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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.

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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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