Women for Women International Holds Policy Briefing on Women in Conflict-Affected Areas
Karak Mayik, Country Director in Sudan explained how agriculture has become an income opportunity for women in South Sudan. Next to her Christine Karumba, DR Congo Country Director, and Tony Gambino, Africa scholar.
January 27, 2009 - Washington, DC – Speaking on helping women in the midst of an ongoing conflict, Christine Karumba, Women for Women International Country Director in DR Congo, says, “Rape has been used by everybody in our country and devastated the whole community. ‘Peace,’ ‘negotiations,’ and ‘reconstruction’ are words that are disappearing from our vocabulary.” Despite the ongoing violence Women for Women currently supports 7,800 women in the country through direct assistance, training, and livelihoods opportunities. During the recent violence, many women were not able to reach Women for Women facilities, and are still reported missing from the program.
Women for Women country directors from six countries shared their experiences of overcoming conflict, destruction, and poverty in some of the most challenging environments around the world.
At a policy briefing hosted by Dominick Chilcott, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy and moderated by Tony Gambino, a prominent Africa scholar, the country directors spoke about how to put women at the center of development and encourage active participation in local and national decision-making.
"It's a fact that over half the worlds population are women and if their full potential is not realized.” Dominick Chilcott, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy, in his opening remarks.
Dominick Chilcott said in his opening remarks, "It's a fact that over half the worlds population are women and if their full potential is not realized the Millennium Development Goals to which the British Government is very attached will not be met by 2015."
Sweeta Noori, who runs Women for Women International’s Afghanistan program, highlighted the country’s progress through implementing laws and policies that protect women’s rights. Considerable obstacles remain, including security threats and at times misguided foreign interventions. “I see an island of peace where international forces are providing some security, but in many areas women are still not well off,” Noori says. “Women are still treated as property and families marry their daughters off to pay debts with the dowry.” Despite pervasive poverty among socially-excluded women and their families, many donors and local politicians are failing to include women’s voices both at the political and grassroots level into their decision-making processes.
Women for Women International country directors spoke about overcoming conflict, destruction, and poverty in some of the most challenging environments around the world.
Entrenched patriarchal attitudes and seemingly out-of-touch politicians often inhibit women’s participation in economic opportunities traditionally reserved for men. In South Sudan, an underdeveloped area with chronic food insecurity and a fragile peace agreement, country director Karak Mayik and her team have just launched a large-scale women’s commercial farming project that will fight poverty and hunger by training 3,000 women over the next three years to grow and market commercially viable crops. “We were all used to receiving food from the World Food Program, but now I think we might be able to give some back,” she says, adding that women in her area have started to understand the long-term value of education and skills development over cash handouts.
“We have come a long way. We learned how to dig up money from the ground.”
Women for Women International provides over 50,000 women around the world with direct financial aid, emotional support, life- and vocational- skills training and employment opportunities in sustainable income generation projects. Women are educated about their rights and graduate equipped with new skills that enable them to make a living for themselves and their families. Each of these women is laying the groundwork for a stable community, and each of them has turned from a victim of war to a builder of peace.
It was in 2002 that the world turned up side down and Honorata lost the signs of a "true and nice life" that she and her husband had built. She was captured and tortured by the armed militias. She was gang raped, sexually abused, forced to endure unimaginable humilities. Honorata's days blended into one another until the moment another marauding band stormed the camp. In the confusion, she escaped.
With nowhere to go, no food, nothing but the torn cloth she wore, Honorata walked. And walked. And walked. Through the blistering heat and through rain storms, she walked over 150 miles to Bukavu, a village that had become a haven for people fleeing the war. There she found her five children who had survived by the kindness of strangers. Reunited, she began to rebuild their life.
But just as she tried, the war came to her doorstep again. And, again she was raped, beaten and sexually abused. Families that had helped her feared she was cursed. She was left, again, crushed but determined to recover and rebuild.
