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.
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.
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.