Tag Archives: women for women

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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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.


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.


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 1

Ashley Judd

You Go Global, Girl! Travels in Rwanda and Eastern Congo

By, Ashley Judd

Years ago there was an Oprah magazine in a seat back pocket on a flight and I flipped through it. Or maybe I bought it, the issue with Bono on the cover. Anyhow, there was a tear out card describing Women for Women International. I was so intrigued and I challenged my Feathered Piper yoga sisters each to sponsor a woman in a war torn country. This is Zainab Salbi’s program, founded in reaction to the rape camps during the war in Bosnia, and based on her own experiences growing up under a dictator (Saddam Hussein). Since then, I have given sponsorships to other special women in my life. Letters from my different sisters are always a delight, and I appreciate how Women for Women International includes a snapshot. Mary Ogeke in Nigeria, gathering kindling for boiling water, is my favorite. She wrote me a delightful twist an old favorite expression – she wished me “more grease for your elbow.” My husband and I are so charmed by her he often encourages me to tell our friends about Mary and I now whisper in his ear before the green flag of his races, “I wish you more grease for your elbow!!”

Quite wonderfully, a group of my sisters were graduating from a Rwanda program during my stay! I missed meeting them due to my canceled flight, but it was fantastic to meet Zainab in Rwanda and plan my visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to see her program there, where gender based violence is a daily occurrence.

I am traveling to the DRC to visit the PSI and Women for Women International. These PSI clinics specialize in family planning, maternal and child health, and the treatment and prevention of malaria. (We also do safe water and HIV prevention in this area of the DRC). I also hope to visit with women who are rape victims and have graduated from Women for Women International’s program. Rape is an epidemic here. It is an emergency. It is everywhere, on a massive scale. It is not altogether unreported in the western media, but it is grossly underreported. An ancient and common tool of warfare, this area’s female population has been hostage to gender based violence for decades.

What a shocking difference a few feet makes. On the Rwandan side of the crossing, the roads are tidy, neat, maintained. The earth is red and the wind blowing through the trees, the lapping of the shores of Lake Kivu, is serene. There is a sense of orderliness and even within the clear, abject poverty; I feel the purposeful attempt at self improvement, through agriculture and the tiny, colorful flower gardens.

Passing into the DRC…Oh my God.

Ashley Judd

After passing a few ramshackle villas at the border, Goma opens up as a relentless, vast dusty slum. There is rubble, garbage, filth, people covered in muck and grime, buildings that are nothing more than lean-to shanties. The earth is grey, drab, choking with dust, visibility limited by dust – the result of lava flow from a nearby volcano.

After spending a heartbreaking and inspiring day with the staff of PSI, I traveled to visit the Women for Women International office.

Women for Women International provides literacy, hygiene, nutritional, educational, and job skills. An NGO with programs in 8 conflict and post conflict countries, they pair, for $324 a year, a woman who can afford it with a woman who cannot. Less than a dollar a day and the money does so much!

In the midst of this ragged and doomed place is a walled courtyard filled with grass that is actually green, a garden that is actually tended, a building that is clean and proud. There were enough chairs for 20 (!) people to sit, and some tidy (if out of place looking, I always chuckle, wondering where the stuff come from) furniture.

I was greeted with joyous clapping, singing, and ululating, the great African vocalization. I ran to the throng and threw myself at them, dancing and exclaiming my hello in their native style. After some time discovering each other in this way, I was introduced as someone who sponsors in Women for Women International and who was there to hear their stories and to take their stories to America.

We sat for hours, each woman taking her turn to stand before her sisters and me, sharing her life story. They were each so incredibly beautiful! The eyes, the cheekbones, the lips! They wore traditional, colorful dress and I so want to learn to wrap a turban like that! They were all reached by a Women for Women International recruiter about the same time and have been in the program one year.

This is what those 4 ½ hours sounded like to me:

I am an orphan My husband was killed My 3 sons were killed I could not read I could not write I could not count I lived like an animal I have 13 children I have 10 children I am a widow I am a refugee I am an internally displaced person I fled with nothing, not even a cup I did not know how to feed myself I was half mad I was crazy I was a cadaver I was a corpse People in the street were afraid of me I begged I scavenged in the dump I treated my children like animals My husband went to other women My husband’s people pushed my from our home when he died I was run off the land I was cheated because I did not know how to sign my name My children died I have taken in orphans I knew nothing I was filthy I smelled bad I came to this area to escape violence I carried loads with my body to earn money for food I walked everywhere with my hoe to see if people needed my services if they did not I starved I had no where to go I was dead I had no idea how not to have more children I was in a constant panic I lived in terror I could not cope with stress I abused everyone around I was in a rage The psychological trauma was so great I was abandoned I neglected myself

And then, the transfiguration:

