Tag Archives: Rwanda

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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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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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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My Journey back to Rwanda by Judithe Registre

I first worked in Rwanda in 2001. Since then, I have had the privilege to travel through the country on numerous occasions.  Each time I am in Rwanda, I am moved to see the transformation that has taken place and continues to occur as Rwanda redefines itself.

We hear a great deal about how corruption is rampant in Africa, how African states are useless to their population, and how poverty is eating away at people’s dignity. I can go on with this list that so typifies the illustration of Africa, but that is not my goal as I reflect on my visit to Rwanda. Yet I will make this one point before I proceed. There is too little being said in the discussions that lump Africa into a single country about how a country like Rwanda is defying all of those odds that are given for the African Continent all too often.

The leadership’s commitment to womens involvement in all aspects of Rwanda’s development to the rebuilding of its infrastructure and human resources development are just a few of the things that move me as I encounter Rwanda again. Despite all these things, I am most startled by what I have witnessed through the Women for Women Program. Building Rwanda’s infrastructure, such as roads, homes, schools, and myriad others is perhaps the easier thing to accomplish based on the commitment and available resources. What is significantly more difficult to do in Rwanda because of the conflict is to refresh people’s souls and help them regain their trust in each other. This, I know all too well, is a long journey and will continue with each succeeding generation. Yet clearly, the group in society with the greatest potential to contribute to the rebuilding of trust is without a doubt the women of Rwanda.

At Women for Women International, the groups of women that come together to participate in the comprehensive educational and vocational skills training do so despite their different backgrounds. What they have in common is a willingness and determination to change their lives and those of their families and communities. We support them in that mission. In Rwanda, seeing women from different ethnic groups mired in that drive to transform their communities is the beacon of light that helps one understand the possibilities that exist for continued growth and stability in Rwanda. Forgiveness is not often granted without understanding, and with each group discussion, understanding is generated. You often see women building those bridges of trust. Indeed, such bridges are absolutely vital to Rwanda’s future. To hear a woman—a total stranger who has never met me before—say that she loves me and wants to see me to do well, motivates me to find the strength I need to love my neighbors. Hating does not help the pain go away; it never will. Her realization is perhaps that forgiveness might help lighten the load of the pain she bears. And with each burden that is laid to rest, the women find the peace and understanding they need to consolidate the foundation of the bridge of trust.

While in Rwanda I am reminded, that we do more than simply help women rebuild their lives by gaining skills and knowledge. We help them build trust through understanding, which is an ingredient that is perfectly essential to peace and nation building.

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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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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

GAKO Farm

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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Updates from Rwanda – from Jon Thiele, Economic Development Specialist

Gitarama, Rwanda

It is graduation day in Gitarama. 120 very enthusiastic women from six groups are gathered around a large tree on the edge of this small town in southwest Rwanda. Non-stop singing and dancing, drums, your correspondent pulled from his chair to join in… well, the less said about a middle-aged man’s attempt at ethnic dance the better. More interesting is the story of Mukashyaka from the village of Shyogwe.

Several women told their stories– testifying, they called it– and all were well worth hearing, but Mukashyaka wanted to make very clear the change in her life over the past year. She passed around a couple of photos. The first was taken a month or two before she joined the program, and in it she kneels beside her five children. It is the image most of us have when we think of “the typical African village family”– barefoot kids in tattered clothes, weary expressions, dirt.

The second photo is from just a month ago, and the kids look they are setting off for just another day at the grade school in your neighborhood: neatly dressed in clean shorts & t-shirts, wearing shoes, hair neatly trimmed, and standing beside their obviously happy mother. Mukashyaka told us about her sense of accomplishment, about the relief at finally being able to do some good for her children, and about her determination to “never fall back to the old ways”.

Others testified to similar changes in their lives. “I look and feel so much better now”, “some old friends don’t even recognize me”. More singing, a few tears, and a lot of laughter.

I was asked to pass out the graduation certificates. These were the first diplomas any of the women had ever received, and it was an honor to be part of the very first recognition of their own personal achievment. It was getting late, and we had a long drive ahead of us, but as we drove off, no one else had gone home.

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On the road in Rwanda

It is a five hour drive from Kigali, through Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park, to Cyangugu and the border with the DRC. It’s a decent road, winding through the hills, past tea plantations, and the almost endless forest. We also drove past a refugee camp, refugees from fighting in Burundi.

“When did they get here?” I asked.

“1975.”

I do not speak French well. I must have misunderstood. “1975? Over 30 years in a UN camp? Why don’t they go back or resettle somewhere?”

“They can’t.”

That was the whole answer. Seth doesn’t talk much, but that was still the whole answer. For large numbers of people in this region, hopeless is an unbreakable fact of life. Some of their children are growing up in that camp.

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Ashley Judd’s Journal from the Congo Day 2

Ashley Judd

I was able during this dialogue to complement Women for Women International’s extraordinary work by giving a reproductive health, safe water, and malaria lessons. For example, I explained that one can become pregnant 31 days of the month! Most said the only used birth control during the “dangerous” times….we talked about injectable birth control as long lasting and safe, but how they needed to use a condom each time to protect from HIV (all did have good perception of their HIV risk). We discussed the female condom as discreet option, though most said they could negotiate a condom with their husbands, as fine a tribute as possible to Women for Women International. I told them about my recovery buddy, and asked if they would be willing to make a commitment with a friend to buy long lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets; they gave their word to one another and committed to following up….today!!!!! All raised their hands and said she would begin sleeping under a net immediately. “Imagine how you would feel,” I said, “If you had to write your sponsor that you had missed your Women for Women International graduation with a case of malaria! You came here to learn how never to neglect yourself….so step up and protect yourself from malaria! (Congo’s children account for 1 in 20 malaria deaths world wide; these great women lose their productivity if they are sick with preventable diseases….)

That last paragraph is not meant in any way to suggest that Women for Women International’s work is partial or incomplete. In fact, their work is extraordinary in the maximum. I was visiting with only 20 out of thousands of Congolese women they have reached, and this group is not finished yet with their “topics.” It just means that it takes all of us non-profit organizations working in partnership to provide a complete solution to an exceedingly complex and varied series of life challenging problems that confront the poor. We specialize in health: prevention, creating recognition of problems and treatment seeking behaviors, treatment, products, and services, and we’re damn good at it. Women for Women International teaches traumatized, victimized, poor women to bathe, to learn to feed themselves, to read, count, write, parenting skills, social skills, money skills, a trade. Together we empower and protect the whole woman.

Women in the Program

Back on that lush, soft grass, we danced, caroused, ululated, clapped, bumped, hugged, and smiled. At the very end, I lead a passionate salute to Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women international: her name rang through the air in a series of joyful waves, sung by beautiful, clean, fresh smelling, literate, skilled, empowered standing tall Congolese women!!

And at PSI we’re already brainstorming about how to cooperate more, to hire their graduates as Peer Educators, to present reproductive health activities as new women come in, etc.

For more on how Women for Women International works, and to become a sponsor, see www.womenforwomen.org

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