening up opportunities for selling produce within the communities where they lived.

The women know that success will take a lot of hard work, but for them it’s more important to depend on themselves than others. One of WfWI’s graduates Abetare Balaj Halili  told her life story how given her political activities prior to independence she was imprisoned several times, she had to quit studying after completing high school. Enrolling in the WfWI program convinced Abetare to do something for her and her family. She saved some of her training stipend, and she started a business to decorate cars for weddings. She used the business training to carefully cost her inputs including the costs of ribbon, and the chiffon she used to decorate the cars – given that weddings were by and large recession proof she had succeeded in developing a thriving business. Her profit margin was sufficient to provide for both herself and her family.

With such poor economic conditions, the Kosovar women WfWI serves are putting themselves at a competitive advantage in the marketplace. By learning beekeeping, horticulture, dairy production, or capturing a market trend in the service industry, women are able to create new opportunities for success.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Kosovo.


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Afghanistan Part 2: How We Start the Conversation

Over the next few months, WfWI’s new CEO Afshan Khan will be visiting each of WfWI’s eight country offices and sharing her experiences of the different people and places that are part of WfWI’s mission to change lives, one woman at a time. This is her second blog post from Afghanistan.

On my third day in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to visit a group of women who use the vocational knitting skills they learned during their time with WfWI to earn an income, producing high-quality accessories for international markets. In talking with the women, they shared with me how the extra income has made a huge difference, not only in what they can afford for their families, but also in their treatment by others in their family.

Earning an income is not an easy feat in Afghanistan. Over a third of the people are considered to be in poverty, and half the people are vulnerable to falling into poverty.

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

I’ve seen firsthand in my time here how many challenges women in particular face when they try to earn an income. Passing through the marketplaces and bazaars, there are numerous women on the streets, but not one woman is selling anything at any of the stands. Though it is not acceptable for women to publicly sell items here, they often produce the goods that are sold, working in isolation in their homes. For example, the majority of Afghanistan’s economy is agriculture-based, and women do a large amount of the labor. But they don’t own the land or the means of production, and so they don’t have control over the resources they produce. Since they are excluded from the sales process, their profits are taken from them.

For women, earning an income offers new opportunities to take care of themselves and their families. When women are able to contribute to the well-being of their families in this way, it often changes how they view themselves and their worth, and has a similar impact on other family members who benefit from the increased household income.

To help women gain greater control over their economic activities, WfWI’s staff is training women not only in vocational and business skills, but also how to form groups and transform them into cooperatives. By joining together, women are able to build in a layer of economic security and ensure fair payment for their work. A women’s cooperative can afford to hire a male salesman and a stall in the bazaar to sell their goods, putting them in greater control. Together, women can also access larger markets in Kabul, rather than relying on smaller village markets.

When I visited with women who were members of a poultry coop in Parwan, they told me how cooperatives offered them numerous other benefits as well. They give women a sense of security and belonging as they begin to work, often for the first time. Working in a coop can also provide women a greater awareness of their own personal influence and importance in a local organization. Coops become a forum for collective problem-solving, and promote other democratic values such as equality, personal responsibility, openness, solidarity, cooperation, and social responsibility.

Women’s coops in Afghanistan face a number of hurdles though, such as high illiteracy rates, lack of access and control of resources, restricted mobility due to insecurity and gender norms, and lack of community support.

WfWI participant Bagi Gul, with a letter from her sponsor, Glenna.

WfWI participant Bagi Gul, with a letter from her sponsor, Glenna.

In order to create a space for women’s economic participation and protection of their rights at the community level, WfWI’s staff in Afghanistan has been working with local mullahs and imams, sensitizing them to women’s issues. This Men’s Leadership Program (MLP) is an effort to raise awareness with community leaders about the negative effects that violence against women, economic restrictions, and disregard for their rights has on an entire community. After our staff works with these trusted leaders to build their understanding of women’s rights, the leaders then work with the men in their community to ensure they also understand why it’s important to safeguard women’s rights and ensure violence against them stops. It creates a space for a shift in attitudes towards women to begin. Men become allies, paving the way for much faster and certain inroads for women.

After talking with our staff about the MLP, one question stuck with me. How do you start the dialogue with male community leaders who have perhaps cared very little for women’s issues in the past? How do you get them in the room for training on women’s rights?

Sweeta Noori, our Afghanistan Country Director explained, “We never tell them they’re coming to a training program. We ask them to come and advise us. That’s how we start the conversation with them, by showing that respect to their position.”

And so far they’ve had great success. Over 560 mullahs have been invited to give our staff advice and have ended up with a better understanding of women’s rights. In turn, WfWI has been invited by many mullahs and imams from other villages to bring our program to the women (and men) of their communities. Change can and does happen, if done the right way.

As the end of my time in Afghanistan nears, I’m savoring each moment – the strong smell of the tea we drink all day long, the magnificent view of the Hindu Kush Mountains that seem to float in the distance, and the echoes of the call to prayer after sunset. But most of all, I’ll miss the warmth, kindness, and utter hospitality of the many people I’ve met here. They have an amazing inner strength to keep life going, despite all the terrible things happening around them. I am humbled by their courage.

Check back soon for my next post from our programs in Pristina, Kosovo.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan.


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Women in Afghanistan Defining their Destiny

Over the next few months, WfWI’s new CEO Afshan Khan will be visiting each of WfWI’s eight country offices and sharing her experiences of the different people and places that are part of WfWI’s mission to change lives, one woman at a time. This is her first blog post on her journey.

In the past few days I have had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and see first-hand the impact of the work of Women for Women International. In a country that has recently been in the press for the brutal treatment of women, including the public execution of a young woman by the Taliban for alleged adultery, I witnessed the diversity of opportunities for women. As I met and spoke with women there, I was reminded that even in the harsh reality of a country where 90% of rural women are illiterate and maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world at 460 deaths per 100,000 live births (compared to 21 per 100,000 live births in the US) all the women had dreams of a better future for themselves and their daughters. Against all the odds, they had sought change and created opportunity so that as women they could define their destiny.

I found none of the passivity nor victimization that is so readily portrayed in the press – what I found were determined women, who broke barriers to enroll inWfWI’s program where they learn to sustain an income, improve health and wellness, engage in family and community decision-making, and participate in social networks and safety nets. They continued to challenge the boundaries around them by opening their own business, forming networks or associations, and daring to dream of a future where they can readily earn an income, contribute to their families’ needs, send their sons and daughters to school, and act as agents of change in their own communities. This was the story of Zergona Sherzad a WfWI graduate who was producing women’s clothing and employed more than 80 women. It was the story of Raisa Jahn and Mehbooba Jahn who welcomed us to their modest home in Kabul where in the front room they had set up a very small beauty parlor where they cut hair, shape brows, and provide make-up to brides. They proudly showed us their products, and I watched as they carefully plucked the brows of their client.

Nowhere was this determination more apparent than in Istalif. There I met a young woman, Shazia, who had walked two hours from her neighboring village to try and enroll in WfWI’s program that will start in September. I cannot get the image of Shazia out of my mind, a young woman in her early twenties who no doubt had to seek the permission of her husband or her brother or her father to make the long trek from her village of Shurawa to Istalif, a verdant village in the hills surrounded by mountains. Her piercing eyes showed her determination as she told us she had walked for two hours to get to the enrollment session. With her blue burqa tossed over her head and her headscarf casually draped over her curls, she was adamant in her commitment to attend the yearlong training sessions. She spoke clearly of her burning desire to learn a craft that would give her the dignity of being a contributor to the household income, and allow her the opportunities to share her dreams, her hopes, and her fears beyond the confines of her home with other women whose imaginations went far beyond the four walls of their mud homes.

Sweeta Noori, WfWI-Afghanistan’s Country Director, and I sat and listened to women as they identified barriers to building on the assets and skills they already possessed. They needed to create a market where women could sell and buy. In Afghanistan while women are often buyers in markets, they are traditionally not allowed to sell their goods. Men are the sellers in the markets. These women wanted help in setting up a local market for women, and they wanted to learn the business skills necessary to determine the costs of producing their goods and the market price at which they could be sold. A few of them had sewing machines but needed additional training so that their products would be of good enough quality to sell. Many of them had chickens and eggs but wondered what was a safe way for them to sell their produce, and how could they access the market? Sweeta patiently translated these concerns and many more. I listened and learned of the profound importance of adapting Women for Women International’s income generation programs to the cultural realities of each community we work in.

Women enrolling in WfWI's yearlong program in Istalif, Afghanistan.

Women enrolling in WfWI’s yearlong program in Istalif, Afghanistan.

Several hundred women squeezed into the women’s community council in Istalif, a small building with wooden beams and concrete walls that had been built with support from a woman in Virginia. This small building allows women a place to meet and gives the WfWI enrollment team an opportunity to interview and screen potential candidates for our yearlong program.

In the room, three women carefully screened and interviewed each of the potential candidates. One of the head trainers tried to keep some semblance of schedule and order as hundreds of women jostled and pushed to be first in line and enter the room. It was a brutal reminder of how committed these women are to redefining their lives. Women for Women International in Afghanistan could make it possible for 245 women in this group to have that opportunity; others who squeezed into the room were put on a waiting list, and some may have to wait another year before they can join. The resources are not available to accept them all. Women for Women International will enroll more than 4,750 women in the core program in 2012. What this day made clear to me was that if Afghanistan could seize the potential of its women, they would surely change the image and the destiny of their country.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan.


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Life for Iraqi Women since the US Troop Withdrawal

George Nichola, WfWI-Iraq’s Life Skills and Sponsorship Manager, recently shared his thoughts on the challenges Iraq’s most vulnerable women face and the security situation in the month and a half since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The US completed withdrawal of all military troops before the end of 2011. It was a great moment in modern Iraqi history, a step toward complete sovereignty for the Iraqi people. After the old regime was defeated by the US troops and allies, people wanted more independence in a free and democratic country where people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds could live peacefully. Day by day, this dream has been fading away, even before the US government announced the plans to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Before the withdrawal, the Iraqi people, especially women, grew concerned by what seemed like a lack of focus on doing what would be best for Iraq and its people. Because everyone was concerned about the security situation, they worried whether the withdrawal was happening too soon.

Elderly Women in Iraq.

In the days after the withdrawal was complete, most of the participants in our program were very concerned about the security and safety situation. Our graduates in Karada who met to discuss how they can improve the services in their communities feel that the service needs of the local communities are not being addressed. There is no help for the elderly or those who are sick, who often have few shelters from the hot summers and rainy winters.

Baghdad and other provinces have recently witnessed a series of bloody explosions in the very poor areas; in Baghdad roughly 11 cars exploded and killed more than 55 people, many of whom were breadwinners for their families and simple workers who were just waiting for public transportation.

In Sadr City, a participant told us with a trembling voice and eyes filled with tears that her daughter was at her university when an explosion happened and some of her daughter’s friends were injured and others were killed. She asked her trainer if she should let her daughter continue to go to university or keep her at home, adding ” I lost my husband in an explosion in 2008 and don’t want to face the same situation with one of my children.” The daughter’s friends were waiting with a crowd of people for public transportation in the early morning when the bomb went off. Another participant in the same group asked why the bombers are targeting gatherings of Iraqi workers and those with no connection to the conflict? This question is often asked when explosions happen. Since the US troops’ withdrawal, the victims of these attacks are often poor Iraqi families who are struggling to have daily bread.

Women walking in street in Iraq.

In general women are more concerned about what will happen in the coming days, as extremists on both sides will use violence that will hurt uninvolved civilians. Educated and uneducated women agree that the coming days will be more severe and more difficult. They worry whether the Iraqi army will be strong enough to protect Iraqis and how far the violence will go.

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Rwanda Making Strides for Women

Karen Sherman, WfWI’s Director of Global Programs, recently traveled to visit our programs in Rwanda.  Read her thoughts on her trip below.

The legacy of the Rwanda genocide was devastating for women. Tens of thousands of women were subject to some of the worst inhumanities known to man, including brutally rapes, torture, lost homes, husbands, children, and means of support, and the relegation to refugee status throughout the region. The emotional and psychological toll on women was equally severe, including a loss of dignity, self-esteem, hope, and belief in a future.

Karen observing the construction site for new WfWI facilities.

Today, it is still hard to reconcile the competing images of Rwanda. Over 17 relatively short years, a country once consumed by mass destruction and despair has transformed itself into a beacon of order and stability, a model for many other countries in the long, painful, and often incomplete transition from war and conflict to peace and prosperity.

Rwanda is governed by the firm hand by President Kagame. It is an ambitious state governed by the rule of law as well as strict rules of engagement for its citizens. The military still patrol the streets from 3:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly to ensure the full security of people and assets. Government agencies, local officials, and even the private sector work according to a “master plan” that’s designed to move Rwanda along a defined path to a better future.

The government has placed the advancement of women across all strata of society at the forefront of the country’s political, social and economic development strategy. This is unique not just across Africa but across the globe. Fifty-six percent of parliamentarians are women and several key ministerial posts are held by women, as well as a large number of mayors, governors, and other elected and appointed officials.

Karen with a member of the construction team.

More striking however, is the commitment of government to address the needs of the most poor and socially excluded women, the traditionally voiceless members of society. Women for Women International has also been working these women since 1997, and has served more than 41,000 women survivors of war through a core program that promotes lasting social and economic change for women, families and communities across Rwanda.

The organization’s mission of moving survivors from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency has been aided by some specific governmental initiatives that are having a direct impact on women’s lives:

  • Savings and credit organizations (SACCOs) that operate in each village. As a result, 99 percent of women who participate in Women for Women’s twelve month program have bank accounts and opportunities to save and borrow small amounts of credit needed to launch an income generation activity;
  • Health insurance for all women for the equivalent of approximately $5 a year;
  • Specific laws designed and enforced to eradicate sexual and gender based violence and ensure that all property is jointly held between husbands and wives;
  • Women’s investment program through the Bank of Kigali targeting poor and underserved women. The Bank has committed to make concessionary loans available to women who are self-employed or working as part of cooperatives or group businesses.

The government’s Gender Monitoring Office ensures that women’s rights are protected and that there are repercussions when they are not. Women are taking advantage of these and other initiatives to change their lives and by extension the lives of their families and communities.

Take Ange, a recent graduate of Women for Women’s program who lost both her parents in the genocide. Once enrolled in the program, Ange opened a bank account and used her savings to rehabilitate her family’s house which has three small rooms and another five to rent. She is now earning 50,000 Rwandan francs per month in rental income and between 40,000-70,000 Rwandan francs monthly making handbags and jewelry for Kate Spade with local partner Gahaya Links.

Or Cecilia, who never had anything and spent her days crying in misery. Her husband would actually count the pieces of meat she ate to make sure she didn’t eat more than her worth. Her husband beat her when she enrolled in Women for Women’s program but she still found the courage to do so. As she gained confidence and began to understand her rights, she learned that she did not have to keep quiet about the beatings and reported her husband to local leaders, who quickly took action. Today, Cecilia moves about freely and is able to sell her products in the marketplace without fear and her husband actually listens to her when she talks now.

These are just two of hundreds of examples of women who have learned about their rights and are taking full advantage of government programs to drive more systemic change in Rwandan society. As women gain in confidence, ability and are able to earn and sustain an income, they will not only be beneficiaries of such programs but will be the ones leading Rwanda’s on-going social and economic development.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day # 4

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. This part 4 of 4 in her series. 

Day 4 – Thursday 24th

Our final day, and it feels like we have been here so much longer – everyone has been so accommodating and welcoming and the group are tired but also so happy to have met the women they sponsor. Our last trip before dashing to the airport is to visit a vocational skills class which is a mixed group of women from many different communities Albanian, Ashkali and Egyptian. I meet Igballe Behluli who recites a poem she has written about her schooling and leaves us with these words;

‘The End of Primary School’

At the end of primary school I received a message,

They are stopping me from going to school.

I was very sad, I started to cry.

The books and school bench was awash with my tears.

Walking down the road I tore up my notebooks in frustration.

I didn’t deserve this.

But truthfully, my father did not do this on purpose.

It was the war and there was poison in every school.

Now I am happy, my dream is fulfilled.

My children go free to school.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #3

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. This part 3 of 4 in her series. Check back later for the last update. 

Day 3- Women’s Opportunity Center Opening

A gloriously sunny day started with the official opening ceremony, where the newly appointed Country Director of our Kosovo Office, Iliriana Gashi,  was joined by Carol Jackson from the Private Equity Foundation as well as Molly Cronin from Sharon Davis Design Studios.

The official ceremony featured speeches from Iliriana Gashi, Carol Jackson, Molly Cronin and Ramize Rexhepi, a graduate of Women for Women’s year long programme in Kosovo.

Carol said “I have been inspired by your resilience and determination. Our CEO Shaks Ghosh can’t be with us today but she sends her congratulations. The Private Equity Foundation was delighted to fund this centre and it will be a leading light for women in Kosovo. I know from my visit that this centre is an excellent hands. I have learnt so much about the amazing work of Women for Women International.”

Molly Cronin added that, “this is not just a building – it will be a safe space for women to meet and share and continue their learning.”

Iliriana thanked the trainers of the Women for Women programme: “Thanks to our trainers who go 4 or 5 times a week to remote villages, in snow or sunshine to deliver our programmes and support women with literacy and vocational skills.” After hearing Besa’s story earlier this week, I truly believe this too.

Next to speak is a graduate of our programme, Ramize Rexhepi , who chose to specialise in horticulture and food processing and has now set up her own women’s cooperative producing pickles, Burek and Ajar.

Ramize said,”In the beginning I was only interested in learning about gardening, but through the Women for Women course I decided to take some of my produce to market and on the first try I made 46 euros. It was so good to be able to buy things for my family and now I led a cooperative of women making food for sale at market. I can only say – Women, participate in as many fairs as you can!”

The ceremony was closed with a beautiful rendition of ‘Songbird’ by singer and UK supporter of Women for Women International  Laura Comfort.

After the ceremony I had the chance to catch up with Ramize and hear her story of moving from survivor of the war to active leader of a 17 woman strong cooperative.

Ramize cultivates everything she needs: cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes.  “I took part in all the trainings available, particularly the food processing course and a course on making 13 different types of cheese. The most difficult parts of the training was the literacy classes as during the war she had missed a lot of schooling.”

Now she is in a group of 17 women and they are trying to get funds to increase the ability for them to unify their production, so that the goods can be marketed easily and they can increase production.  When she first started taking produce to market her family were bemused, they asked “What is the fair for? They felt it was a shameful activity for a woman to sell goods at market and were worried people would laugh at me.”

Ramize laughs, “Now we have no problem and it is seen as normal, in fact now my family are always asking – when are you going to the next fair?”  Her father is so impressed that he has given the cooperative  5 km square to support the development of their business, which they hope to build a processing factory for pickling and preserving . She says her most profitable product is the jars of Ajar, a red pepper paste and Pinxhur and similar product that is made from tomatoes.

The guests then shared a lunch of traditional Kosovar food, catered by graduates of the Women for Women programme and were able to browse a women’s product fair, featuring handicrafts, food and honey.

Supporters then also had the opportunity to tour the new WOC facilities and visit different training activities and classes in a open house, including an opportunity to view our Life Skills classes, Vocational Classes and letter writing.

After the Opening ceremony we took a bus trip to the old city of Prizen, walking to the top of the City Fort, once built by the Ottomans. Our guide tells us how she and her family were unable to leave the city during the war (unlike many of the city residents) and that as an 8 year old child she watched how the city burned and the fear this struck in her.

Ramize Rexhepi, WfWI-Kosovo graduate, addressing the attendees at the inauguration of the first Women's Opportunity Center in Kosovo.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #2

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more. 

Day 2 – Wednesday June 22nd 2011

Life Skills Training in Henc

Henc is a small village, with a few shops and a primary school – which is where we meet. This year is the first year Women for Women has worked with women in the village and in fact it is the first year any NGO has come to offer support. We met a class of women who have recently enrolled on the programme and are here for their second week of training. They are so positive, so excited for the opportunity to learn, and they want to know all about our lives. What do we do in the UK, what can we achieve. Julie shares her day to day life with then and it seems pretty normal to us all but to these women, who before this programme very rarely left the house, for them it is almost unimaginable. Their stories are heartbreaking and many of us cry. When they find out that one of our group has recently met the sister she sponsors you can see the excitement in their faces, stretching their heads to see this lucky woman. Besa tells us that it is often not the money they care for but the letters that is held so dear. Besa leads the class in some of the key words that they will hear repeatedly during the course of the year, safe (this is a safe place, to share all you want to, it is confidential it is a place of friendship), sister (your sister is the woman who sponsors you, who you may not ever meet, but who is always supporting you and cheering for your success on the other side of the world), participation (here Besa wags her finger – ‘you must participate! Participation is not just about turning up to class and signing you name! It is taking part in the discussion, sharing and listening and learning together), listening (particularly active listening) What wonderful words to remember  and guide us in life let alone a one-year class. I wonder what they will feel like and think of the programme one year on?

One of the women comes up to me and says ‘Thank you for bringing me here, this is the first time I have had the chance to come and visit the school where my children go, it is only 500 metres away but I never go out, the children always go on their own.’

By the time the class is over the local kids have heard who has taken over their school for the day and are waiting for us outside for pictures and shy smiles.

In the afternoon we head to a village near Mitrovica, a town which is still divided between Serbs and Albanians and where some of the most brutal atrocities of the war took place. Mitrovica is the town where everyone was a refugee, and men were taken out of their homes and shot in front of their families regardless of age.

Here we are greeted by the most amazing spread of delicious food and drink and are hosted by an all women’s Bee Keeping Cooperative. The Cooperative has grown from some initial funding from the Herman Miller Foundation and with support from our Income Gerneration Coordinator, Faruk Beqa.  The Cooperative is made up of 40 women from Runik and 35 in Prekaz and together they have survived through their first winter with their beehives only making a few loses.

Initially, the cooperative lacked everything they needed to start a successful business, from protective clothing to a computer. By pooling their resources and money saved from their sponsorship contributions they have been able to set up an office with computer and printer and to hire equipment that they all share such as the centrifuge for separating the clear honey out from the bees wax and the lower quality honey.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #1

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more. 

