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.
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.

Feb 10, 2010

Women's Fight Against Honor Killings

Introduction The United Nations Population Fund estimates that honor killings—which have been described as “murders carried out by family members against girls and women who are believed to have committed a sexual indiscretion, or to have caused gossip related to sexual behavior, that besmirches the honor of the family”1 —take the lives of thousands of women each year.2 While statistics for the specific number of women killed “in the name of honor” in Iraqi Kurdistan vary, it is clear that there has been an increase in violence against Kurdish women since the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War. Moreover, despite changes in Kurdish law to criminalize honor killings, such murders continue to rise in Iraqi Kurdistan and are even occurring in Kurdish diaspora groups in Sweden and the United Kingdom. In addition, since 2007, suicide by self-immolation has increased among Kurdish women, and these suicides are linked to pressure on women from family members to kill themselves for honor-related reasons. The purpose of this paper is to explore honor killings of Kurdish women in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the Kurdish diaspora to gain a better understanding of how the Kurdish women’s movement helped shape the current battle against honor-related violence. Beginning with background information of the movement and the methods it has utilized to fight honor killings, this paper also examines the exile community and how Kurdish women in Sweden and the United Kingdom have yet to be instrumental in the fight against honor killing, and moreover, have been victims of honor-related violence themselves. The paper also looks at new developments, such as the recent trend of suicides of Kurdish women by self-immolation and petitions by Kurdish women’s organizations to the Kurdish government to end violence against women. Finally, the paper highlights some of the many ongoing challenges facing the Kurdish women’s movement. Social Conditions Conducive to Honor Killings Activist Munira Muftizadeh of the Kurdish Women’s Organization explained that violence against women originates from a patriarchal society “which fails to regard women’s existence as full human beings.”3 In “No ‘Safe Haven’: Violence Against Women in Iraqi Kurdistan,”4 author Shahrzad Mojab reveals how honor killing in Kurdistan is condoned by social, economic, cultural, political, and religious structures.5 Mojab argues that six factors are primarily responsible for the increase in honor killings since the early 1990s. These factors include the deteriorating political, social, and economic framework of Kurdish society during wartime; the failure of political parties to make gender relations more equitable; the nationalist politics of gender relations; increased Islamic fundamentalism in politics; the revitalization of tribal and feudal relations; and finally, a weak feminist consciousness in Iraqi Kurdistan which allows nationalism to support the state’s patriarchal role. Background of the Movement KWAHK Founded in March 2000 in London, Kurdish Women Action against Honor Killing (KWAHK) works to raise international and national awareness about this heinous crime in Kurdish communities in Kurdistan and in the Diaspora.6 It evolved from the first organization to be established in response to violence against women in Kurdistan, the communist Independent Women’s Organization.7 KWAHK is comprised of both Kurdish and non-Kurdish activists. With its slogan “No Honor in Murder,” KWAHK’s mission is two-fold. First, KWAHK “attempts to establish dialogue with human rights organizations, international NGOs, the United Nations and Western governments who contribute to combating gender based violence by refusing to support regimes and parties who are violating women’s human rights.”8 The second goal focuses on “identifying strategies and legal procedures most appropriate to the fight against different forms of violence against women.”9 To achieve these goals, KWAHK has hosted public debates and conferences in both Iraqi Kurdistan and London to bring attention to the issue of honor killings as a human rights concern that requires national and international attention. A June 2000 Conference organized by KWAHK in London attempted to create a dialogue between the Kurdish community and political parties in Kurdistan on the issue of honor killings and on the status of women in society.10 Recommendations for future actions were grouped into three main categories: 1) legal action, including changing existing laws and thoroughly investigating all murder cases, 2) using education and the media to prevent acts of violence, and 3) establishing shelters, medical and counseling facilities as well as rehabilitation centers to protect women who are threatened with violence or have been victims of violence.11 Organizational literature from KWAHK identifies these debates, as well as conferences at the United Nations and