Honorata joined Women for Women International in August 2004. Her story of survival was featured on the Oprah Show and in the O Magazine February 05 issue article, Post-cards from the Edge.
Relating the horrors of what she experienced was the first step to her healing. Until joining Women for Women International, Honorata had never shared her story and silently endured the trauma. "It is one thing to have been through what I have been through. To have no one acknowledge it enhances that pain threefold," she said. "Your willingness to recognize my humanity has given voice to my distress and meaning to my pain."
In a culture that marginalizes rape victims, Honorata felt isolated from the society that failed to protect her. She felt fragmented socially, economically, and psychologically. But once she realized she was in a safe place, both physically and emotionally, she began to rekindle her dreams.
The program "has dared me to hope-of having a house, of living in peace, of reclaiming my dynamism, my dignity. If not director of a school, I would like to be someone of importance, someone of value again," she said optimistically soon after she started.
Honorata joined a small group of women who also suffered in war. Each had their own stories of horror, of lives lost, and of struggling to regain their dignity. Together they shared their lives, their hopes and dreams. They sat side by side to discuss the role of women in rebuilding society, women's rights and the new Constitution, and family law. They learned about reproductive health issues, such as their anatomy, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and child birth.
In small groups, the women learned basic business and marketing skills. They enrolled in special job skills classes designed to meet the market needs of their community. They talked about the economic value of housework, and the importance of education and literacy in gaining economic independence.
Honorata chose tie-dyeing for her vocational skills training. Using her money from her Sponsor, she is creating a small business. Life is still hard but she is trying to earn a living and provide for her family's basic needs. She is determined to find ways to increase her income to enable her to save so one day she can have her own home again.
From the beginning, Honorata actively participated in the training sessions, particularly the classes on women's roles and the importance of becoming an active citizen. In the session about women and the Constitution, she vowed to play her role in rebuilding the country. After attending a community meeting on violence against women, Honorata noted "I come to these meetings on violence against women. It is always a so-called expert talking about us rape survivors. I have never seen that they give the floor to us to talk about ourselves. We have a voice and we can articulate what has happened to us and how that has impacted our lives."
Determined to share her first-hand experience and not to be silent, Honorata gave a speech on March 8, International Women's Day, about the suffering of women in eastern Congo. She boldly called for accountabilities at all levels. In the audience was the Governor of the Province and other political figures and community leaders. On behalf of other rape survivors, she called on the humanitarian community and national authorities to take heed of what has happened to women in Congo and what continues to happen.
"I did not believe that I could still hold a speech in front of a crowd. But I have done just that," she said proudly afterwards.
Her participation in Women for Women International has not only helped her to regain her sense of self, but it has given her the hope that she was looking for. "I feel like I am someone important," she said recently. "The recognition that I have been given today has made me realize that I am a valuable member in my community."
In speaking with staff in our offices in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we have learned that nearly all of the women in our program in Goma have been able to return to classes. While women are still concerned for their safety, the situation has improved at our location in Goma to an extent that women and their families are able to make the trip to class.
Sponsorship funds for these women are more important than ever as they struggle to provide for their families in what is still an unstable environment. The sponsors of women not yet able to return to the program will be contacted individually so that we may together determine how best to support the women at this time.
Our program offices in all of our other locations in the DRC where we serve the majority of women in our DR Congo program remain unaffected by the continued violence.
Thank you to our supporters for their heartfelt concern for the women and if you sponsor a woman in the DRC, please do take a moment to send her a letter letting her know you are glad she is safe, that you hope she is able to complete the program so she may sustain an income and affect change in her community and that there are men and women around the world concerned for her.
As efforts continue to try to end the conflict in the eastern DRC, the toll the fighting has taken on civilians grows higher. And both women and men have been victims of rape and sexual violence. Christine Karumba, Country Director for Women for Women International, once again spoke to VOA English to Africa about the situation in eastern Congo.
November 26, 2008
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