We meet the group a group of exited supporters and including representatives from the Private Equity Foundation and Neal’s Yard Remedies, at the departure lounge in Gatwick, London. The short (3 hour) flight to Kosovo is filled with expectation and the knowledge that as soon as we land it will be all systems go! As we fly over Kosovo, you can see the strips of land, divided into thin sections. I am shocked to learn that in this country of such fertile land, 80% of the food is imported and in the past year food prices have risen 50%. For the average family on an income of 250 Euros per month this has had significant effect upon their ability to afford the ‘luxuries’ of school books and a nutritionally balanced diet. More and more families rely upon remittances form relations working abroad.

I meet Faruk Beqa, WfWI Kosovo Income Generation Coordinator and Vehbi Kllokoqi, the Income Generation Manager and they take myself, Lauri Pastrone and Simon Wheeler, our photographer to visit the local Green Market. The Income Generation staff teach women to grow vegetables for their own family nutrition and then to expand and sell some of their produce in markets like this one. Vegetables fetch 10 times more than standard crops of wheat and corn which are more staple and popular with farmers.  Main crops include vegetables, strawberries and cherries in June. They also teach our participants how to grow onions, potatoes, carrots and cucumber and peppers, a favourite for pickling in preparation for the harsh winters. Cabbage is also popular as it is the main ingredient of a local cabbage & salt water drink prepared especially for the winter months.

The day ends with a beautiful and traditional meal of many courses on the hills overlooking Prishtina and as the sun sets Besa, one of my Kosovo colleagues takes courage in telling me her own story of experiencing the war, which officially started in 1997, but which was the result of many years of segregation of the two communities – Serbian and Albanian Kosovars.

Besa was 16 years old when the war began, she was living with her parents, her nine year old brother and her grandmother. When Serbians entered their home they were given 3 minutes to pack and leave. Her parents were taken to a village and Besa, at 16, took on the responsibility of getting her grandmother and brother across the border into Macedonia. They took a bus. And then the bus broke down and they walked across the border, setting up a makeshift shelter amongst the other 500,000 refugees who had fled Kosovo into Macedonia. They stayed there for 5 days until they were able to take a place on Germany’s quota for refugees. Besa says she chose Germany as it was the closest to Kosovo and easier to get home. She was always thinking of returning home.

Whilst in Germany she heard that there had been a massacre in the village where her parents had been taken and not knowing whether her parents were alive or dead she waited by the phone to hear of news of them. The phone lines were cut when Nato bombed the Post Office and all main communication routes. Besa refused to go to school in Germany although she sent her younger brother and she says he was hysterical, crying and having nightmares every day.

Finally she heard the good news that her parents had survived the war and were safe and after 9 months they were able to return to Kosovo and found her parents. Besa now leads our women participants in life skills training classes.

Seeing the tears in her eyes, I thank her and tell her she is brave for telling her story, and she shrugs her shoulders and says; ‘This is everyone’s story. Everyone at this table has a similar story.’

To me this is amazing, she is the same age as me; could quite easily fit into my friendship group in the UK and yet at 16 she wasn’t studying for exams or going gooey over her first boyfriend. Instead she was fleeing for her life, responsible for two vulnerable family members and without her parents to turn to for help.  She sits opposite me with such resilience and composure and now she is working to change the lives of women who have similar stories every day.


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Women in Rwanda: Beyond their High Representation in Government

Judithe Registre, the Director of Development and Outreach at Women for Women International, is currently traveling in Rwanda. This if the second in a series of posts about her experiences.
           In my last entry, I highlighted Rwanda’s incredible economic growth and the country’s vital commitment to women. Advancements in women’s value and presence in society, particularly the government, serve as optimistic indicators that Rwandans are fully committed to women. An estimated 56% of the Parliament and one-third of the cabinet are now dominated by women. The statistics are impressive and historically unprecedented in Rwanda. However, the statistics do not tell the full story of Rwandan women. The Rwanda Women’s Parliamentarian Forum recently declared that gender bias, particularly in poverty, remains a prominent issue. As one female, Rwandan Senator noted at dinner last night, the country is aware there is still a long journey in achieving full success in improving women’s status. Most statistics of Rwanda’s development shirk the majority of women who remain trapped in a cycle of poverty, obstructed from stability and basic human rights.
            Despite an annual growth of nearly 6%, Rwanda continues to wrestle with poverty. Rwanda is infected with the economic disparity plaguing most countries: a large gap divides the elite minority with the destitute majority. The richest 10% of the population holds approximately 50% of the national wealth, compared to 50% of the population sharing just 10% of the wealth. Poverty predominantly thrives in rural Rwanda: 66% of the population compared to a mere 12% in urban Kigali.
            Among the rural, financially- depleted, women and children find themselves in the unfortunate majority. Sixty-two percent of households headed by women lie below the poverty line, compared to 54% of male households. Impoverished women are vulnerable to discrimination and traditional, gender-biased mentalities. A vicious cycle of inadequate health care, scant education and unawareness of legal rights derives from financial instability. It is imperative then, to pull these women from the rut of poverty, and make them the focus of Rwanda’s economic advancement.
           The impoverished living environment for women is a direct consequence of the genocide. Women encompass the majority of rural poverty and isolated suffering. The horror left over 250,000 raped and deliberately infected with HIV/AIDS. As the conflict eased, women found themselves alone: unmarried, widowed, or wives of prisoners. This situation left Rwandan women as the heads of most households and living in extreme poverty and despair. Women’s mental and emotional health crumbled beneath the severe trauma and violence. Today, many Rwandans believe the suffering will dissipate as the country continues to grow. Because of this popular mentality, the nation’s development priorities neglect the daunting responsibility to provide its people, especially women, with the necessary therapy and medical resources to recover. Even with steady growth, however, it may require two or three generations until the horrors begin to fade into history. Meanwhile, Rwandan women are drowning in a whirlpool of social-economic disadvantages.
            Poverty and gender inequality are strongly correlated. The Rwandan Government realizes this connection and, in 2002, integrated gender equality into its Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP)[1]. The national poverty reduction plan includes a subcommittee on engendering and also a representative from the Ministry of Gender and Promotion of Women. The government acknowledges the two issues must be solved simultaneously to successfully pull Rwandan women from their economic status.
            If the nation prioritizes the improvement of women among poverty, the national financial well-being of the entire country will also improve.
           Women for Women International operates in war-torn countries, striving to pull impoverished women from the shadows. The programs primarily target women, because as evident in countries like Rwanda, they are the most vulnerable and socially excluded. We believe in the innate capabilities of women and provide them with the resources and tools to discover and access these capabilities. The trauma and isolation often inflicted on women strips their self-confidence and motivation. It is our privilege to empower these women and help them recover to their fierce, ambitious selves.
           Our program aims to educate women in all aspects of life, ultimately providing participants with four ideal outcomes. First, upon graduation, the women are well. They are practicing a healthy lifestyle and fully educated in sexual reproduction. Second, the women are decision-makers. Participants have been educated in their legal rights and have increased confidence in voicing their opinions in both society and families. Third, the women sustain a steady income. Our program provides an education for entrepreneurship and group investments, allowing women the freedom to choose the path most comfortable for them. It is imperative, regardless of which path they choose, that women establish themselves financially. Finally, the women will have created social networks and safety nets throughout the training process. Support systems and familial bonds, once destroyed by rampant warfare, are restored and enforced. Women for Women creates a program and environment that attacks poverty at its core. Nutritional and financial needs are addressed, as well as the sense of mental and physical isolation.
             Poverty is not blind to gender, but women are often the prominent victims. Gender-bias in poverty obstructs women from obtaining the exposure, education, and health services necessary for their progress. Programs, like Women for Women, are imperative in targeting women to provide necessary resources and knowledge for a promising future. Women who previously earned less than $1 a day are now earning an average of $9 a day upon graduation. This serves as a reminder that investment in the right approach and full dedication to that approach can create infinite opportunities. We must continue to extend our activism and aid them. Addressing women’s poverty and well -being is the key to this nation’s better bill of health.
[1] Zuckerman, Elaine. “Engendering Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans: The Issues and Challenges.” Gender and Development 10.3 (2002): 88-94. Print.

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Kigali, Rwanda, is Leading Today’s African Renaissance

Judithe Registre, the Director of Development and Outreach at Women for Women International, is currently traveling in Rwanda. This if the first in a series of posts about her experiences. 


            I have been coming to Rwanda since 2001. I feel privileged and honored each year I come and witness the changes taking place. While the continent as a whole has witnessed many changes, Rwanda perhaps displays the most tangible evidence of these changes. I am continually moved and astounded to see such visible progress. Many of the roads, homes, and office buildings now in place are less than five years old. The pace and speed of progress is clear evidence that anything is possible when one is willing to move forward positively. Indeed, with strong leadership, much that is dreamed can be achieved.
            I am in Rwanda for the next two weeks, leading two groups of donors who support our program in Rwanda. They are here to see the impact of their investments on the lives of the women we serve.  I am excited to be here, since I no longer work in the field as I once did. I am also excited, because I am always inspired when I meet the women whom we serve. I feel blessed to do this work and help women realize, own, and harness their personal power to transform the lives of not only themselves, but of their families and communities.
            Each time I venture into the field, I am moved by what these women are able to achieve with the limited resources they have. The women in our programs have taught me the meaning of possibility, hope, and optimism. Being here is always a strong reminder of my personal blessings and the remarkable opportunity I have doing this work. My visits to Rwanda also always offer amazing lessons in development, post- conflict rebuilding, and leadership.
            Understanding the role of history in who we are and who we are becoming is the important ingredient for nation-building. The development boom and recent progress in Rwanda is one of the past decade’s most important, yet least recognized, stories emerging from Africa. This country has moved forward from a grim past, sadly marked by ethnic hatred and severe violence. During that time, the country’s prospects for brighter years seemed to be extinct. Yet seventeen years after the horrific genocide, Rwanda is rejuvenating a disheveled morale and standing stronger and brighter. The country is nurturing optimism, pushing advancement, and redefining new standards for post-conflict development. Rwanda is the leader of what I will call an African Renaissance.
             The progress and development thus far in Rwanda sets new standards for change and development across the continent.  After the total destruction of its underdeveloped economy and limited infrastructures, one would have to declare what is happening now to be nothing less than a miracle. In actuality, it is not just a miracle; it is also a lesson in personal and community leadership and determination.  While an arduous journey still lies ahead, Rwanda continues to revive its enthusiasm for change and innovation.  The country demonstrates that it is not only the voice of one person that is most inspiring, but the collective voices and stories of many that will inspire us to change.
             When I travel to the African continent and experience the struggles of different countries, I am reminded of the African concept known as Ubuntu. As articulated by Nelson Mandela, Ubuntu “is the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will be in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”[1]Others will inspire us as we inspire them and are willing to be inspired by them. Courage and determination are choices we all must make, individually or collectively.
               From a physical perspective, I see this East African country is pursuing numerous cosmetic changes. Prominent hotel complexes, such as the Marriott and Radisson, are being built in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Seemingly infinite road projects are evidence of the extensive infrastructure repair. The country has won praise at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit and in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness report, both of which note its incredible road towards progress. Rwanda is working to bring full prosperity to its people, but it is not yet there.  Despite annual economic growth of nearly 7% the last five years[2], Rwanda still ranks 195th out of 213 countries on the World Bank’s most recent per capita income survey[3].Despite the such high level of economic growth the majority of people are still very poor. For instance, over  60% of the population live in poverty and over 40% in absolute poverty. Poverty remains an ongoing challenge. Still, I see the signs everywhere– signs that the country is on the right path.
From a more profound perspective, Rwanda is also displaying unprecedented advancements in the value it places on women. It amazes me that this gender, whose bodies were once used as battlegrounds during the genocide, can today proudly reclaim its voice and confidence. Women are now valued in politics, the social structure, economics and grass roots organizations. Society hopes to assuage the previous terrors inflicted by mostly violent men. The Rwandan Parliament is the first in Africa with a majority female population and also led by a female, Rose Mukantabana, the Speaker of the Parliament.
            In a country that once restricted women from making profits or opening bank accounts, programs like ours now empower Rwandan woman economically and financially. I am proud to be one voice in a community of many that encourage and assist these women with microcredit loans and training in business, agriculture and agribusiness. The success of our program is accredited to the determination of the women, but also to a new, enabling environment facilitating growth and progress for women. These environments instill hope and value in all women, promoting their necessary involvement to sustain a working society.
            Rwanda’s strides and improvements are astounding. This financially and economically thriving country defies all the prior post-genocide speculations and concerns. There is certainly a need for persistence in current improvements, but still Rwanda serves as a prominent example for its African peers. This progress indirectly asks for similar standards from its neighbors in achieving infrastructure reform, women’s rights, and economic potential. Rwanda challenges its peers to follow its lead. It demands paralleled rejuvenation, so as to create a true Africanrenaissance for the entire continent.
The aspiration to bring prosperity to Rwanda by transforming its economy rests on the belief that extreme poverty contributed to the 1994 genocide. We know all too well about the abuse of African youth and other third-world children to fight conflicts, largely due to their lack of opportunities. The youth need jobs and education.  The change cannot merely serve as a campaign slogan for politicians. It has to be real. I adamantly believe it has to be a change the people are fully invested in creating. We know that when a certain level of economic well- being is enjoyed by the population as a whole, tolerance and peaceful co-existence will increase. The sense of optimism that progress brings can fundamentally rebuild economies and nations, even those emerging from war and conflict. Many of us will often think a goal is impossible until it is achieved.  Rwanda is replacing this doubt with optimism by providing a new model for what is possible.
            I am a pragmatic optimist.  I am blessed to witness women emerging from extreme atrocities, trauma and great darkness to find hope, light, and create a new life for themselves. These women succeed in conditions where one would think nothing positive is possible. I am hopeful today, for I have been shown the full capacity of the human spirit to recreate the positive in the midst of nothingness. I am blessed and excited to not only see Rwanda, but to be reminded by the women that we serve of the possibilities when all are committed to moving forward. We can become a prominent example, as Rwanda is becoming, and seek a revival of African development that will produce a full African Renaissance. In a recent article, the Harvard Business Review noted that “the [African] continent is among the fastest expanding economic regions today.”[4]  Rwanda is certainly  leading the way with its value of women as important, even necessary, players in that process.

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A Blog from Rwanda by Christina Paragamian and Alexandra Gurley

Waking up at four in the morning to go gorilla trekking was not the most ideal way to begin the “trip of a lifetime.” Although we were told that the ride showcased Rwanda’s natural beauty, we fell asleep almost instantly (despite the rocky terrain). We only woke up when our stomachs grumbled for granola bars (man, we had a lot!). After four hours of driving, we finally arrived at our destination. We had our first encounter with a Rwandan bathroom and laughed about our safari outfits. We heard that there were two possible treks: the difficult and longer trek or the beginners’ walk. Having played sports our whole lives, we assumed that we were adequately equipped to handle the challenge. We thought wrong! Warning: Gorilla trekking is not for the average human. As we huffed and puffed up the beautiful hills, we passed waving children in small mud huts along the way. We were so surprised to see the enthusiasm and friendliness they showed towards us, complete strangers. However, soon we were more focused on our aching legs than our beautiful surroundings. Finally, we spotted our first gorilla. We spent an hour observing different members of the Agashya family in their natural habitat. Our guides made strange noises in the back of their throats to tell the gorillas we came in peace.

We were mesmerized by how similar the gorillas were to humans and how calm and peaceful they appeared. We even learned that when the gorillas pounded their chests, it was not done in aggression but rather in camaraderie. Although we had seen photos of the mountain gorillas, nothing could have prepared us for this experience. The silverback, the dominant male of a gorilla family, was three times the size of the average man. Although his size was surprising, we were more interested in the mother and baby. The mother playfully held her four-month-old baby with tenderness and care, just as you would find in our culture. We laughed at the little baby’s fluffy Mohawk and were sad to leave.

After the trek, we watched a local soccer match and took photos with the children. They were so eager to be photographed and to look at photos of themselves on our camera screens. It was amazing to see how something that seems so normal to us, such as taking a photo, was completely foreign and exciting for there children.  After spending the night in the lodge, we set out for another day of trekking. This time, we did a much easier trek in a more densely forested setting and we were lucky enough to see twelve gorillas all at once. On the ride back, we yet again consumed granola bars, but this time we decided to eat while watching our surroundings. The rumors were right: Rwanda is definitely the Switzerland of Africa.

Our first activity upon arriving in Kigali was to visit the Genocide Memorial. Although it was extremely sad, we were happy to go and finally learn about the genocide. Learning the extent of the horrors that occurred amazed us. After visiting the Genocide Memorial, we can now fully appreciate how willing Africa was to forgive and move forward. Berra, the country director of Women for Women International-Rwanda, stressed the importance of sharing the story. She told us to “go home and tell everyone.” At that moment, we realized our role as the next generation. We learned that knowledge and understanding are the most powerful tools in fighting genocide.

After the memorial, we visited the Women for Women offices and classrooms. We were greeted by dancing and singing women. We were honored by the welcome we received and grateful for their openness and acceptance of us. We went to a Social Networking class and observed an average lesson for the women. The teacher explained to the women that relying on and working with their neighbors is more effective than working alone. It surprised us that this was not second nature for them.  “Ubudehe” means to work together, and this is one of Women for Women International’s most important messages. They acted out skits demonstrating times when having friends was beneficial. At the end, the women were given the opportunity to ask us questions. They asked us to say hello to everyone in America and wondered if we had cooperatives back home. They said they were grateful for us taking the time to visit and learn about their culture, but we felt the opposite was true. They certainly had given us more than we could ever give them. Unfortunately, one baby did not feel the same way. He promptly burst into tears when our crazy pal Liz tried to pick him up.

After the class, we were given an opportunity to buy handmade goods from the women. We also ate lunch with employees and listened to their stories. One thing that really struck us was how every single person we met had an equally touching past. We felt insignificant hearing what they have gone through and comparing it to our lives. Another surprising aspect of the lunch was learning that the women did not know to say “Thank you” when we purchased their homemade crafts. What is second nature to us did not even occur to them. Women for Women teaches their students aspects of our lives that we take for granted such as the following: health, cleanliness, family law, education and management skills.

The next excursion was one of our favorites because we were greeted with such excitement! The whole group went to visit a school and as soon as we arrived, we were surrounded by little girls and boys. They seemed so happy to see us and immediately sang for us. They grabbed our hands and took us to their classrooms where they jumped and laughed with us. Seeing them so excited with our visit made us so happy. The impact we seemed to make on them made us grateful for the opportunity and we realized that although the kids were the ones jumping around in excitement, the excursion was just as exciting and gratifying for us, if not even more so.

When we went to visit a women’s cooperative, we were once again greeted by song and dance. It was very interesting visiting the cooperative because it showed us what the women take away from Women for Women’s training. We saw how each woman received their own plot of land where they harvested different crops. We all went through one plot of land grabbing bean pods, and we saw how fast work goes when we work together. Although each woman maintains their own individually plot, they work together and act as a community which makes the work easier for everyone. They gave our group two pineapples to thank us for visiting them although we felt that we should be thanking them for sharing their lives and stories with us. Pineapples take about a year and a half to grow, so we were especially touched by the generosity.

While at the pineapple farm, we had the opportunity to speak with an extraordinary woman whose story only reaffirmed the importance of Women for Women’s work. The single mother shared the story of how her life changed with Women for Women. Before joining the organization, she was abused by her landlord. When she could not pay exactly when he wanted, he would steal her two children’s food and beat her. She and her children often went to sleep hungry and scared. When she joined Women for Women, however, she learned that she did not need to tolerate this treatment. She also earned enough money to buy her own small house and a calf, feed her family, and send her children to school. We were both shocked and inspired by how much the women’s lives had changed as a result of participating in Women for Women International’s program. We were saddened by their personal struggles and deeply proud of their great accomplishments.

Another excursion that we found particularly interesting was our trip to the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative (CIFI) farm. Women both raise animals and grow many different crops on the CIFI farm. We were amazed by how the women utilized each and every part of the land, wasting absolutely nothing. The way they organized the animals and the vegetation was incredibly efficient and practical. For example, there was one structure that housed three or four animal groups on top of each other. By placing the rabbits on top, the rabbit debris fertilizes the grass which the goats underneath eat. They even use horse dung to generate power. These inventions and structures utilized everything resource available at the far in order to produce as many products and as much profits as possible.

After visiting the farm, we went to Gahaya Links. Gahaya Links employs many Women for Women graduates. These women create baskets and jewelry that are sold both to visitors and to big companies in America, like Anthropologie and Kate Spade. It was really cool to go behind the behind the scenes and see how products we buy at stores in D.C.  One of the greatest aspects of Gahaya Links was how Joy, the founder, required the women to practice good hygiene and to save their money, reinforcing the skills the learned through Women for Women’s program. She genuinely cares about the women she employs and this is something that cannot always be said about employers in the developing world.

Having visited the businesses of Women for Women graduates, we were lucky enough to be invited to Women for Women graduation ceremony. Although we arrived late, the women were thrilled to see us, and five or six of the women shared stories of gratitude. We were touched by their personal stories, and we felt that we did not deserve their praise. They are the incredible ones, not us. After these speeches, a few women performed a skit. They depicted a woman with two kids and an alcoholic husband. The drunken husband did not understand why the woman joined Women for Women, and so the children explained all of the benefits of the organization. After beating his wife and getting drunk a few more times, he finally realized that the organization benefited the whole family by giving them the tools they needed to obtain a steady income. Women for Women taught the mother to fight the abuse, and eventually convinced the husband that man and wife should have equal power in the relationship.

On our last day in Rwanda, we once again saw how the genocide impacted the country. We visited an orphanage that was open during the genocide. It houses the children of genocide victims and protected them in 1994. We spent the day cleaning up the area with the kids, because every last Saturday of the month, all Rwandan citizens participate in cleaning up the country. This, as well as the plastic bag ban, is a cleanup measure that the country has really benefited from. After cleaning up with the kids, some of the teenagers showed us their rooms. One bed particularly made an impact on us. Rather than having a blanket or even sheets, it only had a Twister mat on top of a mattress. Despite circumstances like this, the kids were extremely joyful and hula-hooped with us. We taught them to play Limbo and played soccer with them.