with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, as instrumental in changing Kurdistan’s law to criminalize honor killings. The Diaspora The exile Kurdish community, mainly in Sweden and the United Kingdom, is also important to the rise of the transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings. Researchers Shahrzad Mojab and Rachel Gorman point out that “Kurdish feminists in the Diaspora have tried to introduce violence against women and gender inequality as central concerns in the process of reconstruction.”12 Iraqi Kurdish women activists like Nazaneen Rashid attest that Kurdish women are better able to advocate for women’s rights from abroad because they do not need to be affiliated with political parties to secure funding and receive recognition. She explains: I have traveled all over Europe to raise the voice of Kurdish women. I think I am contributing and advocating against the plight of Kurdish women more effectively while I am abroad than being in Kurdistan. I am free and I don’t need to be affiliated with any of the political parties to have legitimacy. I have to admit that I am in the Diaspora, but in my heart and head I live in Kurdistan every day.13 Legal Reform and Shelters for Victims The transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings has achieved two major successes to date. First, the movement was able to lobby both Kurdish governing political parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—to overturn articles in the Iraqi Penal Code that allowed for honor killings. It is important to note that the success of this campaign was due in large part to efforts made by women’s organizations of the PUK and KDP in Kurdistan that were already in action at the time of KWAHK’s formation. On April 12, 2000, the PUK passed Decree No. 59, which stated: “Lenient punishment for killing women or torturing them with the pretext of purifying shame shall not be implemented. The court should not apply articles 130 and 132 of the Iraqi Penal Code no. 111 of the year 1969 to reduce the penalty of the perpetrator.”14 KWAHK was able to combine its advocacy efforts with NGOs on the ground in Kurdistan, such as the Swedish group Diakonia,15 as well as with the women’s organizations of the PUK and KDP political parties, to overturn articles in the Iraqi Penal Code exonerating honor killers in the territory of the KDP. In 2002, the KDP passed Law No.14 which states: “Crimes against women with the pretext of ‘honorable motivation’ will not be legally liable for lenient punishment and Articles 28, 130 and 131 of the Iraqi Penal Code no. 111 of the year 1969 will not be implemented.”16 The transnational Kurdish women’s movement against honor killings has also created shelters for women at risk. More shelters have been opening for women, particularly in Suleimaniya, that have been effective in preventing honor killings.17 In an 2004 article in The Christian Science Monitor, Nicholas Birch described how a young woman escaped from becoming a victim of honor killing to a shelter created by Diakonia on the outskirts of the city of Dohuk.18 Diakonia also helps the women who escape to the shelters find a future when they have no safe place to go and no income to sustain themselves.19 Recent Escalation of Violence In spite of the reformation of the Iraqi Penal Code to criminalize honor killing in Iraqi Kurdistan, honor killings continue to escalate. The Kurdistan Human Rights Ministry reports that honor killings rose from 106 in 2005 to 266 in 2006.20 Activists blame the Kurdish government for not doing enough to protect women. Researcher Shahrzad Mojab agrees that the law has been unsuccessful due to a lack of effective governance. Mojab cites one interviewee who stated, “while male killers did not hide themselves before the resolution, now they no longer show off, and it is therefore difficult to identify them.” A 2007 article entitled “Kurds Speak Out Against Honor Killing of Women” describes how Kurdish women activists in Erbil, Iraq, are using an art exhibit of instruments typically used in honor killings to educate the public about this horrific act.22 In one of the stories included in the exhibit, a 17-year-old girl named Do’a Khalil, from the Yazidi sect, was stoned to death for being in love with a Muslim boy. Men from her community used cinder blocks to crush her skull and recorded their actions with their cell phone cameras.23 Chilura Hardi, the art exhibit organizer, “is trying to sustain the public outrage that followed Do’a Khalil’s death and change a culture that condones violence against women.”24 Hardi maintains that it is important to teach children at an early age that there is no difference between female and male in order for women to be seen as fully human. While it has been challenging for Hardi to reach out to adult males in the community, she stated that she feels encouraged by comments from men who have attended the exhibit who assert that “any man who sees the exhibition will be changed.”

Jan 27, 2010

Training of Trainers

Entry 1

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.