The civil war and genocide which ravaged Rwanda in 1994 left in its wake many orphans and widows Most are poorly educated, and find it hard, if not impossible, to get a real job. Many are helpless.
But it’s not all bad news. Some are actively seeking solutions, through self-help associations such as Women for Women International.
Women for Women works with Rwanda ‘s community development leaders to identify needy women who feel socially excluded. They are encouraged to rebuild their lives, first by identifying their problems, then by developing skills and strategies to solve them.
To finance this process, the women are matched with sponsors in North America and Europe who send a monthly donation of $20, or about eleven thousand Rwandan Francs. Sponsorship lasts one year. That’s $240 for each Rwandan participant.
“We train them to use the money, to start projects which can generate profits and sustain them during the year they spend in the program. They learn to be pro-active and to work for their own development”, says Kabarungi Bella, Program coordinator.
Women for Women is based in Washington DC , where the staff coordinates activities between sponsors and participants in eight different countries.
“Our sponsors are primarily in North America and Europe but we have sponsors all over the world”, says Wendy Shapiro, Women for women Rwanda Country Director. “They learn about the program often from features on television some publicity in newspapers, participation in women for women conferences, occasionally direct mail which is a way of recruiting interested supporters”, she explains.
Over one thousand women, aged between eighteen and fifty five across Rwanda ‘s twelve provinces, are receiving donations from abroad, and setting up self-help associations.
Abahujumuco Association for example, in Kigali Ngali province, has eighty five members. They grow and sell fresh vegetables. Their most recent harvest generated over five hundred thousand Rwandan francs, or about $850.
“Most of us have used the money to buy domestic animals. Some members say they bought goats while others have used the money to work on their gardens. In that way, we have helped our families”, says Mukamazimpaka Francine the coordinator of the association
The participants also go through training on social issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health and perhaps most important of all, how to live in peace in a post-conflict community.
In a nation torn apart by war and genocide, they learn to concentrate on the future instead of a traumatic past. They are taught to cooperate and work together. Participants say it has changed their lives. “Women for women has helped us in many aspects but the most important thing was that it brought us together”, says Mukamazimpaka
Trainers say they benefit too because they always have something new to learn. “My experience is not only teaching but learning as well. Most of the women know things I do not know. They are often older, and they teach us about Rwandan culture. We teach them modern things”, says Louise Ndayizeye, one of the trainers.
So, participants and trainers benefit. But what about the women who send the money? What do they get out of helping a stranger, thousands of miles away?
Carol D’Aleo who lives in the USA has sponsored Aurelie Mukareyo in Rwanda for one year. She says her reward is receiving letters from her. Carol says her grandson once had a car accident and she did not know he would recover so she asked her friend Aurelie in Rwanda to pray for him. Aurelie had a 21 year old son. “When he heard the news he was very moved by it. He wanted to have my grandson’s address and he wrote to him personally and now the two of them are often corresponding which is just a wonderful thing”, says Carol.
Aurelie too says Carol’s sponsorship has changed her life. “I am very happy. I thank her and I thank God who sent her as a new friend. In fact I don’t regard her as just a sponsor, I see her as my sister”, says Aurelie.
In Kigali , local participants in Women for Women come for training twice a week. They learn to overcome feelings of social exclusion, to understand that they have potential to develop themselves and to play important roles in their local community.
Matha Kakuze teaches handicrafts. She learned her skills twenty years ago, and through the program she has now passed them on, to more than a hundred people. “ I want other women to learn this, so that it can help them like it helps me” she says “For example: I lost my husband but I have children. I use the money I raise from selling baskets to pay for their school fees and buy food” she jovially explains.
Some participants can learn the art in a two months period.
One basket sells for between five to eight hundred Rwandan francs, or about one dollar.
There’s no steady market yet, but a few sales are better than none at all, and the women are working hard to expand. But despite such determination, there are difficulties too.
Kabarungi Bella, the Program Co-ordinator says most of the women who join the program have no previous academic background so their pace of understanding is so low. “We always have to monitor their performance very closely. It requires patience and dedication but we are committed”, says Bella
But whatever their personal situation, they relish the results of their labour and co-operation in such difficult circumstances, and hope to provide a positive example to others.
Day-by-day, with a little help from their friends at home and abroad, these once-marginalised women of Rwanda are back on track, working hard to reshape their lives, their families, and their country.