Tag Archives: Women for Women International

Women at Work in Kosovo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afghanistan Part 2: How We Start the Conversation

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

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

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

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

WfWI participant discusses vocational training with an instructor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women in Afghanistan Defining their Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life for Iraqi Women since the US Troop Withdrawal

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

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

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

Elderly Women in Iraq.

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

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

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

Women walking in street in Iraq.

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

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Rwanda Making Strides for Women

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

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

Karen observing the construction site for new WfWI facilities.

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

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

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

Karen with a member of the construction team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Notes from Kosovo- Day # 4

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

Day 4 – Thursday 24th

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

‘The End of Primary School’

At the end of primary school I received a message,

They are stopping me from going to school.

I was very sad, I started to cry.

The books and school bench was awash with my tears.

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

I didn’t deserve this.

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

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

Now I am happy, my dream is fulfilled.

My children go free to school.

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Notes from Kosovo- Day #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 for Women International: DRC

WfWI-DRC has the largest program in the Women for Women International network, serving over 7,000 women this year. Looking at a map of the country at large, the areas in which we work seem rather close in vicinity, especially relative to the size of the country (nearly the same landmass as Western Europe). However, looking at the prominently placed map of DRC in the Bukavu headquarters, it is clear that the communities WfWI-DRC serve are nowhere near each other; from North to South, Goma, Bukavu, Baraka, and Uvira are hours away from each other. It is a 13 hour drive, north to south. Unfortunately for me, it means that my time in the country will be primarily limited to Bukavu. Luckily for me, the training staff from all the sub-offices are here for the Training of Trainers (ToT).

The ToT’s purpose is to give an in-depth orientation to the newly deepened Women’s World Manual Curriculum, help the Renewing Women’s Life Skills trainers improve their facilitation skills, and most importantly help them solve problems so they can more effectively serve the women participants. I already knew that the DRC training crew have significant challenges, but I also know that they are uniquely placed to have a great impact on the women we serve. Having worked on the curriculum revision for two years as WfWI Program Coordinator in DC, I am very excited and happy to be here.

This is also a unique opportunity for the trainers; such great distances mean that they have little opportunity to interact, share experiences, and focus exclusively on their training techniques. They seem especially excited that Nina and I are here to focus on their important work. On the first day of training, it seems quite a lot like the first day of “school”; the ReneWLS trainers stick with the people they know. The Bukavu group sits together, the Goma group sits together, and the Baraka/Uvira group sit together. I know they are excited, but they also seem nervous. This is not surprising; having worked on the revised curriculum for a long time myself, I know that the new manual is more than double the size of the original, which makes it imposing before you even open the book. But, as lead training consultant Nina Nayar says as she introduces the curriculum, we have complete confidence in the training staff. We know they can master the new material. All that is really new is the methodology, and I am more than confident that the trainers can learn from each other and teach Nina and I things as well.

Nina introduces herself, and then gives me the floor. I tell the trainers about my work with WfWI, and I also tell them that I am a first generation American whose parents are from Nigeria and Ghana. This is my first trip to Africa since I was a child. This brings lots of smiles and applause to the room.

Then the 37 trainers, plus office and sub-office staff introduce themselves. The youngest trainer is 22 – the oldest trainers playfully decline to give their age. The trainers are young, mature, married, widowed, divorced, single, and have training in many different fields. There are trained teachers, nurses, lawyers, and agronomists in the training staff. Also present is Honorata, the prime example of WfWI successes, is present among the Baraka group of trainers. As we finish introducing ourselves and begin dividing up sessions and exercises to practice, I am certain that WfWI-DRC has the best trainers to be had in the country. I am excited to see what they make of the new material.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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