One problem the orphanage faces, however, is what to do with the kids once they turn eighteen. They do not have the funding to send them to university, nor do they have enough money or facilities to keep them at the orphanage. It was heartbreaking to see the difficulties an organization that is doing so much good faces. We vowed to help as much as we could, but learned that mailing blankets and art supplies was not always helpful as  items are often stolen before reaching the orphanage.

This was perhaps the most difficult part of visiting Rwanda. We saw so many people and places that needed our help, but we did not always know how we could help. Seeing women and children so optimistic and happy with so little made our desire to help even stronger. W learned that one surefire way to assist was just to share our experiences. By telling everyone we know what we saw and how we felt, the opportunities for additional aid for and knowledge of Rwanda increases. Knowledge is the most important tool in both preventing future genocides and doing our part to help the victims of Rwanda’s genocide. Sharing our experiences is the least we can do after the people we met and the stories we heard gave us more than we can possibly express.


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Women for Women Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Ashley LeBlanc: Bukavu, DRC September 5, 2010

I arrived at the national headquarters on a typical Monday morning; as I jumped out, the SUV stays running and various trainers and administrators pile in to be transported to and from our many program sites. The office is a hub of activity and I instantly get lost in the maze. I am greeted by all I encounter with gracious smiles and kisses. Welcome. Bienvenue. Karibu.

I have arrived in Bukavu to facilitate three staff M&E trainings – one at the main office and one at each of the two sub-offices Uvira in South Kivu and Goma in North Kivu. Today we begin with the largest group: 30 men and women who work in community outreach, enrollment, data collection, translation and skills training. Together we discuss the implementation of current data collection tools; methods to improve their effectiveness in the field and mutually problem solve ongoing issues.

Tailoring instructor in Bukavu, DRC.

The perspective of our staff is enlightening and extremely valuable. It is often easy given language and distance for disconnects to arise, my goal is to address as many of these as possible before returning to DC. I am given the opportunity to speak too many of our staff one on one and learn about their lives, their families and their work. Through these exchanges I am reminded of the dedication and capacity of those who work day in and day out in this challenging environment.

The final day in Bukavu consists of a visit to Panzi training center where we collect evaluation information from participants who are graduating from the program. At the training center women are taking classes on tile making, business skills, tailoring and culinary arts.

Data Collection at Panzi Training Center in Bukavu, DRC.

We meet Jeannette Sifa who entered the WfWI training in 2004, she proudly carries her original participant ID card in her purse. Jeannette is now a trainer in tailoring, where participants learn to make measurements and assemble small paper bags. The final products will be marketed to local grocery stores to use in place of plastic.

The training center is completely serene and in stark contrast to the crowded and chaotic streets outside. It is truly a safe and calm space for women to be together and learn. After many days of traveling, working and absorbing the scenes around me – I sit on a bench and peacefully watch a women working in the demonstration garden, who wouldn’t want to spend their day here?

Training group in Bukavu, DRC

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Molly Bernstein’s Rwanda Blog

My Women for Women International trip to Rwanda with my family was one of the most meaningful experiences we have had together. It is hard not to fall in love with the country’s rolling hills, vibrant colors, spirited music. And it is impossible to ignore the power of the rebuilding and the reconciliation taking place. As a nineteen year old, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 occurred in my lifetime. The young girls that survived its unfathomable cruelty are my age.

During one of our last days in Rwanda, our group attended a Women for Women International graduation. We listened as women who had completed their first year of the program recounted their stories and the ways in which Women for Women had changed their lives. The entire ceremony glowed with hope for a future in Rwanda. One part of the ceremony in particular will stay with me forever. One woman, clad in deep blues and reds talked of losing her husband and two of her children in the genocide.

Women for Women had allowed her to send her other children to school, to build her family a house, and to continue providing for her family on her own. In her wake, another woman, much more serious and dressed in a long, pale yellow dress, began to speak. As one of our guides quietly translated for my siblings and I in English, I was shocked. This woman had spent eight years in jail for the murders she had committed during the genocide. I thought I had heard incorrectly, but when the translator assured me I had been right, my disbelief changed into something else. The woman continued to say that without her husband, still in jail, she had no way of sending her children to school let alone feeding or housing them.

Women for Women granted her the independence and abilities to fully support her family. The pale yellow and red blue figures stood and swayed side by side during the rest of the ceremony. That moment for me, was truly incredible. Women for Women had brought these two women together, two women with very different stories, and helped them both rebuild their lives. Conflict is never black and white. I learned from this moment, and from this trip that sometimes to resolve conflict we must move on from the grey. Women for Women does not discriminate or judge, they have and continue to help all of the women they can. This kind of help is the only way to reconcile, the only way to forgive, the only way to rebuild.

Molly Bernstein traveled with her family to Rwanda in August as part of a Women for Women International donor’s trip.


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Grassroots Marketing Officer Jennifer Morabito Travels to Rwanda

I’ve always been an over-analyzer.  The kind of girl who rarely takes anything at face value.  Occasionally it gets me into trouble, but every once in awhile it gives me the best view of what I think is the beauty of life: its subtexts.  People are complex and layered, and what you see on the surface is almost never the whole story.  The same goes for cultures, relationships, history.  Life is just so textured.

 My sharpest memories of my time in Rwanda are like polaroids of paradox and dimension.  Each scene a case study on juxtaposition and an opportunity to peel back layers and reveal the fruited subtext.

 In 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world to boast a parliament with a female majority.  An impressive 56% of representatives are women – more than triple the percentage we enjoy in the United States Congress.  But this statistic paints only a corner of the canvas that is women’s empowerment in Rwanda.  Outside of the government, Rwandan women are still in great need of education about equal rights to basic things like voting and property ownership.  I observed the women in our program being taught and encouraged simply to go to the bank – an intimidating place perceived as a man’s domain.

 I interviewed Antoinette, a beautiful and entrepreneurial graduate of our program, about her successes selling her handmade jewelry (a skill she had learned through Women for Women International programs).  She proudly showed me one of her favorite pieces – a woven pair of orange earrings – and explained that when she sells her products, she can afford to pay the school fees for her seven children.  In a country in which less than 5% of the population enjoys electricity, Antoinette would later ask me and my colleague for our e-mail addresses to stay in touch.  I’m not sure how she accessed the internet or who translated her message to English, but I do know that I got a very nice email from her just a week later.   

 At various memorial sites I saw the physical remains of victims of the 1994 genocide – blood-stained clothing and skulls with still-visible machete wounds – but I also felt a remarkable resilience and forgiveness from its survivors. Even in the wake of complete devastation, there is a hopeful focus on the future.  On the grounds of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is a “Fountain of Reconciliation” meant to physically embody this spirit and remind visitors of Rwanda’s commitment to a new day.  It seemed to me as if, by enduring the deepest kind of loss, the people of Rwanda had gained the deepest sense of humanity and appreciation for life.  I was grateful just to soak it in. 

 And then there was some lighthearted fun.  One night we enjoyed dinner at our hotel while a gregarious hotel singer/guitarist named Didier played traditional African ballads, soon to be interspersed with his rousing but unexpected covers of… Whitney Houston and The Rolling Stones.  We soon found ourselves at the center of an impromptu dance party with the kitchen staff and waiters, who had been uniformly soft-spoken until then.  We tried to learn how to move as gracefully and elegantly as they do, while demonstrating for them how to “twist and shout.” (They picked it up in no time).  They didn’t know our names, and we didn’t understand the words to their songs, but there’s nothing like music and dance to bring people together.

 And togetherness, it seemed, is something Rwandans do well.  We noticed a few pairs of towering men walking down the streets of Kigali, with a closer look revealing that they were holding hands like children in a sandbox.  Apparently men in Rwanda can express their friendship without the fear of emasculation that often keeps American men an arm’s length apart from one another.  It made me think about how drastically cultural norms differ around the world.  And as for my world, I couldn’t help but rethink all of my messages in a bottle – everything that I never express because for whatever reason I don’t feel allowed. 

 Throughout my time in Rwanda I was continually humbled – almost a little embarrassed – by the hospitality and broad smiles of a people who have endured so much more than I can even imagine.  It seemed everywhere we went we stepped into a reception fit for royalty.  I felt a bit unworthy of all the welcome performances and outstretched arms and even the waves we exchanged with children along the side of the road.  And for an extra helping of humility, the most exuberant smiles and waves seemed to come from the children with the least.

 But perhaps the most expected (or cliché) juxtaposition – an “us” and a “them”– was noticeably absent.  In spite of our differences and the vast sea between us, we felt connected with the people of Rwanda in a way that transcends distance, circumstance and cultural perspective.  Sometimes all it takes is a real hug or a knowing glance or a shared giggle at a toddler’s game of peek-a-boo to remind us that we are all one and the same, and the only contrasts between us are the ones we create.

Jennifer Morabito is the Grassroots Marketing Officer for Women for Women International and accompanied a group of supporters to Rwanda through the organization’s partnership with Metta Journeys.


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Liam Dall’s Trip to DR Congo: Part 4, Walungu

Walungu, DR Congo, June 22, 2010 || During my last day in DRC, I toured some “in-the-works” projects. Due to the success of the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative in Rwanda, WfWI-DRC is now in the first stages of launching the country’s own large-scale organic farming program. In Walungu, the densest populated territory in both North and South Kivu, 90 hectares of land was granted by the local leader at little cost to WfWI. The King of Walungu, as he is known, provided the land to WfWI participants and graduates from the area for the next 30 years. He saw the progress our participants made on the 12 hectares of land he provided for our organic training fields is benefit to his community. Next week, our agribusiness experts will analyze the soil, measure out the plots of land to be farmed and owned by the participants, and formalize a management plan for the three-year project. Like the program in Rwanda, 1000 women will be trained in organic farming techniques per year; following their year of training they will own their own plots of land and will form into large-scale cooperatives.

Organic Farming Participant in Walungu.

The trainer is already providing our participants with a grab-bag of farming techniques that they will rely on after they graduate. At the training site, a large number of different crops are cultivated in a variety of methods. Tomatoes are planted using a terraced technique and a large field approach. The farmers will compare these two methods, carry out the process through harvest, and then decide on what works best for their plots of land for future cultivation. Gilbert, our Income Generation Manager, points out nearby plots of land that are owned and tended by non-WfWI farmers and shows me the differences in farming practices. You can clearly see that the WfWI land is better-organized, producing a healthier and lush crop outcome, and utilizing innovative irrigation and planting techniques. At a neighboring farm, Gilbert sees two women who are burning weeds they picked on their land. He pauses our conversation to talk with them to explain that this will make their soil infertile and that they should stop this traditional practice. He sees that some farmers, however, are copying the organization of the WfWI demonstration farm, and is pleased that some of our participants’ techniques are spreading to other plots in the community.

Gilbert then takes me to our training facility in Burhuza. One of the key programs there is our bread-making initiative. Participants were hard at work, pounding out dough, forming small rolls and loaves of bread, waiting for it to proof and rise, and baking it in their double clay oven. After the training session, we went to the small village of Mushinga near Burhuza. Gilbert wanted me to meet three entrepreneurs who started a bread-making operation where they live. All of the equipment was purchased by the participants using their sponsorship funds – a single clay oven, two large baking trays, a bread mold, a used oven cover, a large table – totaling $125USD. All this, and they have not even graduated yet. In July, when they complete their training, they will receive the $60 each that they saved throughout the year. They plan on using it to grow their capital so they can increase the quantity of production. Because of the quality of their bread, which is well-known throughout Mushinga, they were recently asked to produce a large order for a wedding in the village. The demand is high, but they are struggling to keep up with the requests. In addition to using their savings, they will be able to access a micro-loan to grow their business and meet the needs of the village.

Bread-Making Entrepreneurs.

Gilbert is also looking to grow the bread-making program and make the training available to more participants. Currently, 1067 women are enrolled in the bread-making vocational training, in nine out of the 12 sites in DRC. He is pleased with the initiative of the three participants and plans to help others build ovens and start a small operation in their villages as well. This way, the women can earn income while training, like the three entrepreneurs.

From guinea pig breeding to tile-making; organic farming to culinary arts; bread-making to tailoring – the participants at Women for Women International are making an investment in themselves, their families, and their communities. Each woman I have met along the way has a new-found passion for her vocational training, a drive to succeed, and a determination to chart a new path in life. In the short time I have spent in Rwanda and DRC, I have encountered participants at every stage in their year-long development – learning life skills such as the importance of voting and civic participation; discussing nutrition and basic hygiene; receiving their sponsorship funds; starting their vocational skills training; learning how to count; utilizing organic farming techniques; graduating from the program; and becoming new entrepreneurs in their communities.

Gilbert Kajabika, Income Generation Mgr., DRC.

I can 100% report that your continued and generous support is making a HUGE difference in the daily lives of the women we serve and their families. Our staff continues to come up with innovative ways to engage our participants and ensure that they will graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to be active participants in the social, civic, and economic advancement of their communities.

Thank you to all the Women for Women International staff in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially: Berra Kabarungi (Country Director, Rwanda); Christine Karumba (Country Director, DRC); Gertrude Mudekereza (Director of Programs, DRC); Patrick Njakani-Okoko (Goma Sub-Office Manager, DRC); Gilbert Kajabika (Income Generation Manager, DRC), and John Chuma (Sponsorship Translator, DRC). You have made my experience in your countries very enjoyable and educational. I look forward to relaying the many stories of the women we serve and our dedicated staff to our loyal supporters.        

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.

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Liam Dall’s DR Congo Trip: Part 3, Bukavu

Bukavu, DR Congo, June 21, 2010 || Today, our Bukavu team showcased the many ways our participants are generation an income, following their numeracy and business skills training. Together with our Income Generation Manager, Gilbert; translator, John; and driver, Roger; I set out to see the variety of ways women are putting into practice the vocational skills they learn throughout their training.

First on the itinerary was a stop at the Wavumu training farm where 607 women are learning new methods of cultivating the land. Gilbert explains that in this part of DRC, the women traditionally grow Cassava for the leaves and roots. This crop, however, can only be harvested once a year, and is sold cheaper at the market than other produce. Women for Women International teaches our participants how to cultivate crops that grow faster and are more economical. At Wavumu, the women are producing crops such as potatoes and carrots that are harvested two times a year and are in greater need at the market. Today, the participants are weeding the land and are making sure the soil is at level with the potatoes which are set to be harvested in August. Within this two hectare plot of land, the participants are also growing tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and cabbage. When asked what the biggest challenge is for the women farmers, I was told that many times, soldiers will steal their crops at the moment of harvest. A nearby field had almost half of its maize harvest taken. WfWI has recently employed two security guards to deter this behavior.

Graduates Making Soap.

Close to the farm is the Wavumu Training Center where the participants attend their life-skills, numeracy and business skills training. Gilbert wanted to stop by to give their trainers income generation plans for the participants to complete. While there, we listened in on a class that was reviewing each of the business skills lessons and preparing to start their vocational skills training in July. The trainer was testing the women on terms and practical situations learned throughout their training such as how to greet a customer; where in the market to sell their products; and how to keep a log of expenses, savings, and credits. After class, Gilbert asked all the groups to gather in the courtyard for instruction on how to fill out their individual income generation plans with their trainers. This will be their roadmap for the next six months as they start training in the particular job they chose as their marketable skill. He underscored that each participant needs to know where they are and where they are going. They should update their plans as they progress and always keep their hearts and minds set on their goals. In six months time they will receive a certificate of graduation. This will symbolize all that they have learned throughout the year.

At the training site, I noticed three women making soap. They are part of a 20-woman cooperative and graduated three years ago. Gilbert has asked them to prepare their products at the training center so that the current participants can be motivated to work hard and one day make products to earn an income like them. A bit down the road we stopped into a small restaurant and store owned by a former participant. Two of her children were behind the counter and a baby strapped to her back. A man was also in the restaurant. I asked her if he was her husband. She laughed and said, no, he was her employee.

Graduate and Restaurant Owner.

Following the training center, we visited the WfWI Ceramic Studio and Tile Production Center. Over 200 women are trained here in the production of traditional products such as cooking pots, water boilers, and planters; and construction products such as tiles. Our guide through the facility is a woman named Mariette who graduated from the first group trained in ceramics four years ago. She is now teaching her craft to the current participants. She said that her life before WfWI and her ceramic training was a big struggle. She could not feed or send her children to school. She used to travel very far from her home in search of pieces of charcoal. She can now do things that she never thought were possible like buy firewood, have enough food for her family, and pay for school fees for her children, even past primary education. As for her ceramics skills, she had no idea it was in her to create so many products. She loves ceramics and will never abandon the activity. She is now a grandmother and one of her own daughters is a current participant at WfWI.

Participant Making Traditional Ceramic Cooking Pot.

Mariette introduced us to some of the women doing various jobs. A number of women were mixing the clay manually – a very difficult and time-consuming task. Gilbert said that they recently purchased machine mixers to this job to save the participants time and energy. Next we visited with some women making tiles in various shapes and sizes. Many of these tiles are being produced and will be purchased for the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda – an effort that will generate income and be a symbol of peace among the women of the two countries. Finally, we spoke with participants who were making clay cooking pots. Each woman can make two pots per day. These take two weeks to dry, or up to one month in the rainy season. They are sold for $5USD each. These participants plan on expanding the ceramics program after graduation closer to where they live. Five women have come together to purchase and provide plots of land to be used for the activity. A kiln will be their next purchase and will be used by the women of the community to produce their wares.

Before ending the day, Gilbert had one more stop planned. He took me to a partner cooperative called ACOSYF that displays the final products of Women for Women International participants: soap from our soap makers; clay cooking pots and ceramic decorations from our ceramics participants; baskets and bags from our weavers; cloth flowers from our tailors; and other items. This partnership is an example of one of the final pieces to our income generation strategy where we help secure the market linkages for our participants and graduates so that their new skills and hard work literally pays off.      

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.

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Liam Dall’s DR Congo Trip: Part 2, Goma

Goma, DR Congo, June 20, 2010 || Many supporters and sponsors ask me about how the direct aid is given to the women each month. In Goma, the participants are part of a credit and savings cooperative – a pilot program initiated by WfWI to meet the savings objective of Project ESPOIR. According to the expectations set by USAID, at least 50% of the women must save through a formal institution. The partnership set up in Goma with a local credit and savings union called Mutuelle D’Epargne et de Credit de Ndosho ensures that all women in our Goma program are saving a portion of their sponsorship funds through these formal channels.

Each woman goes to the credit and savings co-op on a specified date each month. The cashier asks for the participant’s name and the name of her WfWI training group. After identifying the woman based on her name and her picture, the cashier administers the sponsorship funds. 30%, or $3USD, is deposited into the woman’s savings account; 70%, or $7USD, is given to the woman to use as she sees fit – food, school fees, clothing, and capital to grow small businesses. The participant signs her name or makes an ink thumb-print next to her name and savings amount. Upon completion of the year-long program, the woman will have saved $36USD, sometimes the largest sum of money they have seen at one time. This way, the women are guaranteed to have a large portion of funds available to them at the end of their training to reinvest in their businesses and advance their economic activities. They are also eligible for micro-loans and small credits for being part of the cooperative.

Participant Receiving and Saving Sponsorship Funds.

Faida, the graduate who was highlighted in my last story, says that the women are very lucky to have such an opportunity. This was not available to her during her training. She encourages the women to continue to save even after graduation and to take advantage of this opportunity. This way, their husbands cannot take their money. It is in a safe place, growing and maturing each month, just like them.

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.

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Liam Dall’s DR Congo Trip: Part 1, Goma

Today I left Rwanda to visit some of our programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Patrick Njakani-Okoko, WfWI Sub-Office Manager for North Kivu Province, meets me at my hotel and escorts me across the DRC border 2.5 kilometers away. He prepares me that I will see quite a difference from the Rwandan side of the border.

North Kivu province is one of the richest areas in the world in terms of minerals, agriculture and other natural resources. It is also one of the most dangerous places and continues to see conflict flare up by militia and rebel movements vying to take control of mines, farms, and key locales. For a woman, this brings the added threat of sexual violence and mistreatment. Women for Women International has a large presence in North Kivu, with a regional sub-office in Goma, where over 4,000 women have been trained since 2006.

Patrick tells me about a new program implemented in 2010 call ESPOIR – ‘hope’ in French. This three-year program funded by USAID will train 6,200 women in North and South Kivu provinces, with the objective of ending sexual violence by promoting rights and economic opportunities. 3,100 women started their training in January, 50% of whom live in and around Goma. Because of the vacillating conflict, these women are experiencing the social consequences – making it extremely difficult to access education, receive health care, and work to survive. Through Women for Women International, Project Espoir creates the linkages for the women we serve to economic opportunity, psycho-social support, medical care, and a foundation from which to rebuild their lives and their families.

Today marks the half-way point for the groups of participants who started in January. On July 5th, they commence skills-training, which follows the basic life-skills and rights education, numeracy classes, and business skills training they already completed. Patrick takes me to an unconventional training session that is just about to begin. Six groups have come together in the courtyard of the training site to hear testimony from two WfWI graduates on how their lives have transformed following the program. Written in big letters across the blackboard reads: SOMO YA KUMI. BAHATI YA KUONGEZA PATO. Which translates: Topic #10. Increasing Economic Opportunities.

The first woman to speak is named Nyankwa. She has a regal air about her, swathed in orange from head to toe. She graduate from the program in 2009 and is telling the current participants how she used her sponsorship funds received each month. She advises them to initiate their own projects to generate an income – even if it starts out small. She started by buying a 2 kg. sack of flour from which she made and sold donuts. She continued to reinvest her sponsorship funds into her small business and is currently buying two sacks of 100 kg. each, making and selling donuts to a number of partners who purchase her products to sell themselves. Each week, she would carefully listen to her trainers and make sure that she attended each and every class. This is where she learned how to manage and grow her small business and how to attract new clients. She is now diversifying her business by selling other items at her kiosk – bananas, eggs, and even her own sacks of flour. She learned to listen to what her clients requested, and to anticipate the needs of her environment. She was able to grow her capital through this diversification of products, but was only able to start her now burgeoning business with the first $10 she received at Women for Women International – an opportunity she did not have prior to the program.