I am the happiest woman in the world – I am so blessed – I know my rights – Women have rights – I learned to read – I learned to write – I can assess the value of my small goods to ask a fair price for them – I received a small loan to buy fabric – I sew now to earn a decent living – I can calculate my profit so I can manage my finances – I save a bit and I use my capital to expand my business – I learned about nutrition – I know how to eat -Vegetables are important – I know where to get them – Look at me I am clean! – I use soap – I use lotion – My children eat 3 meals a day – My husband and I are partners now I have rights in the household – I have a voice – I keep my pamphlet which describes my rights in my pocket, it is with me at all times – I was able to save enough to buy a small plot of land – I have my own home – I built my home – I am saving for my home – I was able to get back two plots of my dead husband’s land and I sold them for a profit – My soul opened up – A new woman was born inside of me – I use the money Women for Women International gave me to pay the fees for my daughter to go to school – In my culture no girl ever went to school but mine do now – The woman who recruited me would not recognize me today – I thank God – I space my births by at least 3 years – I am at peace – I am empowered – I live a respectable life – I have dignity – I have worth – I harassed all the governors so much, they were sick of seeing me, they would not give me back my land, but eventually they did – I joined another women’s rights group and they elected me their leader

Their stories are unbelievable, each woman a Congolese Lazarus, nothing short of an absolute and total miracle. As we listened, the group made clucking and groaning noises of recognition, and would burst into applause at a particularly heightened expression of empowerment. When the entire group finished, we talked in more detail about sexual exploitation, rape, HIV, malaria, and unsafe water. Each woman had personally had malaria, yet strangely, not a single one slept under a net last night. Half had babies die from it. Most “knew” (perhaps they spoke of themselves) someone who had been raped. A few knew her HIV status, and again, strangely, only one was using modern birth control.


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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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Visiting Sadije’s House

by Trish Tobin

I knew we were being hosted for lunch by one of our program graduates but the Albanian/English translation was too fast for me to pick up on who we were visiting. I was overwhelmed when I realized we were pulling up to Sadije’s house. It was like visiting a movie set to me, since I had seen this house in the film that PEF did about the trip that Sadije organized for her fellow graduates around Kosovo. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it on YouTube. Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSwwaiECAzc

We also did a newsletter story on Sadije’s trip – which was monumental considering half the women on the trip had never seen beyond their village let alone traveled around Kosovo (and with a group of women no less). Some women had rarely left their homes before – something I found hard to really, really believe until I drove through the villages and saw the farmers’ markets – all men selling and buying, no women. It was one thing to see only men on the streets – and another thing entirely to see them doing the grocery shopping. This is truly a patriarchal society.

Sadije welcomed us to her home in Drenas as did her husband – who is also in the film. It’s very courageous as a man to support and encourage your wife to do untraditional things too. I was very impressed by him. He took Sadije to the farmers’ association meetings where she is now active. After talking, I suggested to Sadije and to Faruk, Women for Women International’s agribusiness specialist in Kosovo, that they do another bus tour like Sadije had done for women graduates but this time do the trip for farmers to visit one another’s farms and associations to share knowledge, seeds and create a broader network for them – and of course it would include the women farmers. And this is why I love Hamide Latifi, Country Director in Kosovo, so much. She is not only for the idea; she wants to do it by the end of May! I like the way the Kosovars make things happen.

Sadije and her daughters made the most amazing cake for us – it was huge, too large to bake in any oven I’ve seen. And we had “flia”, a flour and onion layered dish that was kind of like a lasagna of onion crepes. Tasty. But the best part for me was when they showed me the newsletter that Sadije had on the bookshelf – right next to her Women for Women International graduation certificate. It was the newsletter where we featured her story. You can see the same newsletter on our website. http://www.womenforwomen.org/outreachwinter08/ Now I knew that we sent copies to the Kosovo office like we do for every newsletter – but to see that Sadije kept her copy…well, it was a good moment and I couldn’t wait to tell Teisha back in the office in DC who had worked on the newsletter story.

Sadije\'s graduation certificate The newsletter on Sadije\'s bookshelf

As we got ready to leave one of Sadije’s younger daughters – 12 or 13? – got brave enough to peek into the festivities. She blushed crimson immediately and could not be persuaded to stay no matter how much we encouraged her. Hamide explains that Sadije’s family suffered badly during the war and the children still have emotional scars that make meeting strangers more difficult. I’m reminded of what Sadije’s husband said in the film – that it was indescribable to not be able to protect your wife and children.

As we leave, I’m happy to see one of the Women for Women International greenhouses has arrived. This means Sadije has qualified for the small business package – given how healthy and happy her farm looks, I can see why.

The greenhouse parts - ready for assembly

There are reminders though as we leave. I see whitewashed areas on the house and ask Hamide what they are. As I suspected, the white paint covers up the slogans Serbian soldiers and police left behind to denigrate the family. Bullet holes are still visible as well.

But then there is the Women for Women International – Grate per Grate International (in Albanian) – sign in the window. It feels like a beacon to me – a proud one and I think it must be great for her daughters to see that, to see their mom on film and to know that there are opportunities for them too.

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