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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