Faida Telling Women to Invest in their Futures.

Following Nyankwa’s story, you could see that the current participants were sitting a little closer to the edge of their seats. The stage was set for the next testimony from a graduate named Faida.

Faida said she was very happy to see the new participants and assured them that their training will bring change. She mentioned that her story is different from Nyankwa’s. She is a divorced woman, abandoned by her husband and left to care for her five children alone. Prior to the program, she did not have a home and was living on the streets with her children. She was introduced to Women for Women International at one of the lowest points in her life. She started receiving training and bought a sack of cement with her first sponsorship funds for $10. She said she had no idea what to do with it, and just kept it with her other things, not using it. She then sold the cement for $15, using $5 for basic needs for her children and the other $10 on another sack of cement and some nails. She set up her own table selling the 2 kg. of nails she purchased. Each month she would buy and resell bags of cement and more nails to sell at her table. She stressed to the women not to neglect small business and what is most important is how to use the sponsorship funds each month. She tells them that they must sacrifice luxuries: no hairdressing, no new clothes, no beer. Their priority is to increase their capital.

Participant Learned to Count in Numeracy Program.

At the point where she started receiving regular clients, Faida’s children were chased out of school by the headmaster because their fees were not paid. She wrote to the headmaster, promising the payment in a few weeks time. She bough long sticks of sugar cane and cut them into smaller pieces, selling these along with her nails. The next month, she was able to finance her children’s education.

She tells the women to take this opportunity with both hands and adopt a new behavior to change their economic situation. There is now a fluttering of activity in her life revolving around her children: she pays school fees, buys second-hand clothing, provides them protein-rich food, and keeps them clean and healthy. No longer do they sleep in the street. No longer are they chased out of school. She says she has now made a jump in her life and her foundation is Women for Women International. Her training filled her head with new ideas and she is now putting them into practice. She is amazed that people in other countries are offering them help and support. She emphasizes to the women that these are funds that they do not have to pay back, so they should be clever in how they use them and raise themselves and their families up.

Recently, a relative of Faida offered her a plot of land because she saw how dedicated she was to changing her life and supporting her five children. She is now building a house that has two floors. She has healed from the misery of the past.

The women erupt in applause and ululations. A participant stands up and says that she is like Faida and found out about Women for Women International while living in the streets. She said she recently learned how to count in her numeracy training. Before she could not tell the difference if someone gave her one dollar or twenty dollars. The other women shouted, “Count, sister!” And she began – One! Two! Three! Four! Five! More applause and ululations. She said that before learning to count it was as if she was a blind woman. Now she cannot wait to learn to write her name.

After the testimonies, I was asked to address the women. What hard acts to follow! I told the women where I am from and that I work at Women for Women International in America. I echoed Faida’s advice of working hard throughout their training and taking this opportunity with both hands. I added that there is another pair of hands from their brothers and sisters in other countries, who are there to support them, encourage them, and offer them the start they need to make a new beginning. I ended by congratulating Nyankwa and Faida for the ways they turned their lives around. Next time I am in DRC, I said, I hope that Faida has added a third floor to her home, and that I can stay with her upon my return.          

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.

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Liam Dall’s Rwanda Trip: Part 3, Kayonza

Kayonza, Rwanda, June 15, 2010 || Women are 70% of the world’s farmers, produce 90% of the world’s staple food crops yet own less than 2% of land. Today we saw how Women for Women International is helping women take action to balance the scales and reclaim the land they are harvesting through our Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative.

The majority of the women who participate in our programs in Rwanda, and throughout our three other African country programs (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan), are already doing agricultural work. Our large-scale, integrated farming initiative in Rwanda trains 3,000 of these women in the eastern part of the country in advanced organic farming techniques and provides the skills to earn a sustained income.

Following morning life-skills sessions, the first stop of the afternoon was at the GAKO Organic Farming Training Center in Rwamagana. This facility trains each of the women involved in our agribusiness initiatives on topics such as innovative irrigation techniques, organic pesticides, animal husbandry, soil health and maintenance, and other viable, inexpensive methods of agricultural production. The women come for one full week of intensive training and stay at a dormitory housed on the GAKO compound. Once they complete the instruction, they put their training into practice at the Women for Women International farm sites in Kayonza.

Women Farmers Welcoming Us at Ngaruye Farm.

Mark, the chief trainer and project manager for the Commercial Integrated Farming Initiative, gave us a brief primer on the basics of organic farming techniques at the GAKO site and then accompanied the group to one of the three WfWI sites. The particular farm we visited is called Ngaruye, which employs 451 women farmers cultivating 24 hectares of land spanning over two kilometers, portioned off as small plots owned by the women who work it. The first harvest will start next week as the beans are just about dry enough to pick. One of the women who will be joining in the harvest is a trained participant named Claudine. She tours the farm with us, parasol in hand, shielding herself and the baby strapped to her back from the blazing sun. She will also join in the harvesting of the maize which will be ready next month and the chili peppers in October. The entire harvest has been purchased by the United Nations World Food Programme for 5,000,000 Rwandan Francs (approximately $10,000 USD). The co-op will reinvest the money to start irrigation for tomatoes – which, like beans, maize, and chili peppers, is a viable and profitable market in the community.

Claudine, Organic Farmer

As Mark and Claudine showcase their lush crops, I am energized by seeing the first fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. No longer is the program just a few pictures and words on a report for me. I am talking with the farmers, jumping over irrigations ditches, muddying my boots, and holding in my hands the first beans of the harvest.

I hope that my words and pictures give you an understanding of the huge impact Women for Women International is making in the lives these 3000 women, and on individual farmers such as Claudine. I hope that one day soon, you, too, can walk these fields and see for yourself the innovative work these women farmers are performing on their own land.

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.


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Liam Dall’s Rwanda Trip: Part 3, Kigali

Kigali, Rwanda, June 13, 2010 || Rwandans throughout the country observe 100 days of mourning to commemorate the atrocities committed during the genocide of 1994 where over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed over a 100-day period. We are visiting Kigali during this time of deep reflection and remembrance of those whose lives were cut short, which commences each year on April 6th. To pay our respects and to bear witness to this horrible series of events, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre where over 250,000 women, men, and children are buried and honored together in a mass grave site.

Our guide, Hashmat, who was only 10 years old at the time, shared her own story of survival. Together with her mother, father and three young siblings, Hashmat sought refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines, known by many outside of the country as “Hotel Rwanda.” She calls it home and explained that it took her many years to be able to talk about her story and courage to step foot back into the hotel to revisit those memories of pain and survival . When asked what we, as visitors, should take from her story, she urged that we should think of Rwanda today as one country and one people – united for progress and looking ahead at a prosperous and peaceful future.

In the afternoon, we saw just that.

Welcome by Women at Kigali Office.

As we entered the Women for Women International compound in Kigali, we were joyously greeted by a group of women who are currently enrolled in our programs. As they were singing and dancing, they welcomed supporters and sponsors from the United States who are here with me to see our programs in action and talk with the women who are participating in our life-skills and vocational training.

We first visited a sewing and tailoring skills class that was already in progress. The trainer mentioned that this group of women has been learning to sew for the last six months. They started the training without any prior sewing skills, but have quickly become proficient seamstresses – starting by producing tablecloths, advancing to school uniforms, and culminating in gift items such as bags, slippers, and intricate patters upon the completion of their skills training. As we left the class, after praising the craftsmanship of the new tailors, one of our visiting supporters, Christine, said to the trainer, “Make sure you tell them we believe in very strong women who can take control of their future.” The participants smiled and clapped in agreement.

Berra Kabarungi, WfWI-Rwanda Country Director, then shared with the group the comprehensive roadmap we use to guide our participants on their journeys from victim to survivor to active citizen. She highlighted the growth of the Rwanda program that started in 1997 serving 1,157 women with 14 staff members. Today, a team of 67 staff members are under the leadership of Berra and are working with 8,250 women in Rwanda. As we listened to Berra talk about our core life-skills and vocation training, complemented and advanced by our income-generation programs, business skills training, numeracy instruction and large-scale integrated farming initiatives, you were reminded of Hashmat’s theme– united for progress; looking ahead to a prosperous future.

Antoinette Wearing her Beadwork.

Following Berra’s presentation, we met with graduates from our programs who were showcasing their handicrafts for purchase. We met Antoinette, who graduated in 2007. She produces beaded necklaces made out of recycled paper. When asked what her life was like before the WfWI program, she said that she did not have any skills and was sitting at home jobless. After her training, she has had success with selling her beadwork and access to a lasting income. Each of the necklaces takes her about three days to complete and she earns between 3,000-5,000 RWF each (about $6-10). She says it’s hard work, but her life is better than before.

Another woman we spoke with graduate last year. Serafine elected to take tailoring and sewing as her vocational skills-training. She is now part of a 40-women cooperative, all of whom are graduates of Women for Women International. Like those we visited in class today, she did not have any experience tailoring, using the machines, creating patterns, or producing the final products that were now displayed in front of us. Her co-op is so successful that they even act as wholesalers to other markets who buy their products to sell, and have worked with international buyers that sell their work abroad. She explained that for each item sold, a portion of the money goes to the seamstress and a portion to the co-op. She gave an example: if she sells a bag for 5,000 RWF, she takes home 4,000 and gives 1,000 back to invest in the future of the cooperative. Needing to get back to selling her products, she ends the conversation by saying that she is happy that we saw those who are currently learning how to sew and that we also met her. She sees such a difference from when she was first learning her craft to where her life is now. And that with hard work and determination, the new students will be where she is today.

Serafine Showcasing her Cloth Bags.

These women are the embodiment of the new Rwanda for which Hashmat, Christine and Berra advocate — respecting where they came from, working hard through their struggles, and uniting as one as they take control of their future.

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.

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Liam Dall’s Rwanda Trip: Part 2, Kigali

Kigali, Rwanda, June 11, 2010 || Today is my first full day in Kigali. I arrived at the Women for Women International office in Kigali and was welcomed by Berra Kabarungi, our Country Director, and her dedicated staff. Fridays are field days for the Kigali office and I was fortunate enough to join the life-skills trainers and other staff members on their daily assignments.

The first stop was the village of Nyagasambu, 30 km. east of Kigali in the district of Rwamagana. There we dropped off three of our life-skills trainers to start their instruction. Before joining the classes, we continued up the road to visit a maize cultivation cooperative in Sasabirago. Emmanuel, the income-generation coordinator, gave us a tour of the site and talked about the co-op. Amid a backdrop of breathtaking hills and the expanse of Lake Muhazi lies a three-hectare farm of maize, cultivated by 99 women – all graduates of the Women for Women International program and skilled in organic farming. They are getting ready for the harvest at the end of this month, and will then be trained in post-harvest management as they prepare their crops for the market. Emmanuel noted that the entire harvest has already been pre-purchased by one of our partners, Purchase for Peace. I couldn’t help detect a huge amount of pride and satisfaction in his face as he told us the news.

Charlotte and Emmanuel at Maize Cooperative.

We returned to Nyagasambu where the life-skills sessions were well underway. The first class we visited was just wrapping up their recap from the last time they met. The topic was on Matualle – the government issued health insurance of Rwanda. Jane, the group’s life-skills trainer, stressed the importance of registering for the insurance. She explained that for a small fee (5,000 Rwandan Francs – about $10) the women and their families can seek medical care and the government will pay for 80% of the expenses. Without the insurance, the women would have to pay for 100% of the cost. One participant commented that she is now able to go to the hospital and take care of her children’s health after registering for the Matualle.

Today’s new discussion was on civic participation and focused on voting. This is a very important year in Rwanda as August 9th marks the presidential election. Jane the life-skills trainer explained that in order to vote, each woman needs to register with their local leader with proof that they are over 18 years of age and a Rwandan national. She asked the group of 20 what voting means to them. One participant responded, “To vote is choosing someone who will really help you accordingly.” Jane emphasized that all women must know the candidates and listen carefully to their campaigns before making their informed vote. Another participant agreed and said that she will choose a President who will help her reach her goals and who believes in rights for women.

The second class we visited was finishing up its own discussion on the importance of voting. At the end, the trainer, Lucie, asked if we could say something. I introduced myself, and my colleague Jennifer from the DC office, telling the women that we work with sponsors from the United States and other countries. I told them that their “sisters and brothers” care for them, support them from afar, and encourage them to continue their training. The women’s faces lit up and they started to applaud. Many stood up and started to tell their stories of how the sponsorship has changed their lives and helped them care better for their families.

Jen and I asked two of the participants if we could talk with them after class. With the help of our translator for the day, Charlotte, who works with our sponsorship team in Kigali, we asked how the training affected each of the women personally. A woman named Joseline said that Women for Women International is helping her take care of her five children and two orphans she took in after the recent death of her mother. She now has health insurance for the family and is able to take the children to the clinic. She has also learned a lot about her civil liberties and teaches her daughters about their rights as well. The second woman we talked to was named Jacqueline. She grows tomatoes in her own kitchen garden. After selling her first yield at the market and saving the funds she received from Women for Women International, she was able to buy equipment to help with her harvest.

Joseline and Jacqueline

After a long day, all nine of us squeezed back into the Women for Women 4×4 and headed back to the office in Kigali. I am thrilled to have finally witnessed our life-skills training and to have seen the land that is cultivated by our graduates. The best part of the day, and what I will never forget, is finally talking with the women we serve – sharing well-wishes from their sponsors, encouraging them to continue their hard work, laughing with the participants, and hearing their stories of accomplishment and growth.

I know that these are the first of many stories I will hear over the next two weeks. Some will be triumphant; others will be difficult to take in. But I know, like today, that progress is being made – day by day, session by session, women for women.

Liam Dall is the Senior Major Gifts Officer at Women for Women International. He traveled to Rwanda and DR Congo in June 2010.


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Liam Dall’s Rwanda Trip: Part 1

Washington, D.C., June 9, 2010 || On Wednesday I leave for Rwanda. Over the next two and a half weeks, I will be visiting Women for Women International’s programs in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This will be my first time seeing our programs in person and interacting with the women we serve.

As a major supporter of our global work, I invite you to follow along my journey as I meet with our staff, talk with women survivors of war, attend life skill sessions, visit with women farmers and entrepreneurs, and experience the life-changing work of Women for Women International.

I encourage you to comment on my entries and ask me questions along the way. I do hope that one day you will also see the impact of your generous support in person. In the meantime, I will act as your guide from afar and provide my own insights on the many successes of the women who participate in our programs and the challenges they continue to face.

Thank you again for your conitnued and steadfast commitment to Women for Women International! I look forward to answering your questions and sharing your comments with the women we serve!

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Bosnia and Kosovo: Lady Hannah Lowy Mitchell’s Visit

Srenbrenica, Bosnia

“Do not think of the people who died in the name of God that they are dead. They are alive, but you cannot see them or feel them”

So says the inscription at the Memorial at Srebrenica, where 8,732 men and boys are commemorated. You can feel the dead everywhere—in the icy cold of the pouring rain, which falls like tears all day long, as unremitting as the freezing wind which penetrates the very depths of our bones. In the icy rain, but even in the warmth of the welcoming houses of the women we visit, the dead speak to us from behind the glass picture frames where they reside, ever young, ever smiling, and never forgotten. It is the sorrow and the suffering felt by the survivors of this horrible war which destroyed their lives, then and now, which was brought home to us by the realization that, still fifteen years on, these women still have not been able to find peace.

Abida and Fazila—two of the women in WfWI’s program—are only now, this coming July 11, going to be able to bury their dead husbands and sons, and even then, only when they have been through the agonizing process of formally identifying and registering their remains. These remains will mostly be 50 percent of the bodies of their husbands and sons, as the bodies were moved from primary to secondary graves in order to confuse those who sought justice for the genocide and massacres perpetrated during those terrible years.

Imagine for a moment how it must feel to formally register half your son’s beloved body. Without that, you cannot even give him a proper burial. Without that, he will forever remain a pile of bones, maybe with only a shred of a garment or a cigarette box or a ring to identify him. He, who was once young and full of vigor and hope; he, who was forced to say goodbye to you, his mother, with tears pouring down his cheeks as he waved farewell; he, whose life ended in those sad hills, shot by those who hated him for his religion. And even now you only have part of his body, and will forever wonder where the rest is, or, indeed, which part of his body they have identified.

The women left behind try very hard. They are the most deprived and the poorest, the ones whose lives were shattered again and again—by starvation, by death, by rape and by humiliation. These are the women that Women for Women International make it their business to help. These are the women who drag themselves out of their sorrow to learn new skills through our training programs, to find new strength and new purpose in life, to support their remaining children, often girls who themselves have had to watch as their mothers were raped or beaten or cruelly hurt by the Serbian soldiers.

That Women for Women International is able to help, and that the Bosnian women are able to find new meaning and new avenues in their lives is truly remarkable. It is a miracle to me how these women find the strength to carry on, even after all these years, to rebuild and even to forgive. It is a miracle made possible by donations such as yours—and believe me, your letters count for just as much. Bosnia seems to have been forgotten, the world has moved on, to other tragedies, to other massacres, to other deaths.

On the wall of Abida’s simple home hang three pictures. In the center, a framed, crumpled photograph or her two handsome sons, ages eighteen and nineteen, sitting in the summer sun chatting to two young Canadian U.N. soldiers in their pale blue helmets. On either side hang two WfWI graduation certificates awarded to Abida and her daughter; the only diplomas they ever won.

Those two young sons died in July 1995, murdered as they fled Srebrenica, the so-called U.N. safe haven. Those boys will never come home, and Abida cannot bring herself to go and register their remains, because then she will have to finally admit they have died. But she will never have peace before they are buried, so she is caught in that no-man’s land of grief and sorrow. And the only thing she has to make her smile is her diploma from Women for Women International, the printed proof that she is a worthwhile human being, that she still has something to live for, that she is able to support her family, however poor they may be.

And I will always remember those smiling boys and her broken face as she tells me her story. And I am ashamed that all this happened just a few hundred kilometers from the sun-kissed beaches of our European summer holidays. And I wonder how it all happened. And I am proud that Women for Women International can make such a difference to such devastated lives. It takes so little. So very little. And the icy rain still falls.

Women’s Opportunity Center, Bosnia

The rain poured down again today, all day, but this time it seemed a gentler rain, one which is responsible for the immensely fertile nature of the gloriously verdant countryside in this part of the world. Today it rained on the fruit and vegetables being grown for market by women who are micro-loan clients of Women for Women International of Bosnia, and it rained on the flowers in the gardens and the wild herbs in the forests which our women pick to make tinctures and creams and elixirs for sale in Sarajevo.

Today we visited the Women’s Center, which houses the administrative heart of the organization in Bosnia. Bosnian women are renowned for their skills at knitting and embroidery and the WfWI training programs capitalize on their skills. We spent time in the workshops where women come to weave carpets, embroider beautiful linens and knit trendy scarves, gloves and bags for kate spade in New York. The quality of the work is excellent and the attention to details outstanding. We could do with several business partnerships like the one with kate spade. There is no doubt the workforce is here and the women are hard-working and talented. All they need are opportunities.

Then we went back to the WfWI school with a group of women of all ages and religious backgrounds–Muslims, Serbs and Croats–as they started on their  first day of their exciting journey to independence. They began by making a list of all the unpaid jobs they do at home and in their communities. Then they agreed with one voice that no one ever thanks them for the work they do. I thought to myself how little things change in the world. But then I also thought that by the end of this year, the twenty-odd women in this room will leave as different people. They will learn just how valuable their many varied skills actually are, and how they will be able to turn those very jobs they now do to their own advantage. They will be the market-gardeners and the fruit-growers of tomorrow, they too will take micro-finance loans and grow mushrooms and strawberries and flowers to sell to the local shops. They will sew and weave and embroider and knit. They will be able to feed their children and care for their families. They will be able to decorate their houses and fill in the bullet holes and repair the shell damage.

And they will, in their turn, be ambassadors for Women for Women International and show other women the way. Hopefully their husbands and sons will see and take note and slowly, things will change.

None of this would be possible without Zainab’s vision and the quite remarkable dedication and devotion of the staff here in Sarajevo. What an extraordinary group. Zainab’s name is always mentioned with great pride and love. The team itself is made up of the most fantastic people–a few men; but overwhelmingly women. Their passion for the cause is movingly clear in every single thing they do and say. They obviously live for their work and love talking about what they do and how they do it. You cannot imagine a more focused and energetic team, everything we saw bore this out–from their obvious knowledge of every woman on the program, to the beautifully organized archive which has recorded every woman’s participation from the very beginning.

And it was here it all began, all those years ago, when Zainab chose to come to Bosnia.  It goes on to bring out the best in women who have been through so much, it would make your heart squeeze with sorrow. But instead of leaving in tears at their misery, we leave with joy in our hearts, for we know that being part of Women for Women International will change their lives, with their own very hard work, with passionate dedication, with knowledge, and not least, with the love of their fellow students and with the love and support of this extraordinary organization.

Day One: Sarajevo to Prishtina

It is a long journey and we are tired–on the plane from Vienna we are surrounded by soldiers and U.N. staff, a stark reminder that  in Kosova the threat of civil unrest is still present. Maja and Shrepsa are here to meet us at the airport and guide us through the myriad of cigarette sellers and likely lads in the airport car park. We have screwed up our hotel booking and the first hours offer an intriguing insight into the hotels of Prishtina! There is a particular brand of Balkan interior design, which seems to consist mainly of yellow nylon and strip lighting. We feel ashamed to be fussing about where we sleep. But it is all very clean and we eventually settle down in Hamide’s favourite hotel. “Listen to the natives!” she laughs at us.

We visit the deputy head of Mission at the British Embassy to tell her about the work of Women for Women International, and leave her buzzing with enthusiasm. She invites the Women for Women International leaders to join the Embassy for tea on the Queen’s birthday in June.

