Women for Women International

In countries affected by conflict and war, Women for Women International supports the most marginalized women to earn and save money, improve health and well-being, influence decisions in their home and community, and connect to networks for support. By utilizing skills, knowledge, and resources, she is able to create sustainable change for herself, her family, and community.
Aug 18, 2010

Training Staffers in WFWI-DR Congo

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. Entry 2

This afternoon, the trainers (or formatrice, in the local French) discuss their favorite sessions and least favorite sessions to deliver. We know the sessions that the participants tend to enjoy most from their evaluation forms (women in the economy is the overwhelming favorite), so it is interesting to hear what the trainers have to say.

Most trainers enjoy delivering the health and wellness sessions. It can be amazing how little the women we serve know about their bodies and basic things like basic hygiene and nutrition. Their poverty makes it difficult to effectively manage their health. When you live in a mud hut with a thatched roof, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity, how healthy can we reasonably expect our program participants to be? It isn’t surprising that the trainers enjoy delivering this module. Its impact is immediate and visible, and makes the trainers feel good about their jobs.

Further discussion reveals that there is a split on the Stress, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and Stress Management session. Many trainers enjoy delivering this session because they know that their participants suffer from varying degrees of stress. All of our women face stress from being poverty-stricken in their daily lives. Then there is the stress that comes from difficult family situations; many of our participants suffer from domestic violence. Finally, there is the overwhelming stress that comes from the unstable security environment. Many participants are displaced, living in IDP camps, or are returnees who have to rebuild their lives from scratch. They have lost family in the conflict. Many have been raped or otherwise exploited as their communities have been destroyed. Several of our trainers, including the very vocal Mai (from Bukavu) and Josephine (from Goma), enjoy delivering the Stress and Stress Management session because they are well aware of how desperately their women are in need of relief.

Others disagree, and it is interesting that they dislike the Stress and Stress Management topics for the same reasons that their fellow trainers enjoy it. Denise, one of our Bukavu trainers, says that her participants are so traumatized by the conflict that they cannot handle this session. They start weeping in class, and Denise is often at a loss for how best to comfort them. Marie Claire, another Bukavu trainer, agrees. The unstable environment affects all the women, and there is unfortunately no end in sight.

Mai adds to the discussion. She enjoys delivering the stress session, but she dislikes the sessions on women and politics. She says that this is because she, as well as the women she trains, blame Congo’s local and national politicians for their poverty and suffering. She isn’t wrong. I’ve only been here a few days, but I can already see that there is little infrastructure and even fewer facilities.

Mai goes on to say that there is only one trained psychologist in the Bukavu area. How can one psychologist provide for thousands of women who are in such great need of counseling? She understands her colleague’s frustrations; there is only so much that our trainers can do for their women.

As it turns out, Mai was a trained HIV / AIDS counselor during her former career as a nurse. She suggests that the trainers with a background in health receive additional training in trauma counseling to help our own WfWI participants with their unique needs. Nina and I ask how many trainers think this would help their women in need, as well as help them deliver the stress sessions more effectively. All 37 trainers raise their hands. Mai and Josephine make it their personal mission to hammer this point home to Nina and I for the rest of the week. I understand, and hope that we can strengthen trainer capacity in this regard. No one can deny that they in DRC, trauma healing is vital to out success and to our women’s recovery from the conflict.

Jun 14, 2010

Investing in Women is the Key to Solving Development

Investing in Women is the Key to Solving Development Challenges in Afghanistan

Women for Women International is a global, grassroots women’s organization that provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources they need to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. Since 1993, Women for Women International has served over 250,000 women worldwide and distributed over $79 million in direct aid, program services and micro-credit loans. Women for Women International currently has field operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Women for Women International Afghanistan (WfWI – Afghanistan) launched program operations in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002, with a vision to economically empower Afghan women and help open opportunities for them to actively participate in the reconstruction of their communities, country and economy. “Once women are economically empowered, they can use their voice to speak for themselves,” says WfWI – Afghanistan Country Director Sweeta Noori. Historically, Afghan women have experienced enormous obstacles, such as poverty, lack of education or healthcare and violence both in and outside their homes. Women for Women International believes that a nation cannot prosper, nor can peace be sustained, without the full participation of women. Thus, our year-long core program offers health and literacy training, vocational and technical skills development, rights awareness and life skills as well as income generation assistance. Participants to our programs include widows, victims of human trafficking, single heads of household, returnees and internally displaced persons. Over 27,000 women have accessed program services in our Afghanistan country office.

Rights Awareness Education and Vocational Skills Development The women of Afghanistan understand the value of education and job training. When they enroll in Women for Women International’s program, they dream of using the education and the skills they learn to earn an income and improve their family situation. They also receive rights awareness training to help them understand their rights—according to both national and family law—so they may become more active participants in family and community decision-making processes. These sessions also serve to unite women and build a support system that strengthens solidarity and enables them to advocate on behalf of themselves and the group. Finally, a critical component to WfWI programming is building and strengthening women’s vocational and technical skills targeted to identified market opportunities. Local instructors provide training in areas such as jewelry making, shoe making, animal husbandry, tailoring, stone cutting and many others. At graduation, women can elect to access credit through Women for Women are key to job creation and stimulating private sector development that will engage women in the rebuilding of Afghanistan’s economy.