Maja takes us for dinner with four young members of the Kosova team, and we debate endlessly, hearing about corruption, farming policy, prostitution, HIV aids, infant mortality and women dying in childbirth (the highest in Europe), illiteracy (between 20-40% in general, with places in which the rate goes up to 80% among women), hygiene and human rights, land laws and inheritance policies (women do not inherit, though they are of course legally allowed to), the contrast between what the law stipulates and what actually happens.

Prishtina, Kosovo

When a Kosovan father gives his daughter away in marriage he says to his son-in-law, “I give you my daughter, who is my blood, and your slave.”

We meet the Women for Women International-Kosovo staff in our offices; all 35 of them. We introduce ourselves and each member of staff tells us what they do and what Women for Women International means to them. They are welcoming and full of the same incredible energy and intensity we saw in Sarajevo.

But there is no time for chatting; Hamide and Maja take us straight to see the new Women’s Opportunity Centre which sits strategically opposite USAID and a huge and very newly built shopping center, very close to the site of the new American Embassy. It all looks a mess now, but what a brilliant location? The building itself, which has been sponsored by the Private Equity Foundation in the UK, is nearly complete, and will have its grand opening around September 7, 2010. It is stunning, large and airy, with huge windows, plenty of classrooms, a shop to sell farm produce and products made by our women, a cafeteria, where Hamide expects to feed local office workers and shoppers, for legal aid, for health visitors, for I.T., for literacy programs, and not least, for expansion. Quite a contrast to the crowded and shabby offices Women for Women International-Kosovo live in now! The new WOC will enable the women of Kosova to move to an entirely new level.

After lunch in a traditional Kosovan restaurant (goodness me, is the food good in this part of the world?) we drive out of the city. Everywhere we see vast numbers of unfinished buildings, the construction trade is certainly flourishing here, though most buildings are put up hastily with no regard for safety or planning permission. We drive through several small towns absolutely buzzing with hundreds of cheerful young people just walking around together, playing football, chatting, sitting on walls passing the time of day, doing nothing. There is no work: Officially, unemployment stands around 45%; 70% for women. Where young men used to travel abroad to find work, these options are now much restricted. The young must be desperate for something to do. Meanwhile, the fields go untended. 

In a tiny village close by, things are very different. Seventeen Women for Women International-Kosovo graduates have established their own wood business where they make pine beehives and sell them to women beekeepers (participants and graduates of Women for Women International-Kosov programs) and to other, external buyers. The two small facilities where women work are the property of a family business and women can use one of them free of charge up to 2013. 

Once inside, a delicious smell of freshly sawn wood fills the air. The women are hard at it. They stop to chat. They are so happy to have this work, and are keen to grow the business. Ajete is the team leader on production–her husband is one of the 1,800 men whose bodies have never been found after the war in 1999. The Serbs still refuse to say where the mass graves are to be found. So Ajete supports her five children and her parents and her parents-in-law, there is no one else. The beehives are a lifeline for her and for her family.

A few kilometers away, in a garden full of wild flowers, we meet Menduhije–a beautiful dark-haired girl with fire in her eyes. She graduated from our program three years ago and she is now a mentor and an inspiration for other young women who come to her to learn beekeeping. Menduhije started with three beehives, and she now has forty-three. She sells her wild-flower honey in local markets and fairs and is famous throughout the community. Today she is teaching the intricate and delicate art of beekeeping to four other young women, each prettier and sparkier than the next. She invites us into her house and makes us tea, and we get to taste her delicious honey. She only has a little left as she sells as much as she can produce.

The girls talk of their lives. They are between 18 and 23 years old. They were allowed to go to school (I say allowed, as this is unusual in rural communities; the girls usually have to work at home while the boys travel abroad to work-the families are too poor and too traditional to allow them to go to college). The girls are desperate to start their own beekeeping enterprises–this way they can stay at home and work, which satisfies the community but allows them to earn money.

I love these girls and my heart goes out to them. One of them was head-girl at her school and would have liked to study and become a teacher. But she is stuck in a remote village where the mind-set is truly medieval. She will have an arranged marriage. But she is one of the lucky ones. She has Women for Women International to train and support her. She has Menduhije as her mentor. And Menduhije in turn has Hamide as her inspiration and mentor. Parry and I have fallen in love with the whole group. It is hard to leave!

And everywhere we go, Hamide and Maja show us gravestones by the side of the road–gravestones with carved portraits of people, young and old. “Look! That is where 27 people were slaughtered by the Serbs–and here they buried a young girl, shot by the Serbs on her way home from school.” “Look, this is where the Serbs killed a while family of innocent civilians, and tore the unborn child from the body of a pregnant woman, and shot her and the baby to death.”

On to a Roma community, which sits alongside a small Serbian enclave between two main roads. The Serbian part of the village is relatively prosperous, very neat with immaculate vegetable gardens and tidy cattle. A few dusty streets on, the Roma live in appalling filth and squalor. But even here Women for Women International has, after many years of careful nurturing, persuaded the community to allow their women to attend literacy and training classes run by the devoted team in Prishtina.

We speak to a Roma young female representative. Her tale is a sorry one. Roma women are still sold into marriage, often as young as 14 years old. They speak Roma or Serbo-Croat, which keeps them isolated from the rest of the majority, the Albanian community. The children consequently find it hard to manage in school, so they have after-school classes in the Albanian language. Worst of all, the Roma are still considered collaborators (some of them joined the Serb death squads) and this is the reason they find it difficult, if not impossible, to return to their communities. Hamide is talking to a tiny old lady with broken teeth outside a squalid hut, it reminds me of the slums of India. But she is smiling, telling us how her life improved after her training with Women for Women International. She now is making sure her children learn Albanian, she has a few sheep (which she got through the Women for Women International program) and she can make some money, selling sheep’s milk for cheese. Afterwards I ask Hamide how old she is “I’d say 40″ says Hamide. She looked 80.

That evening, we dine with Nezafete Sejdiu, Kosova’s First Lady-a remarkable woman who was a teacher before her husband became Kosova’s President-she has volunteered with Women for Women International since the very first day and she has translated many letters between sponsor and trainee. We talk about rape and murder and how Women for Women International translators find out about so many horror stories from the touching way the women confided in their sponsors across the oceans who they will never meet. We discuss the future and hope and their passionate belief that their women will slowly change their beloved country.

Prishtina, Kosovo

“Bread, heart and salt,” a traditional Kosovan saying: I might have nothing to offer my friends but I will always offer them bread, heart and salt.

 As in Bosnia, so in Kosova. We go straight from one sorrow to another. We drive to visit Enver Duriqi, the sole survivor of the massacre of Obranc. He is a tall man with a limp and a hearing aid, both the result of multiple beatings by Serb militia. He greets us and immediately starts telling us his story.
We walk up a small hill through beautiful fields of wild flowers as the words pour out. We stand in front of a marble memorial with the carved portraits of seven people, all with the name, Duriqi. They are his parents, aged around 70, his wife, a young woman of 35, and their four children, aged between three and 14. They are Enver’s family. As he speaks, two small children join our group and listen with solemn faces. The little boy slips his hand into Nezafete’s.

As Enver tells his story, we slowly crumple. The First Lady and Hamide have heard these stories many times before and his tale is the same as thousands of others, but still the tears pour down their cheeks. Enver’s eyes redden and he too, weeps. On March 24,1999 the Serbs murdered Enver’s whole family in cold blood. On the same sunny afternoon, they murdered 24 others from the same village. Nezafete and I ask, “How did you ever get on with your life after that?” Enver smiles through his tears. After the war his father-in-law said to him, “You are a good man and you married my eldest daughter and she is sadly dead. Now, marry her sister, my youngest daughter, and look to the future.” So he married her and he now has four young children, and these two little ones are his, the others are at school. I wonder how much of Enver’s pain is passed down to his sons and daughters?

Not far away, a women’s farming association (the word “collective” is seldom used; too reminiscent of the Communists) welcomes us for a huge delicious lunch. The fields here are cultivated full of cabbages and onions and tomatoes and peppers and the story is the same–people come from far and wide to buy their produce–they cannot grow enough. We talk about land prices and pickled peppers and the women burn with pride and pleasure, they are so happy to see us and the First Lady and everyone has their photographs taken.

Final Thoughts on Bosnia and Kosovo

Heart-warming and heart-rending; those two words sum up our feelings on the way home. Unashamedly corrupt governments, selfish politicians constantly feathering their own pockets, ignorant, ill-educated men, down-trodden, illiterate women, lack of investment in local infrastructure and most of all, lack of investment in small businesses and agriculture. Lack of investment anywhere the politicians and local officials cannot make their cut.

Women for Women International prides itself justifiably on never taking or making bribes, on showing there is an honest way to survive. And their success is proof that they are right.

The work Women for Women International does is truly magnificent and is quite obviously flourishing. But we need more investment in businesses just like the kate spade new york partnership. We need to find other companies who can use our women’s skills in knitting, weaving and embroidery. We need to give them designs that will sell in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Paris, Rome and London. We need to harness their hard-working talents and get products on the road that will bring them income and investment.

And more even that that, we need to help with land. There is a huge market there and the women are desperate for work. They can sell everything they produce and more. Lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, cabbage, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, plums, strawberries, apples, eggs, and honey, I could go on and on. 

Both Bosnia and Kosova import more than 75% of cheap food from Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and China. This is ludicrous. Both countries are tremendously fertile, there is plenty rain and they could easily make a huge success of farming, after all, they did before the recent wars. (Can you believe Bosnia imports garlic from as far away as China?). The demand is there. Our women only need the land and the greenhouses (€1,400 each) and beehives (€30-40 each) and tools and seeds and fruit trees and irrigation systems and they will be away. We need to move fast before land prices increase too much.

Women for Women International has the infrastructure, the women-power, the controls and the training capacity. Women for Women International needs to invest in its future, and for its future to be sustainable, Women for Women International needs land to run its own co-operatives and needs to plough profits back into more training and more trees and beehives and more land.

In countries where women are prevented by tradition from inheriting the property or land, which is by law theirs.  What could be more satisfying than for Women for Women International to own the very land which will create investment and income opportunities for the women, for the organization and for the future? This would guarantee the survival of Women for Women International far beyond the limits of charitable donations.

We need some serious business investment here. As Hamide said, “We don’t want mercy, we want jobs.”

Leadership Circles in the US and the UK, it is up to us to make that happen.

Lady Hannah Lowy Mitchell traveled throughout Bosnia and Kosovo during May 2010; she is a co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Circles in the United Kingdom.


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Lisa Rico: Graduation Day in Rwanda

After women have been in the Women for Women International program for one year, they graduate. It’s a big deal. For many this is their first graduation ceremony. They dress in traditional garments and with bellies full of nervous butterflies they come to celebrate. I’ve attended these ceremonies before, but today was special. 
Today 680 women, the largest class yet in Rwanda, was graduating. We arrive at the “playground”–it looks more like a big field, there are so many people I can’t imagine the number. Later I’m told more than 2,000. I can hear music in the background beyond the sea of bodies and  umbrellas. Today the sun is bright and it is African hot, at least to me. We get out with hundreds watching my every move. Without any words spoken, they part and let me pass. They stare, some smile and a few reach out and touch me. I don’t really understand why at the moment. Later I will discover they have already been told a special guest from America is coming. And I  just thought I was going to observe–silly me. 
I am escorted to a tent-covered V.I.P. area. Even the simple plastic chairs are covered in white fabric.  Our country director, Berra, was speaking, or trying to. My arrival is causing a bit of a stir as people stretch to get a glimpse of this  special guest. I’m still clueless. Finally Berra gives in and introduces  me as a sponsor who has come a long way on behalf of other sponsors in America. She asks me to stand and wave. I’m overcome when the crowd  erupts into applause, waves and huge smiles. They are so happy I’m here. Okay, now I get it. 
The program continues with various talking heads, dancing and songs.  Even a skit that demonstrates what the women have learned is presented.  One of the talking heads is the vice mayor. She has much to say. The crowd loves her and is very responsive to her speech. Fortunately, sitting next to me a Women for Women International staff member is explaining what she is saying. At one point she starts to really urge the women to save some money, stay clean and make sure their children go to school. Then, much to my amazement, she talks about family planning and how important  it is. She even asks them by a show of hands who is practicing family planning. Most every hand goes up. “Good,” she says, “do not have more childrens than you have money for; this is very important.” I keep trying to imagine my mayor standing up at some big event and encouraging everyone to bathe and practice family planning. I love their raw honesty.

Berra is once again addressing the crowd. Then I realize she is talking about me. She asks if I will come forward and talk to the women on behalf of all sponsors. No pressure here. “Muraho, amakuru ki?” They love this–white woman speaks Rwandan. That’s all I know so know Berra helps me from here. I tell them, it is an honor to be here. Everyone of your sponsors are so very proud of you and each of them wishes they were here today. They are all proud of what you’ve overcome and what you are accomplishing now. They know it has not been easy for you, that it is still not easy for you but because of your hard work, it is getting better. I mention the Women for Women International slogan, Strong Women Build Strong Nations and say, “and because of your strength, you are building a strong Rwanda. Murakoze cyane.” Thank you very much.

At the end of the ceremony, some two hours later, a final celebration dance erupts. Others sitting in the V.I.P. area are invited to join in the dance including yours truly, the muzungu. When I do so another eruption of clapping and cheers. Try to picture it, under a hot African sun, in the middle of a field, hundreds of Rwandan women dressed in traditional outfits dancing around a crazy white woman who is trying desperately to dance with them. It must have been a sight. At least the film crew thought so because the next morning I’m told by hotel staff, “Hey I saw you on TV last night.” I can only hope this doesn’t make its way to You Tube.

Lisa Rico is a sponsor through Women for Women International. She is currently traveling in Rwanda.

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Lisa Rico’s Trip to Rwanda: Meeting Deborah

Today was the day for me to meet a couple of the women I sponsor through Women for Women International. It’s a rare experience for these women as few sponsors travel here. When it does happen, it’s a really big deal. As a sponsor, it’s a really big deal, too. How to describe the experience…I wish you could simply peer into my heart so you would know how it really felt.

My large green Range Rover that screams “muzungu” (white person), pulls into a small rural area where a couple dozen locals are hanging out. I scan the crowd, certain I won’t recognize my “sister” from the tiny photo I was given months ago. I was right; I didn’t recognize her at all. But I did recognize the look in her eyes. She knew who we were and moved toward us. We embrace. We embrace again. I can feel her small body shaking. She starts to cry. I offer the handful of Rwandan words I know. Then I need a translator. So good to meet you. How are you? Are you enjoying the Women for Women program? What are you learning?

She asks if I could visit her home nearby. We pile into the vehicle and head out. Nearby is farther than I thought, down a long road that looks more like a dry creek bed. All along the way there are children looking with curious eyes and waving at our passing vehicle.

We finally arrive at her small mud home. Neat and tidy, with no windows, a low doorway, dirt floor and grass roof. There is no water or electricity. The entire house is about the size of my kitchen. Deborah lives here with her two children, age 13 and 3. Because her brother and sister-in-law were killed during the genocide, her brother’s two children, ages 11 and 13, live here as well. Add her mother and that’s six in this tiny space. I can’t imagine.

Deborah says life is better, and I believe her. But she is not one of the many Rwandan women whose big bright smiles leave you thinking, she must have been out of town during the genocide because she looks so happy. No, when you look into Deborah’s eyes you know life has been, and continues to be, a hard, rough climb.

We eventually say goodbye, and I leave knowing this is not finished. I know when I wake up in the middle of the night in the days and months to come, Deborah’s face will be there.

Lisa Rico is a sponsor through Women for Women International. She is currently traveling in Rwanda.

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Rwanda: Alison Wheeler’s Trip, January 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

We arrived into the Kigali airport at 10 p.m. My very first observations walking down the airplane stairs were: the weather (warn and balmy), trees and canopies of leaves and the smoke smell (people burn their trash here).

The small Kigali airport was clean, efficient and relatively quiet. Many people welcomed us to Rwanda and then went on their way. Our drivers picked us up. We could see twinkling lights on the surrounding hills as we drove from the airport into Kigali. Paved two-lane roads wound around to the center of the city. There was somewhat of a center of the city, surrounded by homes and hills. It was amazing to hear that 1.5 million people live in Kigali and nearly 10 million people live in this very small country.

We arrived at Hotel Milles Collines (Rwanda is know as the Land of Thousand Hills). English has recently replaced French as the official language, though most people still speak the local language–Kinyarwanda.

The Hotel Milles Collines was the hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” You enter through a big gate, and I couldn’t help visualizing what this place must of looked like when hundreds of people were trying to get through the gates during the genocide, seeking the protection on the inside. After we had checked in, we all headed to take a look at the swimming pool. It was surreal to sit there and think about what it must have been like for the people that were trapped in the hotel during the genocide—the people who stayed here actually ended up drinking the pool water when they ran out of fresh water.

I guess that is one of the things I couldn’t get out of my head the entire first day here. How did the genocide happen here? It doesn’t seem possible. Unlike Bosnia, at first you don’t see the damage of the war that took place here. The buildings weren’t really destroyed. You don’t see the machetes lying around. But it’s there. Our taxi driver, Remee, told us he lost his entire family during the genocide–mother, father, brothers and sisters. He has no family. He also showed us a machete scar on his scalp. There are other scars, he told us.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We left the hotel early Wednesday morning to visit the sustainable farming initiative about an hour from our Kigali office.

Outside the city, the countryside is a terraced series of hills that go on and on with lots of green valleys and banana trees everywhere, in addition to the potato plant and the tomato tree (like a passion fruit in look and taste). Kigali is very adeptly described as a mountain hamlet—calm and clean. Most of the country is amazingly clean; you will never see any trash. Of course, no plastic bags as these are illegal to bring into the country!

You see women walking along the roads with babies happily strapped to their backs. Everyone seems to be in motion—people seem to be everywhere all the time. Even in the winding hills of the countryside you see people walking, riding a bicycle or sitting by the side of the road waiting for a bus ride.

We reached a valley where the organic farming initiative was located. A shelter for the working women and storage area for the tools was being constructed. It was the middle of the day and it was extremely hot. I understand that most of the women work in the morning, at 6 a.m. and work until about 11 a.m. and then sit out the heat. Under the shade of corn husk roof, we saw chili plants blooming. The other crops to be planted were watermelon, tomatoes, passion fruit, beans and corn.  The WFWI-Rwanda office has done a tremendous job securing market partners to ensure the women have somewhere to sell the crops they produce. The office has partnered with the largest juicer in the country that buys watermelon and passion fruits. The office will also sell corn and beans to the World Food Program—every crop has a market partner. To me, this seemed absolutely fundamental to ensuring that the women had a sustainable income: markets.

We saw the canals that had been dug to carry water from part of the farm to another. There are three other farms like this that the organization has developed. The locations of the farms are Ngenyue, Karongi and Njagama. The idea is to teach women vocational training in farming as part of the program and then give them the opportunity to earn income, post-program. The other key objective is to have the women own the land. The majority of people that work the land around the world are women but they own a very small percentage of the land.

Alison Wheeler is the Director of Marketing at Women for Women International.


Filed under Africa, Rwanda

Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: The Impact of Women For Women International’s Program in Nigeria, by Ngozi Eze

Of the estimated 149 million Nigerians, 60 percent live in rural districts. Most of them cannot access fundamental infrastructural resources, social, and healthcare services. English is the official language of Nigeria, but most of the population is not fluent. Continued regional conflicts and the prevalence of patriarchal traditions force women to care for themselves and their children in an economically and politically unstable environment. Many women are widowed at an early age, live in remote regions of the country, and are mostly illiterate. All of these factors can contribute to an unstable and uncertain social and economic future.  As Nigeria Country Director for Women for Women International, I am so proud to be making a difference for the women of my country. Here’s how it happened.
Following a visit to Nigeria by Women for Women International [WfWI] founder Zainab Salbi in 2000, WfWI initiated “sister-to-sister” relationships with 800 women from three rural communities. The initial six-month program consisted of a curriculum in leadership, rights awareness, business creation, health care and HIV/AIDS education.   
In 2001, WfWI – Nigeria began to operate as a formally registered NGO with a country office in the southeastern state of Enugu. Two years later, a satellite office in Jos, the capital of the Plateau State, opened following the cessation of violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Since women can be instrumental in bridging lines of conflict, women from both religious communities participated in the program, including in communities where there had been clashes for over ten years.  One of the participants wrote, “I gained a lot from this program because you treat each other the way you want others to treat you. Even if you see somebody on the road, he or she is your fellow brother or sister. No tribalism, no sectionalism towards others. We women have gained a lot from these teachings.”

Since inception in late 2000, Women for Women International has had a positive impact on more than 23,000 socially excluded women in more than 30 communities in Nigeria, helping women access rights awareness and leadership training, business and vocational skills training and opportunities to generate income. The program enables women to move from being victims to being active citizens. It’s our fundamental belief that stronger women build stronger nations.  Another one of our graduates said, “I use what I learn from such a gathering to educate other women, especially on social and civic issues. For example, empowerment, rights awareness, peace in the family, health issues – all of them have attracted respect for me in the community.” It’s these kinds of reflections that make me want to get up and work every day, and that’s because the impact of what we’re doing is tremendous.
For example, more than 300 women’s groups have been able to buy or lease land for their businesses, ranging from poultry farming, to processing of grains and piggeries. Our groups have also been encouraged to open bank accounts in some of the most notable banks in Nigeria, such as Guaranty Trust Bank Plc, Intercontinental Bank Plc, Zenith Bank Plc and Nigerian Agricultural Cooperative and Rural Development Bank. We’ve also been able to collaborate with other stakeholders and institutions to provide services to participants and graduates of the program – such as Annunciation Hospital, Enugu who has been providing pre- and post-counseling services for women living with HIV/AIDs and encouraging others to know their status.  In 2008, the office opened a daily clinic with laboratory services in Jos, through which, in partnership with local partners, we are able to offer prenatal/postpartum health services, as well as voluntary counseling and testing for HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Although our main focus is on socially excluded women, Women for Women International-Nigeria was the first chapter among the other country programs in Africa to start what we call our Men’s Leadership Training. This innovative program helps educate male leaders on women’s rights and value to the economy and society, engaging them as advocates and allies throughout their communities.  These trainings provide platforms for men and women to discuss and implement ideas for stronger communities where men and women are equally respected and valued.  Topics in the training include community rebuilding and participation, HIV/ AIDs, violence against women, and education.
One woman at a time, we at Women for Women International are working toward sustainable human and economic development in Africa, and we started with our Nigeria office.  97 percent of our program participants in my country say their lives have improved economically, and with an increased sense of confidence and awareness too.  We are helping women become stronger, taking leadership roles in defining the future of their families and societies, so that they may build better lives for generations to come.
About the author: Ngozi Uchenna Eze has more than 18 years of experience working in both private and public institutions advancing the status of women and children through international development. Before coming to Women for Women International (womenforwomen.org), she worked in Nigeria with a number of NGOs and private firms, including the Ohio African Trade office, based in Lagos. 


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Change and Hope: WFWI Chief Information Officer Nicole Weaver’s Trip to the DR Congo and Rwanda

Nicole Weaver is the Chief Information Officer at WFWI in Washington, D.C. She visited Rwanda and the DR Congo this February with several other D.C. program directors.

Program participants show off their tie-dye at the Women for Women International training center in Bakuva, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I was nervous crossing the border from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I know many of my colleagues at Women for Women International travel there, but I’ve heard reports of sporadic and random violence in the DRC. As our 4×4 wound its way through the mountainous border region with its tea plantations and volcanoes, I felt a sense of foreboding. 

The border itself is a scruffy-looking parking lot with a few immigration buildings and a lot of people standing around waiting to be processed. There are two gates—the first lets you out of Rwanda and the second lets you into the DRC. The site is a no man’s land, and you could wait 30 seconds or 30 minutes to get through. 

I climbed down from the first car in a torrential downpour and completed departure formalities and walked to DRC immigration, where I was examined, stamped and waved through. Today was a 20-minute day. 

Our destination, Goma, is a town close to the border and one of four sites operated by Women for Women in the DRC. Within a few minutes I was in town, bouncing along a poorly paved road in a traffic pattern that seemed to have few rules except “every man for himself.” The contrast with Rwanda is marked: Where Rwanda is clean and organized, Congo is chaotic and dirty. Compared to the last few miles of sparsely populated rural countryside in Rwanda, Goma struck me as noisy, crowded and stressed. Roads in Rwanda had occasional potholes; roads in Goma are mostly potholes punctuated by a few stretches where the pavement has not yet given up. 

Congo DRC Roads Women for Women International

The roads in the DRC are full of potholes, uneven and often difficult to pass.

My hotel was on the shores of the serene Lake Kivu. Grace Fisiy, our agribusiness specialist, and I decided to take a walk—I still had my lingering concern about security, but Grace assured me it was safe (she is from Cameroon and has traveled all over Africa, so I trust her instinct). 

The dirt in this area is black. Mt. Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, destroying 15% of the buildings and leaving 120,000 people homeless. It also left behind black fertile soil and dust everywhere. The volcanic rock is so plentiful, it is a favored building material, meaning the buildings are also black. As we walked, chatting about Cameroon and family, I gradually realized I had completely relaxed. I did learn a new word on that walk—mzungu, Swahili for white man, which was muttered occasionally as we passed groups of bored security guards! 

The next day, Women for Women’s driver arrived and took us to the office. After some meetings at the office we headed to the vocational skills center, where participants learn soap-making, knitting, cookery and bread-making. There were no classes that day, but about 150 newly enrolled women listened to an orientation, learning what to expect from the program and what Women for Women expects from them. As I stood in the doorway, listening and snapping a couple of pictures, the trainer asked the women if they had any questions. One woman at the far side of the room stood and said, “We want to know who the visitor is,” looking at me. I introduced myself and explained that I was visiting from headquarters and that my job was to find them sponsors (applause) and make sure their letters get to their sponsors (cheers). They said they wished God would take care of me for many years. 

Women for Women DRC Congo Class

Class is in session at Women for Women International in the DRC.

Judith’s Story
Next, we went to the last remaining internally displaced person camp in the Goma area at Mugungu to meet an amazing woman named Judith.   

The camp was established to provide the most basic needs of shelter, water and safety for people fleeing violence within their country, and it is certainly basic. Several hundred huts made from wooden frames covered with tarps littered the rocky field. Children, some naked, played in black puddles of water next to the central water faucets. Other tarp-covered shacks contained pit latrines or housed administrative functions. The camp had an air of suspended despair, as if everyone in it were waiting for the nightmare to end and for a better life to begin. 

Children Goma Refugee Camp DRC

Children play at the Goma refugee camp in the DRC.

I asked how long people usually stay in these camps and the answer was depressing: “A long time; maybe years.” 

We reached Judith’s hut and ducked inside the door flap. She began to tell us her story. 

Judithe DRC Congo Women for Women International

Judith inside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Judith was just 14 when she lost her parents. She married and had three children but at age 24, war broke out in her home of Masisi and violence hit Judith’s family. “They took us all to the bush and killed my husband,” she said. “I managed to escape and reached Mugungu camp.” Judith then told us how difficult life in the camp had been, how there was little economic support and how, one day, while she was collecting firewood in the bush in order to cook for her children, she was raped and became pregnant. As she spoke, the sorrow and shame clouded her face and she avoided my eyes, head hanging low, voice soft and tremulous. Meanwhile, the beautiful little girl in her arms, the product of that terrible act, slept peacefully. 

Judith was taken care of by UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) during her pregnancy and then heard about Women for Women. “I heard there was a group of women that defended the rights of other women,” she recounts. “When I first went to the class I felt I was not like other women, first I am an orphan, then a widow, then a rape victim. I was so depressed I could not speak. Women for Women taught me how to manage the stress in my life and taught me bread-making. Now I am in a cooperative with 20 women and I am the vice president. We make bread and sell it for profit. Women for Women provided me with the training and the tools to earn money so I can survive. The group helped me to understand I am a woman just like other women.” 

Leaving the hut after hearing Judith’s story, I was once again amazed and inspired by the courage of the women we are privileged to serve. Rape is a shameful act wherever it occurs. Sadly, in the DRC that shame is conferred upon the blameless woman, who is shunned by her husband, family and society. To speak publicly of such a terrible trauma is hard enough in the U.S.—to do so in Congo, you are likely to be judged and rejected. 

Valentine’s Story
Our next stop was visiting Valentine. Her circumstances are similar to Judithe’s in many respects. She was brutally raped in her own home while nine months pregnant. Valentine was in so much pain she passed out and has no recollection of how many times she was raped. Her husband started abusing her, accusing her of enjoying it, and eventually left her with four children and no resources.

Valentine Congo DRC Women for Women International

Valentine outside her home in the Goma refugee camp.

Valentine joined Women for Women and learned business skills she applied to her previous business: trading cement and hardware. She invested her sponsorship funds and built up her business until she was able to buy a small shop and a house. Now she puts all her spare money into her business and shows a fierce determination to building her assets. When I asked her what she would say to her sponsor she said, “I would thank her so much, and I would be proud to show her how I am going up.” Valentine’s spirit and strength shine her story. 

Visiting Women for Women in Bakuva
The next morning, I made my way down to the harbor to get the boat to South Kivu province, where our main country office is located in the town of Bukavu. 

On arrival in Bukavu, I cleared immigration and was collected by the Women for Women driver. We bounced up a steep and muddy road to reach the main road and in a few minutes reached the main Women for Women offices. As in Goma, the office is behind an eight-foot-tall wall topped with nasty-looking razor wire. The outside of this wall, however, is decorated with tiles hand-made by some of or women at the ceramic studio in Panzi, an attractive showcase for their capabilities. 

Women for Women International Bakuva Training Center Tiles

Tiles created by women in the Women for Women International ceramics program in the DRC adorn the wall surrounding the vocational center.

The next day (after an interesting start—the bathroom had no water) was filled with site visits, starting with the vocational training center at Panzi. Although this is just a few miles from Bukavu, the journey takes almost an hour due to the appalling state of the roads. When we reached the center, it was a hive of activity—there were two training sessions in progress, teaching the importance of groups (you must support each other; two people are stronger than one). In addition, the sponsorship team was busy enrolling women while nearly 150 women attended an agricultural vocational training orientation. 

Behind this bustling open-air area we spied a large building housing the ceramic studio. By contrast, the air inside the studio was calm and peaceful, with a few women diligently working the dark gray clay to form vases, cooking braziers or flower pots. The women are taught the basic design of a cooking brazier, but we saw several examples of new designs students come up with on their own—once their creativity is unlocked, there are many good ideas.

Ceramics Women for Women International DRC Congo

Women at the ceramics studio make beautiful products and add their own touches to their pieces.

Another very successful product is the clay tiles I had earlier seen adorning the wall surrounding the main office. The trainer explained that demand for these tiles outstripped their ability to make them, and that he was looking into ways that the production could be increased. 

Panzi Hospital
As we strolled back through the compound, I was asked me if I would like to see the famous Panzi Hospital, and institution that has helped rape victims for years. 

I said I would love to, and a short drive later we arrived at the gates. As soon as we entered the hospital grounds, the tranquility was overwhelming. Gardens overflowing with flowers were surrounded by low buildings and a cool, shaded walkway. Patients waited to be seen, and white-coated staff members busied themselves with the care of their charges. 

We were fortunate that Wednesday is when Dr. Denis Mukwege does not see patients, but receives visitors. After waiting a short time I had the opportunity to greet Dr. Mukwege and shake his hand—a great honor for me!

The last stop of the day was the vocational training center at Bukavu, where we were able to see women in the process of making the bright tie-dye fabrics I had seen brought back to the states by my colleagues, and all kinds of soap for both bathing and washing clothes. Julienne, a former participant and now a trainer, walked me through the fascinating process of the soap-making and proudly displayed the finished product. Of course I had to buy some.


Filed under Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nicole's Trip to the DRC

Rwanda Diary – Winter 2010 – by Brita Fernandez Schmidt

Rwanda – 30 January – 5 February 2010

By Brita Fernandez Schmidt

I am on my way to Rwanda for the first time, to see the work Women for Women International does there and to join a meeting of all the country directors from the countries where Women for Women International has programmes. When we arrive, I am immediately struck by the friendliness of everyone, from the passport control to the taxi driver. My first impression is that Rwanda is an absolutely beautiful country. Rwanda is apparently the country of a thousand hills, and it looks really hilly and is very green. It must be the cleanest and nicest place I have ever been. Apparently every month the president and everyone has a cleanup operation where they clean the streets and that is what it looks like, not a single piece of rubbish anywhere. You are not allowed to bring plastic bags into the country – one of my colleagues was carrying one and had to empty it, before leaving the airport. So I think to myself: it can be done – how amazing. There is a lot we could learn from this.

Right now I cannot imagine that Rwanda is also the site of one of the worst genocides in history – there are no signs of it at first sight. Later in the evening a few of us go for  walk and I wonder about security, but I am assured that Kigali is one of the safest cities in the world, and from what I could see this is true. I am wondering how this is possible? My colleague from the DRC explains that she thinks it is because Rwanda is very small country with 8 million inhabitants. Effective control is therefore easier. It is still something that baffles me.

The following day we start our meeting with all the country directors, the Global Leadership Team and Zainab. Our director from Sudan was unable to come, because the security situation in Southern Sudan is really tense – we have a security level coding system (green yellow red) for our programmes and Sudan right now is level red. This is largely due to the fact that Southern Sudan is trying to be independent and this is causing tension. Our country director from Afghanistan is also not here but that is due to visa issues.

But security is a big concern for many of our programmes. One of our offices in Northern Nigeria in Jos had to be closed because of security concerns. The house of one of our staff there was burnt down and she is now living in barracks. The South, where we also have offices are also dealing with security issues, mainly related to kidnapping and robbery – one of our director’s friend’s son is still being held hostage. Our country director from Iraq said that she never gives out her business card for fear what might happen if it ends up in the wrong hands and her name and address get known. The reality of what our country staff have to face on a daily basis is really overwhelming. Zainab puts it very clearly when she says that everything they do is against the odds, fighting against the system, it is swimming against the stream or running against the wind. It seems so important to me for all of us to always remember this. What Women for Women International does is very special, we do development in contexts where many other organisation will only do humanitarian work – but this comes at a huge risk and price that our country offices are willing to take. I am so impressed by the courage, determination and passion of the women who are leading our work in-country.

The next day we all go to the offices where women receive their Life-Skills training and we are allowed to attend one of the classes. I am in a class on reproductive health. There are about 15 women – a few are missing because they had to go to Open Day at school with their children. A few are pregnant, a few are there with their small babies. I estimate the age range to be between 18-55. When we go round and introduce each other, the majority of the women have a minimum of 4 children each. I cannot believe how young some of them are. It also really strikes me how many of them are single mothers, some have lost their husbands and others are separated. The lesson starts by going over the previous lesson, which covered the anatomy of the reproductive organs. The Life-Skills trainer has a fantastic plastic sheet with a very good and clear drawing. The women remember the last lesson well and participate actively. The content of this lessons focuses on pregnancy. Questions such as: How do you know when you are pregnant, what can you do to space your pregnancies and what contraceptive methods are available are discussed. There is a lot of giggling when the trainer shows them how a female condom works. But underneath there is a serious interest and concern. Concern about preventing HIV and AIDS, as well as having too many children. The women discuss amongst each other how to negotiate with their partners around safe sex. They share what contraception they use. The support they are giving to each other is tangible. I am really impressed by the clarity of the lesson and hope that my daughters, when they grow up, will have access to such information to keep them healthy and safe.

The trainers and staff at the office are all very friendly and committed to the work they are doing. They have created a safe haven for women, that is green and beautiful. Our country director in Rwanda talks about ‘enjoying the beauty of security’. This has stuck with me as something we simply take for granted, but security is the number one concern when you ask women in Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq. Therefore to gain security after conflict is consciously treasured.

The next day, our highlight is a visit to the newly acquired farm land in Karongi, where we run an organic commercially integrated farming initiative. The farm we are visiting is 24 hectares, which are shared among 1000 women, who graduated from our programme in 2009. We get there at lunch time and it is extremely hot. Many of the women are waiting for us. They normally work the land early in the morning and would not be there at this time. But they are excited to welcome us and show us the land that they are in the process of turning into their livelihood.

The land has never been farmed before and there is a lot of hard work getting it ready. We see a few seedling beds of chilli, which will be one of the five key crops that will be grown. Each crop has already got a market partner, so the women who will be growing the crop know that they will be able to sell them and make a living. There are two other farms in Rwanda and also one in Sudan. We are piloting this initiative to explore the potential of farming as a sustainable form of income. It is hard work, the tools the women have are simple, the conditions are basic, but in the context of their lives, this is progress. But I think to myself how important it is to always remember how hard women have to work to stand on their own feet. And yet, even here, in the sweltering heat, in the middle of green farmland, we dance. All the women are overwhelmed to be meeting Zainab, and talk about how Women for Women International has changed their lives.

The next day we visit the genocide memorial museum in Kigali. I had been waiting for this moment. I wanted to understand more about what had happened here, see it with my own eyes, understand the tragedy and the legacy it has left. No one I had met till now had talked about the genocide. No one talks about ethnicity, it is now forbidden by law to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.

The museum takes you on a journey, from the early days where the people of Rwanda lived peacefully together to the Belgian rule, which favoured the minority Tutsi tribe and suppressed the Hutus. When the Belgian left, this turned around and the Hutus started to rule and in turn oppress the Tutsis. Of course the history is much more complex than that. In the genocide that unfolded in 1994, 1 million people died, that is something like one in every eight people of the population. 37,000 children were left orphans. There are so many photos of children, women and men who were slaughtered – it is simply unbearable. It is difficult to understand – the mass graves in the museum grounds, the deep trauma and sadness of the place are in direct juxtaposition to the beauty and order of the surroundings. I wonder whether this is perhaps the way to overcome such horror and find reconciliation? What I ask myself is how and when will we know? Someone I met on the plane, who had lived in Kigali for the past 6 years and worked on the memorial, said that the peace and control was more fragile than it seemed and that much depended on Kigame’s (the current president) re-election this year. I don’t know, but I hope, I hope that Rwanda is making history as a country that has been able to introduce such significant changes that will provide the basis for lasting peace – the people deserve this.

And on my last day we attend a graduation ceremony of 120 women who have finished their year long training. The ceremony starts with a moving speech by one of the participants. She summarises what they have achieved over the past year. 99% of the women now sleep with mosquito nets – a live saving practice in a country that suffers from malaria. Over half the women have registered their marriages – hugely important for the protection of their rights. Many women marry under communal law and do not realise that their rights are not protected in the event of separation. By formally registering their marriages, this changes. Two thirds of the women have had an HIV/AIDS test, which can be life-saving in a country where the prevalence rate of 18-30 year olds is 20%. 54% of the women have received business skills training and the majority will now form cooperatives. Several women then introduce themselves and give their testimony.

There is Christine, who is part of a group of about 20 who have called themselves ‘Advising Eachother’. She says that before she started in the Women for Women programme she was in a bad condition. She had lost her parents during the genocide and her husband passed away after the genocide and she was left on her own with her very young children. The sponsorship funds she received through the Women for Women International sponsor helped her to set up her own business and earn enough money to send her children to school.

Brita and Rebecca

Rebecca talks about how she was left to look after her 3 children whilst her husband was in prison. She got very sick and everyone thought it was AIDS. She had little hope until she joint Women for Women International. The first sponsorship funds she received, she used to purchase her health insurance (2000 Rwandan Franc = $2) which allows her to access hospital care. Through the health awareness training she receives, she realises that she does not have AIDS, but that she had been suffering from malaria. Since using mosquito nets, she is no longer ill.

She holds a pack of letters in her hands and shows them to us – ‘these are the letters my sister Beth has sent to me’ – every month one letter. The letters are long and have photos. Rebecca tells us, how kind these letters are and how much they mean to her. She says: ‘My older sister and brothers were killed in the genocide, my sister was called Beth and now I have my sponsor sister, and she is called Beth also, Beth has become my sister, my family, she mean everything to me.’ The connection and the importance of this relationship beyond the money she receives is clearly a huge support and motivation to her. In my heart I make a promise to my sponsor sister in Bosnia to write to her every month. Rebecca says: ‘I will always keep these letters where there is no rain.’ I am so moved, it is hard to speak. The translator, who is one of the Life Skills trainers, sums it up when she says ‘They don’t want to feel it’s just a matter of money.’

Rebecca showing her letters with photos from her sponsor Beth

That for me is the strength of Women for Women International’s mission and vision, the connections across huge distances and divides that bring women together to create better and more peaceful societies.

I leave Rwanda with my heart filled with hope, hope that Rwanda will surprise the world as a country that managed to overcome its horrible history, hope that Rwanda will be able to continue to develop itself as a country where everyone can live together peacefully and where sustainable development for women and men becomes a reality – I know that Women for Women International’s team in Rwanda will do their utmost best to make it happen.


Filed under Brita's Trip to Rwanda, Rwanda

Rays of Hope: A Social Report from Iraq by George Nichola

The most three common phrases that we do here frequently everyday are; “Its to unsafe in Iraq’, “dangerous nationality” and “Look how savages are the Iraqis”. I myself sometime follow the echo of these words, some of my close friends do already believe so…

I was about to believe these three awful phrases, but each time I discover that Iraq is not safe yet its people “the original ones” are kind, tender and supportive… yes believe me when I say this, perhaps you hear or see things about Iraq, which can be true or can be not true all the prospects are possible, some of you will not convinced with my idea and you may think that I am trying to decorate the Iraqi scene; I am not and sometimes I do agree with these three phrases yet sometimes I found myself not so sure for  particular events appear on the ground that make me not sure of what I feel towards Iraq. Well try to follow me in order to see whether there is good Iraq or it’s bad from the start…

One day as friends of mine and I were in our way back to home from work, in one of the most hot and sunny summer days of Baghdad, the car we were riding broke up suddenly in an area crowded of workers and simple people who gathered near my window looking curiously at us, my own concern was the ladies that were with us, how should I act? Should I send them by taxi home by their own selves? Or accompany them? Should I leave the driver who is my friend alone facing these people? I was truly confused the heat of the sun increased my tension… Suddenly, one of these who come too close and examined the hot parts of the car which were burning, trying to touch them by his bare hands… while everyone around us were laughing at him as he suggested to fix the machine after he knew that there was something wrong with the gear of the car, he at once asked one of the crowded guys to bring a peace of clothe in order to catch the hot parts; at first I did not believe he could help us and that he is massing up but what can I do I can not go and see what he is doing as I was standing near my colleagues window for other guys were getting close to the windows in an attempt to look inside the car, these humble people were too curious which annoyed me a lot, so I was like a guard watching the guys and the car as my friend disappeared, I terrified and I asked about him a boy who was standing near by me, he responded with a smile that he went to by Hydraulic acid for the gear…

Satar was the name of the guy who offered to help, he insisted on helping us while I and my friend asked him just to show us from where we can get a crane to lift the car to the mechanical; he was young guy about 29 – 30 years old, so active and optimistic that he insisted to have a shot to fix the car…

From time to time I was hearing “Ouch.. It’s burning… I can not affix this… hot to hold…”, while I was watching the guys, I was afraid that they would rob anything from the car or even from my friend’s pocket, I expected anything from them accept being good to us. After about quarter of an hour, the sun heat was still striking straight on my brain, sweating from every part of my body, I heard Satar saying I fix it… I could not believe that until did my friend drive softly in the road…

My friend offer or tried to give Satar any amount that he would demand but he refused to take anything, anything at all… while he was looking like need some.. he was a driver “services cars driver”.

I guess no one would do such help, exposing his hands to heat and they were burned several times and laid on the hot pitch of the road, which seemed to be burning for nothing…Do not agree with me?