Microfinance Program Currently, there are 6,600 women participating in WfWI – Afghanistan’s year-long program. After graduation, these women will have access to business start-up advisory services, as well as access to capital and input supplies. They will also be trained in the formation of cooperatives, legal registration of businesses, and they will be educated on microfinance opportunities. Microfinance has emerged in recent decades as one of the more successful methods of stimulating developing economies by providing financial services to the poor, particularly poor women who are more likely to reinvest their loans into their families or communities. In 2005, WfWI – Afghanistan established its microfinance program to provide women access to micro-credit loans and help them establish small businesses and other income generating enterprises. The program has a current loan portfolio of $2,417,512 and so far over 60,000 women have been served at a repayment rate of over 99%.

Food Security and Agriculture Afghanistan is one of the least food-secure countries in the world. Farming is constrained by non-arable land, extreme weather, and skyrocketing food prices. To combat Afghanistan’s growing food crisis and position women at the forefront of its solution, WfWI-Afghanistan is piloting a new income generation program known as Commercial Integrated Farming initiative, where women are given the tools and resources they need to produce high-value crops for commercial markets. Our commercial farming initiative was initially launched in Rwanda and Sudan in 2008 to provide Sudanese and Rwandese women with organic agricultural and cooperative development skills to enable them to grow food and generate income for long-term economic and food security. The success of CIFI in Sudan and Rwanda was remarkable. In Sudan for example, nearly 80% of participants were on-track to earn double per-capita GDP at the end of only six months. This is a critical shift against a global context where 70% of the world’s smallholder farmers are women, who yet own less than 2% of the world’s land and customarily survive at only subsistence levels of agriculture. Given the severe levels of poverty and hunger in Afghanistan, we are now implementing this innovative program for Afghan women who are being trained in animal husbandry and crop production . As more women are trained to be skilled farmers in the rebuilding of Afghanistan’s agricultural sector, they will not only be at the center of agricultural and economic development, but they will also be the driving force in reversing the devastating poverty that is killing more Afghans than the conflict (OHCHR). Afghanistan is currently the second poorest country in the world and nearly a third of the population is unable to get enough food to live on. Afghan women are particularly vulnerable to hunger since only 38 percent of Afghan women are economically active.

Food Security and Agriculture Afghanistan is one of the least food-secure countries in the world. Farming is constrained by non-arable land, extreme weather, and skyrocketing food prices. To combat Afghanistan’s growing food crisis and position women at the forefront of its solution, WfWI-Afghanistan is piloting a new income generation program known as Commercial Integrated Farming initiative, where women are given the tools and resources they need to produce high-value crops for commercial markets. Our commercial farming initiative was initially launched in Rwanda and Sudan in 2008 to provide Sudanese and Rwandese women with organic agricultural and cooperative development skills to enable them to grow food and generate income for long-term economic and food security. The success of CIFI in Sudan and Rwanda was remarkable. In Sudan for example, nearly 80% of participants were on-track to earn double per-capita GDP at the end of only six months. This is a critical shift against a global context where 70% of the world’s smallholder farmers are women, who yet own less than 2% of the world’s land and customarily survive at only subsistence levels of agriculture. Given the severe levels of poverty and hunger in Afghanistan, we are now implementing this innovative program for Afghan women who are being trained in animal husbandry and crop production . As more women are trained to be skilled farmers in the rebuilding of Afghanistan’s agricultural sector, they will not only be at the center of agricultural and economic development, but they will also be the driving force in reversing the devastating poverty that is killing more Afghans than the conflict (OHCHR). Afghanistan is currently the second poorest country in the world and nearly a third of the population is unable to get enough food to live on. Afghan women are particularly vulnerable to hunger since only 38 percent of Afghan women are economically active.

Engaging Men as Advocates for Women’sRights While Women for Women International’s primary mission is to give women the tools and resources they need to rebuild their lives, we have seen in our 17 years of experience that they are only able to do so when all members of the community—including men—are fully engaged in the dialogue about women’s rights and value to the society. Thus, Women for Women International has developed an innovative program to work with influential male community leaders to raise awareness about the importance of women’s rights and contributions to the community and economy. In Afghanistan, Women for Women International has worked with more than 400 Afghan mullahs to help them understand how valuable women’s education and economic empowerment is, and how it is encouraged—not forbidden—in Islam. They then incorporate these themes into their Friday speeches, sharing this important message of the far-reaching benefits of women’s full social and economic participation with their congregations, thereby spreading a ripple effect of awareness around women’s rights throughout the community.

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Feb 10, 2010

From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo

Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.

I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.

Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”

So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.

That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.

Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.

That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.

But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.

One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.

“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.

Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”

It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.

So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.

She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.

“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”

Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.

On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at www.runforCongowomen.org. And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.

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