Iraqis my friend, are well known maybe not in the western world but in the eastern world in general and the Middle East in particular with their pure spirit and their eagerness and readiness to help not only the native citizens but the strangers as well, perhaps they do help them more than they do with the natives, so my friend I do not know how to explain what is happening now in here… but I can tell you only this Iraq still had his own original feature, that’s why I still love my country, still need to smell his soil and try to help in restoring his old glory…

These guys I expected nothing good from them, I was thinking they may harm us but the fact was something different… Perhaps there were bad guys who wanted Iraq and it’s people to look savages but always the truth appears on the surface. The truth that Iraqi people are helpful, peaceful and like to live in harmony with each other;

I know some will not agree with me, for those I may say: its ok time will prove my words… yes it will!


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Zainab’s Al-Mutanabi Street Visit by George Nichola

Al-Mutanabi Street is a place where books of all kinds (political, historical, social, economical, medical, psychological…etc) are sold. Al-Mutanabi is a small and old district on eastern bank of Tigris, it consists of ancient buildings on each side and they are extended along the street; you can clearly see (Tigris) when you reach the bottom of Al-Mutanabi Street. Most of the apartments in these buildings are book stores or book shops. Al-Mutanabi Street is regarded as one of the renowned places in Baghdad as it refers to the cultural treasure of Baghdad in particular and Iraq in general…books

One year ago, in 2007 this street was subject of an explosive car, about 100 people were killed in that explosion which targeted the humble, educated and cultivated level of society. Students, teachers, professors, press and regular people who are interested in reading gather there in order to look for books, thesis, magazines…etc of their interest. People lost their sons, daughters, kids and even fathers or mothers in that explosion, some book shops owners lost 4 or 5 of their children in that day.

The explosion created fear, sadness and damaged the old buildings as well as in the old street. The street was shut down for several months yet Nori Al-Maliki (Prime Minister) ordered to fix the street and revive it once again. After it was fixed people were scared to go there at first, yet day after day as the security in the whole city of Baghdad and Iraq got better people started coming back to visit that old Street, this street was once again crowded with people, exploring, buying and searching for what they need of books as usual.

Today, Zainab and bunch of staff met near the river (Tigris) and started an amazing tour in one of the most famous streets of Baghdad. We started our tour  in “Gahwat Al-Shabandar “, “Gahwa” means coffee  shop, Baghdadi old coffee is a place where cultivated persons gather from all parts of Baghdad to see each other, as well as to sip tea “Istikan”. “Istikan” is similar to the cup but thinner from the middle and smaller in size than the regular cup of tea.

After taking pictures by an old photographer and having a chat, we left the place and started exploring books; Zainab was very happy, her eyes were glittering to see the old street been revived, people almost happy and less tension. Zainab bought couple of books about history of Iraq. She was peeking on all the books, there are book shops, books arranged on the floor or on tables or scattered books on the floor where you must dig and look for books by your own… Zainab stopped for about 10 minutes near a guy who sells old pictures of rulers, famous places, tools and transportation means of Iraq in (20s -60s) they were very interesting. Zainab bought couple of these pictures…

As we were moving among the crowd we noticed three guys with camera, they were interviewing people in Al-Mutanabi Street. They as we were passing beside them, one of the crew asked Ibtesam (IG officer) to interview her. They wanted to convey to the world that not only men in Iraq read and not only men are interested in books and literature… Actually women are interested also in reading in Iraq, there is a great number of women in Iraq who are interested in books and reading… Ibtesam with confidence made the interview successfully and she gave her opinion about why she chooses to cut her holiday on Friday and comes to visit Al-Mutanabi? Her answer was: to explore and update my library at home with everything new, my daughters like to read during summer holiday, especially those books that improve their English language.


After books shopping, we had a short visit to the “Souq” the old public market; in the souq you can found all kinds of goods: clothes, Accessories, ancient tools and status that refer to Iraq famous figures and places…etc.

Then we have a stop at the Tigris banks where a singer accompanied with “Al-Qanon” player surrounded with people mostly men, there were few women as well, clapping and cheering the singer.

People, in Al-Mutanabi, old Souq and on Tigris bank sound as live is getting back to Baghdad in particular and Iraq in general gradually. That is important and cheerful thing yet we need to move, to do something in order to achieve a balance in society.

As we were crossing the river to the other bank (Al-Karkh) western bank of Tigris in a small boat, Zainab eyes were filled of tears as she was happy to see happy, cheerful and hopeful people along with others busy searching books, others trying to make a living, some other praying in mosques, all together composing the Iraqi society in peace and harmony regardless of their religion, political perspectives or areas where they live.

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May 18, 2009: Baghdad – By Zainab Salbi

I lay down at the end of my first day in Baghdad in the deep darkness of a night with a beautiful summer breeze, the sound of crickets, and the smell of the Tigers River.  There is no electricity in the house, though everyone is happy with the improvements in the number of hours they are getting electricity which amounts to about 12 hours a day, give or take one or two hours, depending on the neighborhood.  Much has changed since I was last here in February of 2008.  The airport looks more organized, the staff are polite, doctors check passengers for any fever, something that looked more silly than cool, but it was still a change to a more professional airport, and nice, uniformed taxis are waiting at the airport door.  The streets are pale and dusty but there is something about the sand of the desert contrasted with the green of the palm trees that brings a soft breeze to the heart…a combination of sadness, nostalgia, and hope for the future.

Life seems to have relaxed a bit in Baghdad.  As I pass by the University of Baghdad, its doors are full of students, women and men, chatting, mingling, and flirting with each other; women drive in their cars, walk without a headscarf in the streets; scenes that were common throughout my life in Iraq but have become rare in the last few years before the security situation deteriorated in Baghdad. But that calmness is not without the presence of military, with the tanks driving through the city, men at the top with a machine gun that rotate as the soldier check out the streets.  Check points are still all over but with soldiers who are getting more of the people’s respect than ever in the last few years.  People are more willing to visit different neighborhoods where they were not willing to take such risk the year before, though the question of who controls that neighborhood is still asked.

On the way from the airport, I ask my colleague Ali to stop at a local bakery so I can get Samoon, a kind of bread that is a specialty in Iraq and many other parts of the world that was once controlled by the Ottomon empire.  I find the taste of home in it and it brings back my childhood memories.  More than that, there is a an Iraqi saying that when two people share a piece of bread together they are to be friends forever. I no longer know how much is left of such a concept of generosity and kindness in the country.  People here have gone through more 30 years of wars and some have not seen life other than in a war zone.  How much the people have changed, I no longer know.

By the time I finish eating my piece of bread, I enter our office.  Three security guards who staff our office, along with every house and office in the city, open the door for us.  That’s when I meet my colleagues who have been working with Women for Women International since 2003.  They have endured so much danger and insecurity.  They have seen bombs and explosions and continued to do work despite all odds in a country that that has terrorized half of its population.  Despite this, they have persevered, serving a total of 3,274 women since Women for Women International started its work in Iraq. We all get emotional, crying and embracing when we see each other. They, like all Iraqis who have stayed in the country, need a witness to their pain and to their work and determination and I am the only witness who can come and see that first hand from the HQ office as it is dangerous for others to visit.

I go around, hug and talk with all of our staff, and see the reports of our expansions in Baghdad and our work with socially excluded women here.  I am told of a woman who lives in a small room under the stairs of a building with her four daughters and how she is petrified by anybody around her.  As a single mother with four single teenage daughters, they are all vulnerable to various kinds of abuse.  So she hides in her hole, cleans some houses for money, and is too afraid to even join an organization that is trying to give her assistance.  The staff have been visiting her for weeks until she can trust them and join the group.  In a country where there have been so many killings, so many kidnappings, so many bombings and suicide bombings, and so much corruption, it is not easy to get the trust of anybody and it takes quite a lot of work just to convince vulnerable women to trust that there is someone out there who indeed wants to help and not hurt them.

I finally head to my family’s home, a ride that ends up being about two hours, as opposed to no more than twenty minutes six years ago. When I arrive there, I feel I am in a safe haven.  There is the Tigers, with fisherman calmly hoping to catch some fish to feed their family and maybe sell, there is the beautiful garden with flowers, and, yes, there is even a pool.  I sit with my family by the river, smoking Sheesha with fruit flavored tobacco, my uncle drinks his whiskey, a friend of the family sits with her headscarf and black robe as she mourns her deceased husband, and my cousins and their wives.  Just a small family and friends gathering in a summer evening in Baghdad includes Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, and not one of us talked about this issue that seems to consume more attention from the outside world than in our own internal world.  The debate was anywhere from Bush’s policy towards Iraq and how some liked it and some didn’t, to how much Iraqis love President Obama, to Malaki and how Sunnis and Shia’as alike are starting to be comfortable with his policies, regardless of his own personal sect.

In the midst of our political discussion, there was a sound of a huge explosion.  There was a silence for only less than a second. We wondered where this bomb could be coming from and we resumed the conversation as of nothing happened.  My mother’s friend picked up her cell, called her family to check if they are alright and continued to join us in the conversation.  “We are used to that,” she said.  “We rarely stop life because of a bomb. Often activities resume, windows are replaced and the stores are reopened within no more than 20 minutes from any bomb [going off]”, she continued.  “The only exception”, she explained, “is when my brother saw dead bodies in the last bombing in Al Kademmya where 60 people were killed.  He saw many parts of people’s bodies and he was really affected and couldn’t eat anything for two days”.

It is amazing how life resumes back so fast, I comment.  My cousin, who never left the country, looks at me and says, “It never stopped Zainab throughout all these years”. In all of the discussions of the Iraq war, we have mainly discussed things from a front line perspective. I wish more efforts were taken to understand the back line discussion of what war is and what peace means for Iraqis.  Perhaps things would not be as destroyed as they are today.  I go to bed knowing there is hope in people’s hearts and I pray that we don’t lose one more opportunity of transferring hope to tangible improvements in people’s lives.

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Sister to Sister in Rwanda – by Linda Bauer

Sister to Sister in Rwanda

April, 2009

The trip from Kigali to Rwamagana is a little more than an hour’s drive along a surprisingly well‑paved two-lane highway.  From my open window in the van I see lush green rolling hills and red earth, small mounds of farmland, banana trees, and wetlands filled with stalks of sugar cane and squat tea trees rushing by me.  Along the sides of the road many people are walking, all of them balancing something on their heads – baskets of deep red tomatoes or dusty brown sweet potatoes, plastic jerry cans filled with water, long thin branches of firewood, bundles of thick sugar cane or dark green cassava leaves – and everywhere the smoky scent of cooking fires permeates the air.  The beauty of Rwanda mystifies me.

At a crossroad in Rwamagana we leave the paved highway and drive several miles on a rutted, kidney-jarring, dirt road; ten of us bouncing along in the Women for Women (WFW) International van, the local children running alongside waving at us, the women hoeing their small plots of land gaping at us as we drive by, wondering who we are and where we are going.  I am traveling with the trainers from the Kigali office to enroll women from this rural area into the program – and to meet the woman I sponsor.  She has no idea I am coming.

A gathering of African women

More than one hundred women wearing long dresses and headscarves in brilliant African prints and infants tucked in their laps or swaddled on their backs are waiting patiently for us on the grass under the shadows of shade trees and brightly-colored rain umbrellas.  They study us curiously, especially me, the only white woman in the group.  Later I would learn they had many questions about me, wanting to know if I am “a woman or a girl;” meaning, if I am married or single, among many other things.

I sit on a wooden bench next to the WFW staff in the warm April African sun as one of the trainers translates Kinyarwanda into English for me.  The trainers finish telling the women about the program and then direct them into smaller groups.  My sister, Marie Odette, is called out of her group to meet me.  My first memory of Marie is of a young woman in a long brown print dress carrying a wooden bench for us to sit on and placing it under a shade tree.  We hug each other as though we are old friends who have reunited after a very long time apart.  Marie is a pretty, shy woman with a quiet demeanor, but she carries the look of sadness in her dark eyes.  Through my interpreter I learn that she and one brother are the sole survivors of a family of thirteen; she lost the others to the 1994 genocide.  She points to a small cemetery on the side of a hill where they are buried.  She tells me she had once planned to enter the convent to become a Catholic nun, but after her family was killed she lost faith and grew frightened of living alone and wary of the soldiers who drank heavily and congregated in her village; so she took a young man as a husband for protection.  She says he is a good man and tells me they make and sell banana beer to earn a living.  Then she smiles and tells me proudly that she has started her own business making donuts.  I ask her if her donuts are good.  Her smile turns into a wide grin and she says, “Yes, they are very good.”

Linda and her sister, Marie

Linda and her sister, Marie

Marie Odette, my sister in Rwanda

Marie Odette, my sister in Rwanda

We pass the afternoon asking many questions about each other; Marie wanting to know where I live and what I do for my work, and if I have children.  She tells me she keeps losing babies and that it makes her the subject of gossip among the other women who seem to have little problem bearing many children.  We encourage her to go to the medical clinic for an examination instead of continuing to seek the advice of the traditional healer in her village; before we leave she promises she will go to the clinic and get the needed treatment.

All too soon the time passes, Marie thanks me for traveling such a long distance to meet her and is very grateful for the small gifts I have brought her; little practical things that are so commonplace to me are very special to her.  And she thanks me for supporting her so that she can complete the program and grow her little donut business and someday open a small shop.  And I feel it is the least I can do to help her accomplish that dream.

Women pause so that I can take images of them with their umbrellas. They remind me of African "Geishas"

Women pause so that I can take images of them with their umbrellas. They remind me of African "Geishas"

The groups begin to break up and the women start to leave to walk back down the dirt roads to their mud houses to resume their daily chores – planting fields and carrying water, cooking meals, washing clothing, and tending to small children.  But here in the late afternoon sunlight as they cross the threshold between the grass and the red earth they appear like African geishas twirling their open umbrellas, their babies tied on their backs with wide swaths of padded cloth.  They pause graciously so that I can take their photographs.  Then Marie stands hand-in-hand with of one her friends and more women come to join her.  As they stand arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand and smile at me with their beautiful wide-open grins and I smile back at them, at once I feel we are all connected.  That we are universal sisters with the same hopes and desires, loves, and dreams, and that day by day we are changing and enriching each others lives through this connection.

African Geisha

I would like to thank the staffs in both the Washington, DC and Kigali offices for making the arrangements for me to meet my sister, Marie Odette in Rwamagana, Rwanda.  It was truly an extraordinary experience that I never dreamed would have come true nearly two years before while I was still living in San Francisco and first started sponsoring a sister through WFW after learning about the organization by watching a 60 Minute segment by Anderson Cooper about the brutal rapes of women in the DRC.  Marie is the third woman I have sponsored.  Thank you to Priscilla and Sara in DC and to Peace and Berra and all the staff in the Kigali office who picked me up at my hotel, allowed me to hitch a ride to the rural villages and attend workshops at the Kigali office, and for enthusiastically translating for me.  They always made me feel welcome.  Thank you to my fellow Tuesday night volunteers in the DC office who enthusiastically supported my trip and wanted to hear all about it upon my return, and for their patience when I repeated the same stories to others over again.  And most importantly, thank you to Zainab, for her tireless effort in raising the consciousness of people all over the world to the plight of women in war-torn countries who still live under deplorable conditions and suffer unspeakable inhumanities and indignities that no woman should ever have to endure.  And to Women for Women International for improving the lives of thousands of women through their innovative sponsorship program.  For in the end I do believe that if we can improve the life of at least one other woman in this world then we have truly done something significant and good with our lives.


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Diary from Bosnia – By Brita Schmidt

Day 1 – 3 May 2009

I arrived this afternoon in Sarajevo to see – for the first time- the actual work of Women for Women International on the ground with my own eyes. On the way from the airport, we passed many buildings with numerous bullet holes large and small, an immediate and very visible legacy of a war that has been one of the worst in recent European history. Later walking through the old part of Sarajevo, I was trying to imagine what it must have been like to have lived through the years of war in Sarajevo (only 15 years ago) – caged in by beautiful mountains which meant you could not get out and I wondered what other legacy this terrible war has left.

In the evening we met a few of the Women for Women staff and Seida, the country director. All together we watched ‘Grbavica’ (Esma’s secret: Grbavica) (Grbavica is an area of Sarajevo where the initial war started and where everyone who was not Serb was killed or raped) and all together we cried. The film, produced in 2006 and winner of the Berlin International Film Festival gave me the answer to my question about the legacy of the Bosnian war. It is a story about a young girl who asks her mother who her father was, whilst initially pretending he was a war hero, at the end the mother tells her daughter that a soldier raped her. The pain and suffering of the mother, all the lost opportunities, the destruction, the denial and the impossibility of actually coming to terms with one of the worst war crimes – rape –  and its legacy is painfully depicted in this amazing film.

Later speaking to one of the staff, Razija, who has been with Women for Women since 1998, she said to me that even though she has seen the film many times, it continues to make her grief to think of all what women have had to go through. Her translator, Edina, a woman who also translates the letters that sponsors and sponsor sisters write to each other, was also visibly shaken by the film and together they told me about the women that Women for Women International works with and helps. One woman she told me about had lost her parents, husband and her two children in Srebrenica. After graduating from our programme she decided to go back to Srebrenica ‘to walk where her children’s feet touched the ground’.

Right now I cannot believe the pain and suffering that this nation has gone through, it seeps through everything, and yet there is the amazing strength of women who survive and become active citizens, speaking out about the most horrendous atrocities of this war to make sure that it will never happen again. More than ever before am I convinced that one of the most important things we can all do is say no to war and violence.

Day 2 – 4 May 2009

This morning we left early and drove through Sarajevo to get to the other side, to visit Women for Women’s offices. On our way there, I saw the Memorial for the dead children of Sarajevo in the centre of Sarajevo. Our driver told us it was to commemorate the huge number of children who died in Sarajevo during the war. At the offices we learned a little bit more about Bosnia’s recent history. 200,000 people were killed in the war. It is estimated that 20,000 women were raped during the war (1992-1995) but only very recently has the government actually began to allow rape to be a criteria for war compensation. But actually the process for qualifying for such compensation is such that it re-victimises the woman all over again. Therefore, unsurprisingly not many women will go and register and give testimony as it involves speaking out in front of 3 male commissioners….. In fact so far there are ‘only’ 3,000 women officially registered.  The shame associated with rape is huge when the men in the family and community elders don’t accept the women back. Seida told us about one woman who was raped and told her husband. He wanted her to put the hand on the Koran and swear it had not happened, she was not able to do this and he left her.

The Dayton agreement ended the war but it also has reinforced the divide between the Federation and the Republica Serbska. Some people who lived in the territory of what is now the Republica Serbska, who are not Serb, have decided to sell their property and not go back. I can see now that the divisions which gave rise to the war and were intensified by it are still there and not enough is being done to address them. I could sense real fear that history could repeat itself.

In addition to the political situation, I also heard that at the moment official figures state a 45.6% unemployment rate. 35,000 people alone lost their job at the beginning of 2009 due to the economic recession.

I am beginning to really see why Bosnia was the country where Zainab started the organisation in 1994. Zainab could not believe that women were being mass raped, everyone knew about it and yet no one was doing anything. So she first went to Croatia in 1993, because at the time it was very difficult to get into Sarajevo. In 1994 she managed to get into Sarajevo, by travelling as a journalist which meant she could get on a UN flight – the only way to get into Sarajevo at the time. She met there with Farida, who I am going to meet tomorrow, and started the sponsorship programme where women and men sponsored a woman in Bosnia every month and wrote letters of support, which at the time had to be smuggled through a tunnel to reach besieged Sarajevo. When the Dayton Agreement was signed Women for Women International had 600 women sponsored. In 1997 the organisation started to make microcredit loans available to women to help them stand on their own feet and in 1998 Women for Women started our core programme in Bosnia, which consists of rights awareness, leadership education and vocational and technical skills training. At the moment there are 3,400 women in our core programme in Bosnia. Women also get job skills and if they are interested they receive comprehensive business services designed to help them start and manage their own microenterprises. The microcredit programme then gives women access to capital. I was so interested to learn that the microcredit programme is based on the solidarity model of the Grameen Bank, which incidentally was the first donor for this programme.

The way this model works is that solidarity groups provide a guarantee for each other, they live in the same neighbourhood etc. WfWI provides them with training and assists them to fill in the application form, we then do regular field visits house to house, to accompany the women.  So once the women in a group have gone through a few cycles, and an individual woman does well, then she can also ask for an individual loan, which we also provide.

Seida said that the micro credit is worrying her right now, with the global financial crisis. In Bosnia WfWI micro credit institution is small in comparison to others in Bosnia and for the first time we are seeing that women are not repaying their loans – only 10% at the moment, which is still very low, but it is a completely new phenomenon. For me it is a clear sign of how the global financial crisis is affecting women in the countries where we work.

Having heard so much about the work, we spend the afternoon visiting a few of the women who have been able to set up their small businesses with the help of the microcredit loans. One woman was proudly standing behind her beautiful counter selling eggs. Her business employs her and her husband.

britas image

We also saw a few women who are part of the same solidarity group and have managed to all have their stands together in a small market. They have ensured that each one covers a different market need to make sure that they are not competing with each other.

Brita 2

This woman sells children’s clothes.

The day ends with attending a graduation ceremony of 70 women who have completed the year long course. We hear from one woman who specialised in herbs. When she started the programme she was unemployed. During the programme she became interested in collecting herbs for medical use. So she collected herbs, dried them and started to use them. She now has a successful small business that employs her and her husband. It was so moving to hear her speak and see her husband standing amongst the hundreds of people who had come from the neighbouring villages to support and celebrate the success of the women graduates. I could see the pride with which he was looking at his wife. Later on, after we had tasted the wonderful food that everyone had brought for the celebration and I had danced with the women a traditional Bosnian dance, I visited the small bazaar that the women had put up exhibiting their products and I tried some of her different teas. The energy in the room was so positive and encouraging, everyone had a smile on their lips. When a journalist from one of the national newspapers and radio channels, who wanted to cover the event, asked me whether I thought that there was hope for the women of Bosnia and whether I really thought that programmes such as these make a difference, I knew exactly what I wanted to say. For me there is no doubt that the situation in Bosnia is enormously challenging, because of the legacy of the war and because of the economic situation. But it is clear to me, having seen our women today, that they have hope and skills and the will to make their lives and as a consequence the lives of their families and their community better, for the sake of their children and in hope for a better future. Our work in Bosnia is changing women’s lives, one woman at a time and I feel so privileged to witness this myself.

Day 3 – 5 May 2009

We left very early this morning because today we are going to Srebrenica, which is only about 160km from Sarajevo, but because of the roads, it takes about 3 hours. I was in the car with Farida, the first Women for Women director in Bosnia, who helped Zainab to set everything up. She told us a lot about what it was like to live in Sarajevo during the years of the siege. Whilst I listen to her I look out of the window and admire the beauty of this country. Everything is green. We drive for what seems forever up and down mountains, there are large stretches with no houses at all. Then suddenly we pull in and I see a huge abandoned factory building, the windows are partly shattered, it looks completely deserted and I wonder what we are doing here. Then I realise this is Potocari, the old battery factory where the Dutch peace keeping force was stationed and where the genocide of July 1995 began to unfold, which has now been turned into a museum. I simply cannot describe the atmosphere of that place. You can feel the desolation, the death and despair. For the next few hours a young woman working at the museum told us exactly what happened in Srebrenica. I had no idea that of the ca 8,000 people who were killed here in the space of five days only about 2,000 have so far been buried. The museum guide herself shared her story with us, her brother and father and grandfather were killed. For years they did not find the remains of any of them until a year ago she got a call to inform her that they had now been able to literally ‘piece’ her father together (from three different sites) and that they were 95% confident it was her father. She said that that day she felt not ready and for a moment I didn’t know what she was saying but then I realised that it was only at the point of actually having a body and knowing for sure that it was him and that he had died and knowing how he had died because of the marks on the skull etc that it became real and she could start the proper grieving process. Later when we walked together to look at the war memorial, I talked to the guide about how important it is to have this memorial. She told me about how dedicated and committed she is to the museum and speaking out about the atrocities that happened here. But she also talked about her young baby and how she does not want her to grow up in Srebrenica, surrounded by this grief and this horrible past. For me that was echoing a question I was carrying around with me, which is how can we start to recover if the legacy of mass rape and the fact that entire families have not been able to bury their dead is staring us in the face every day no matter that the war ended 15 years ago. Here in Srebrenica it feels raw and present.

And then in the afternoon we visited some of the women who have been through our programme in Srebrenica and have also received microcredit loans. And that was when I met Safia and actually realised that she was the woman that Razija had told me about on the first evening after watching the film, the woman who decided to go back to her house to ‘walk where her sons had walked’. And she showed me the tree in her front yard where she had seen her two sons, then 16 and 22, for the last time before they ran off with their father into the woods to escape from the Serb soldiers.  She also has not yet been able to bury her sons. She told me her whole story and I began to wonder how she was able to survive with what she had been through. But then she told me about the Women for Women programme and what it had meant to her. She told me that receiving letters was an incredible feeling, to know that there is someone who cares and is interested. She also told me about the skills she learned. She was trained in chicken rearing and received help to build a proper enclosure for them. With the micro credit loan she was able to rebuild her house. But most importantly perhaps, she met three other women through the programme who she still stays in touch with. In fact they were there when we visited. They all said that thanks to Women for Women they have been able to speak about all the horrible things that have happened to them and they take comfort in the knowledge that they understand each other. I think to myself that this must be the most important thing anyone can ever do – to provide a lifeline, something that will help women to live through the worst atrocities and move from victim to survivor to active citizen.

When I started my journey all I thought was that Bosnia was probably relatively advanced in how it has come to terms with the war in comparison to the other countries where Women for Women works, but actually, I am leaving absolutely determined to raise awareness of the horrendous and terrible legacy of this brutal war and to do my bit to ensure that women in Bosnia get the help and support they so desperately need. And in Safia’s words: I hope this will never happen again to anyone…


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Rwanda/DRC Trip – by Sara Sykes

In the Women for Women International headquarters office in Washington DC, I sit in a small office everyday.

I type on my computer.

I answer the phone.

I rush down the hall, eager to finish a task, brief someone, put out a fire. Sometimes, I go outside, walk to Starbucks, stretch my legs.

I discuss our programs. I talk about the women we help. I say things like, “By the end of our program, our women can bring their vocation to market” or “During our program, our women meet in small groups and learn about human rights.”

I talk about our sponsorship program. I say, “For just $27 a month, you can help improve the life of a woman survivor of war” or “For just $27 a month, you can have a sister across the world.”

I say these things, I believe in what we do.

Then, I had the opportunity to travel to Rwanda and DRC with our founder and CEO, Zainab Salbi.

I am not just a believer anymore. I am so much more than that. Being able to witness, firsthand, the impact of our programs on women, their families, and their communities amounts to more than I can ever sum up into a catchphrase, a passing conversation, a blog on a website. Maybe Chris, a South African who traveled with us to both Rwanda and DRC, had something when he said, “I have traveled with many journalists, and they are always looking for the worst. Women for Women showed me the best.”

It is so easy to find the worst around us. Don’t our friends and loved ones say that it’s easier to harp on the bad things, more difficult to pick out the good things? It is so easy to go to a place like Rwanda, find a genocide victim, despairing over her slain children, her murdered husband, the machete marks on her back. It is so easy to go to DRC, find women used as weapons of war, living in IDP camps, seven starving children spilling out of a tattered tent no bigger than a small car, their starving bellies swelling out of their ripped clothes.

But when you look, when you really look, you will find the best.

You will find our women.

When you really look, you will see our women in Rwanda. Genocide survivors working on a pineapple cooperative with their sisters, singing as they harvest their crops. Smiling at each other, sharing and learning from one another, the babies on their backs dreaming what babies dream. You will see a woman using her sponsorship funds to send her children to school, buy a cow, equip her home with electricity. You will see our CIFI graduates building a kitchen garden together. You will hear a woman say how Women for Women helped her to “not despise herself.”

When you really look, you will see our women in Congo. Pens pressed to crisp new blue notebooks. The letter a repeated across the page, a look of determination, white chalk on a blackboard. You will see women sharing their stories. Allowing their voices to be heard above the violence that’s been committed against them, an outlet of healing. You will see women who are no longer isolated victims on their own islands of despair, but banned together, rising above the rubble and rampage. You will see women cherishing their sponsorship letters, keeping them under their heads at night, bragging about the photo they received from their sister. You will see heart, and soul, and hope. You will hear a woman say, “My dream is my children going to school.”

Returning to my small office in D.C., I go back to my computer, the phone, rushing down the hall, the occasional trip outside.

But everything has changed.

The world looks brighter, throbbing with a new heartbeat around my own. Now I can say it all the best way I know how. I can reach in, see our women dancing, singing, gathering, sharing, learning, healing and hoping. I can pull it right out and share it with you, the only way I know how–the best.

I learned it from our women.


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Rwanda – GAKO Farm – by Sara Sykes

April 3, 2009


I have never before felt such a strong connection to the Earth as I did visiting our CIFI program at GAKO farm in Kabunga, about a 30 minute drive from Kigali. Everything about GAKO vibrates—the clean air, green, fresh and alive with the hum and churn of organic processes and people. Our women learn so many amazing skills, from sack and kitchen gardens to animal husbandry and crop management. Mr. Richard, our technical partner and the founder/managing director of GAKO, his wife, Francine, a trained agriculturalist, and their lovely children were our gracious tour guides, showing us the incredible capabilities, power, and true worth of sustainable, organic farming.

A kitchen garden our women made 7Since land in Rwanda is so scarce (.6 HA for each family), skills such as sack and kitchen gardens are vital for our women to learn.

Small groups of our women train intensely at GAKO for six days at a time, living in dormitories and applying what they learn in the classroom to the demonstration gardens and fields that are GAKO. The result is stunningly beautiful—women, working as a unit, reusing and recycling all materials produced on the farm to feed themselves, the workers, and sell at market. The effect is so true and resonates so loudly, one realizes that the very worth of an education and training in organic farming and agriculture is infinite. These women are learning the very art of survival—food production and management—and, in turn, bringing those skills back to support their families and communities.

One women in our program explained that after returning to her home with her newly acquired skills, her neighbor said, “I want to know how to do that! Can you teach me?”

After showing us one demonstration farm on .6 HA, Mr. Richard explained that the particular family living on that farm brings in $400 a month. The goal of the Rwandan government is for every family to be making $900 a year. For a moment we were all shocked into silence.

Our concept of circles at Women for Women is truly circuitous onto itself. The circle of women gathering, learning, and then sharing creates better communities, families and nations, circles forever linked. Our CIFI program deeply epitomizes this and looking out amongst the thousand hills, the women and men working side by side, the bean, carrot, cassava, and chard growing neatly, yet inhabiting a wild quality all the same, allowed me to feel a true connection, depth, and spiritual meaning to the work we do.

Perhaps this is my circle, or, just the beginning, in Rwanda.


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Congo – Day 4 – By Sara Sykes

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phils of odors…A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.

–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

If Rwanda is small warm flame burning through my heart, Congo is a burst of mad fire, bathing everything in a bright light, faces agape, eyes bright with shock and wonderment, nothing left to hide in the shadows, all exposed.  The night before we entered Congo, I put my toes in Lake Kivu and turned twenty-nine. To my right was Goma, the bright boasting lights of the wealthy on the shore. To my left, sparse pinpricks of the lights of Gyseni, Rwanda. And, in front of me, in the middle of the lake, the methane processing plant, working to provide power for my surroundings, a looming reminder of all the wealth and power that lies in the soil here.

Crossing from Rwanda into Congo is more than a physical act of the body. It is the shifting of energy inside your heart, your gut, your very base. The Congolese have eyes filled with hunger, sharp pains that start at the ground under their feet, spilling out of their thirsty, beautiful faces. There is a chaos, a lack of logic, a rampage, an indescribable need for survival that flattens itself against your chest and pulsates until the second you cross back. You are moved along and jolted with the ebb and flow of it, the stop and go go go of it, the rock and roll of it, the contradiction and madness of it. Everything  an irony, a hypocrisy, a metaphor, a lament, a tiny joy, an absence of air, a fight, a small victory, an aching want. Never have I had more of an inner struggle with my own thoughts and feelings before. Never have I felt the need to take a whole country in to my arms and weep for it. Never have I felt so spoiled, so privileged, so unworthy. Never have I felt such hope and pain, spiraling around each other, a twisting double helix, churning against the walls of my heart.

How can I describe the act of driving to see the IDP women at our training center in Goma? The act itself exhausting, the road potholed, dangling on a precipice, a cracked film of suffering, hurrying, surviving, sharp black-gray spectrum of volcanic rocks, black dust, selling and hustling, all piled on top of each other. Motorbike taxis crammed three deep across behind and in front of us, a hand reaching in the back window to snatch Zainab’s video camera, a vacant look. Looming volcanoes, smoking and threatening. Military and police with AK-47’s on every corner. My body feeling thoroughly shaken and disjointed, my head, numbed, floating above my shoulders.

There are five IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps in Goma alone. Women for Women International supports 1,000 of these women from one of the camps. These women have just started our program, they are so new, so green, so despairing, that I am at a loss to anticipate what we will find at the training center, about a 15 minute drive from our Chapter Office. Just as in Rwanda, the training center is surrounded by high walls with a locked gate and security guards (40% of our DRC staff are security alone). As has been the theme of my experience here, we approach the gates, they start to open, Zainab turns and says, “Brace yourself” and I’m overtaken with a surge of joy and heat and energy. The women are crowded at the entrance, hundreds of them, a sea of colors and singing hearts. They are dancing, clapping, rejoicing at our arrival. Some are trying to touch the car before we can even get out, some are crying with happiness. The manual trainers are trying to hold them back as they themselves try and snap pictures of us at the same time. Tears fill my eyes now, as they did then, writing this two days later on the plane, and I can hear the cries and voices loud and piercing, their notes have a different feel and soul to them, their singing like all the violence and destruction and rocks and dust, once crammed in their throats, is now escaping, breaking the silence, pulsating out and over this place.

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Congo – IDP Camps – by Sara Sykes

IDP Camp

After experiencing the Women’s Rights Training and listening to their stories and shared learning, our DRC Country Director, Christine Karumba, took us to the one of the five IDP camps where these women are all living, some for three years now. Trying to wrap my head around these women’s reality—being forced from your own home, displaced in your own country, with no way of knowing when and if you can return—made my eyes tear in angry confusion. I feel as if I experienced the camp in short films across my eyes, each one it’s own, yet connected to the others. For this reason, I cannot write a narrative, only the short reels that could not and will not ever do these women justice. My only hope is to share this horrific yet beautiful moment in my life that forever will be burned into the flesh of my heart.

A four year old girl carrying a stack of wood, three times as long and heavy as she, on her head. She has on a faded Big Bird shirt on.

The ground is a chaotic wreck of jagged volcanic rocks piled at unstable angles and we must go slowly, carefully, and anxiously across the camp. More than once I stumble, scrape my foot or lose my balance.

Children with clothes so dirty you cannot tell what their original colors or designs were, some with their clothes hanging off them by a thread, naked underneath to expose their swollen bellies. They are curious and follow us through camp, we gather more as we moved along, giggling and smiling.

A young boy about 2 years old with a ball made of rags. I kick it to him.

Rows of shelters, tightly packed, harsh rocks piled around their perimeters to keep them in place, tattered plastic sheets cover their frames, some have wooden panels, tin, cardboard; rags hang in the entrances, a makeshift door. They no more than 8-10 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide. I cannot stand up in them.

We are greeted by the camp manager. He explains there are 7,000 women in this camp, 5,000 children, and 2,000 men. I wilt to think about the other 6,000 women.

A market has materialized in the center of the camp. Potatoes are stacked high on concrete platform where a woman gets ready to wash them. Other women sit in small groups, selling grilled cord, reused pain cans full of orange cooking oil; a smoking fire, a boy with no pants. The smell of smoke, something rotting, human waste, fills my nose. I think about vomiting.

The sounds are deafening: babies are screaming, wailing and crying; people are talking hurriedly; women wash dishes and clothes at a wash states; little boys drink out of water spickets; mud sticks to the bottom of my shoes. A young girl, face down on a bed of jagged rocks, wails, her arms limp at her sides; no energy to move. I give her a banana. She immediately stops. She is starving.

I notice no men, just young boys and toddlers.

Long lines at the humanitarian aid tent. Christine explains that goal is to provide a Women for Women International tent inside the camp, as soon as possible.

I see our women, gathering with their notebooks clutched to their chests from the Literacy Training class. They have made the long walk and want us to see their homes. I watch how they never release their notebooks, even when they are talking to each other. They bow their heads with a shy grin when I smile at them and say, “Jambo” (Good morning).

A woman’s home, her tent, her seven children spilling out, their bodies entangled. Her t-shirt reads in French, “I want kisses.” The irony is crushing.

We are all in a small alley, about 5 feet across, separating one row of tents from another. There is hardly any space between them. A young boy across the alley washes a bowl in soapy water, staring at us, two babies peak out of the tent he’s in front of. I feel squeezed in. Our women surround us, excited and so happy we have come. Children are under our feet, their hungry eyes breaking my heart into a million pieces. I wish I had more bananas. I think of Judithe’s home in Rwanda.

A stunning young girl is in front of me. Her t-shirt is powdered blue. It reads, “Girls Rule With Love.”

One of our women explains she doesn’t know when she can go back to her home. Her dreams are to build a house, but she is scared for her life. She has been at this camp for three years, but she has hope.

Christine translates a large sign for us, posted near the center of camp. It has pictures of men with guns, in military uniforms, arresting other men with no shirts on. There are women in the background raising their arms and yelling. It says that rape against women will not be tolerated in the camp and will be punished. I think about this sign anywhere else.

I think of the other 6,000 women in this camp, their 5,000 children.

I think of the four other IDP camps in Goma.

I think how, in the women’s rights training class, the women said they keep their letters under their heads at night.

I think how our women learned A, I, and O. I think how they will clutch their notebooks.

I think I am hollow.

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

This is the kind of home that women, children and their famillies live in in the IDP Camps

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Paralyzed by Fear – Women Hope for the Violence to End. News from Women In Goma, Congo.

November 19, 2008, Goma – “I am afraid of the fighting reaching my area. Like all women, I am afraid of being raped,” says Jeanette Yamwerenye, one of the women, who has made it to the Women for Women training in Goma on this November morning. At the age of 28 she has spent half her life surrounded by conflict, poverty, hunger, disease, and uncertainty. Twice Jeanette had to pack her few belongings and run from her home. The last time she was heavily pregnant and gave birth while fleeing the fighting.


Like all women in our program Jeanette is paralyzed with fear of violence and concern over displaced family members. “My parents in law are very old and we don’t know where they are.” From the people who have fled the area north of Goma, where violent clashes have displaced more than 250,000 people, she hears that women and children are being killed.


The women in the classroom are poor and afraid. They don’t want to lose the small gains they have made toward a stable life over the last year. Completing the Women for Women International program is a way to a self-sustaining life that might enable them to support their families with the skills they have learnt.


Marie Jeanne Kabuo is 25 and looks after three children. Last year she was abducted while working on her fields by armed men. They tried to rape her but she managed to escape. Jeanne came to Goma and joined the Women for Women program.


“If the fighting reaches us, people will get killed, women and girls will be raped,” she says. “I am praying because I know that there will be so many orphans, widows, and so many people, who had their property looted.”


Every woman in the room has a story of suffering, fear, and loss.  Antoinette Kabuo has seven children. When she fled her home three years ago she was beaten up, her husband was kidnapped, and her property stolen. Marie Jeanne Kavira saw her younger sister being raped in public, Tabu Tariane lost her uncle and cousin in the recent fighting, and Eizabeth Baseme lost a child because she could not find proper treatment.


They all want to finish their training with Women for Women and improve their lives and provide their children with a better future.


Elizabeth sums it up: “We are restless and afraid to become a displaced. We are always at risk of inhuman treatment.”



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Fear of Rape and Violence Rising – Women for Women Reaches Out To Vulnerable Women in Congo

Washington, DC, November 12, 2008 – Amidst widespread violence and massive human suffering Women for Women International is preparing to respond to the needs of thousands of women who are threatened by the fighting and are in urgent need of assistance.

“We will reach out to more women including those who now live in displacement camps in and around Goma and hope to offer sponsorships to the most vulnerable among them,” says Karen Sherman, Executive Director of Global Programs with Women for Women International. “Since most women are not able to come to us, we will go to them and offer assistance through financial aid and on-site training.”

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director

Christine Karumba, the DR Congo Country Director

The direct assistance will help them to pay for food, medicine, and other lifesaving needs. Since the latest outbreak of violence more than 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes over the last few weeks alone, bringing the total number of displaced to more than 1.2 million.

The worst fighting is occurring close to the provincial capital city of Goma, where Women for Women is training and assisting almost 1,000 women. The UN is reporting that retreating fighters have gone on a rape and looting rampage just 60 miles north of Goma. In another incident on Tuesday night 75,000 people fled their homes following a gun battle in Kibati, just six miles from the city.

“More than half of our women are missing classes in our training program in Goma,” says Christine Karumba via phone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Due to the volatile situation they are unable to reach our training facilities.”

“We worry that many of our women have been displaced and lost all their belongings – or, even worse, have once again become victims of violence. We will find them as soon as the situation allows us to go to their homes and help them to reintegrate into the program.” says Karumba.

Over the past decade, a brutal conflict has devastated much of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), leaving the country without a functioning infrastructure and most families in a state of crisis. More than five million people have died as a result of the violent conflict, most through disease and malnutrition and. Women are often directly targeted by combatants using rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war.


Women for Women International in DR Congo is currently assisting almost 7,000 women through financial support and a one year program that includes rights awareness, health education, and skills training. The organization works with communities in Bukavu, Goma, Fizi and Baraka in the heavily affected South and North Kivu provinces in Eastern Congo.


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Day One – Sarajevo, Bosnia – Alison Wheeler – Director of Online Marketing

I had been looking forward to my trip to Bosnia for a long, long time. Nearly 10 years ago I became friends with a few people from Sarajevo. They had left the besieged city during the war and made their way to Washington, DC. I had heard each of their stories over the years and wanted to see their beloved city for myself. So when I joined Women for Women International in June, I was already planning a trip to Bosnia with these friends and my family. So a visit to the Sarajevo office was included in the itinerary.



I spent two full days with the Women for Women International Bosnia teams in Sarajevo and Zelenica and came away with a deep respect and admiration for the women in the program and appreciation for the dedicated staff in each of the offices. Here are their stories:

Better to Belong to Something or Someone Than to Buy A Pair of Shoes




I think I truly came to understand the power of the letter in our sponsorship program during my visit with Renata Raus, the sponsorship coordinator in the Sarajevo office. She told me the participants in the program are “proud of their sponsors.” Just as a sponsor may tell a friend or family about a woman they are supporting in another country around the globe, these women in the field share the stories and lives of their supporters. And they wait and wait for these letters to arrive. They want to hear about what their supporters do in their daily lives. It doesn’t matter to them if they get a whole letter, just a few sentences, just a postcard to know they are connected to their sponsor.



And the beneficiary of the letter is not just the women in the field. A sponsor got to the heart of this in her letter to her sister in Bosnia, “Better to belong to something or someone than to buy a pair of shoes.” Really, what is the cost of sponsorship? The sponsor continued in her letter, “What is the value of something if others are suffering?” The sponsor gains so much from the relationship, if not more…


The Entrepreneurs and Organizers of Olovo


During the afternoon of my first day, we sat down to a working lunch with women from our program in Olovo. While munching on burek (meat pie), zeljanica (spinach and cheese pie) and the Bosnian version of Italian panatone (alcohol infused fruitcake), I listened to these women tell their stories of bringing home their first paycheck. There was Ramiza Kricic who was selling milk to neighbors in her area. The staff of Women for Women International introduced her to a dairy factory, Milkos, and now the milk from her farm supplies a factory in Sarajevo. And now 82 families are registered to supply to sell milk to this factory! As Ramiza Kricic said, “It is such a good feeling to go to the bank and get a salary….to know you have done something useful.”



Despite the doubt of her husband and family, another woman, Senada Imsirovic, started to collect herbs to sell in her spare time. Women for Women International matched her with a buyer, Boletus, and her herbs are now used in teas and creams sold locally and internationally. Now her whole family has joined her business.








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