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Women for Women International: A Guiding light for Women Survivors
By Kwadjo Boaitey

The AFRican's Kwadjo Boaitey gives a brief genocidal history of Rwanda, a country still suffering from the splurge of genocide in 1994, and has a chat with Ricki Weisberg of Women for Women International:

Ever hear an economist or politician say that he or she can always tell how healthy and prosperous a nation is by how it treats its women? Ricki Weisberg, spokesperson for Women for Women International (WFWI), will tell you that "it is important to ascertain the status of women in a country in order to see where a country is going. "

She points to Rwanda, where genocide in 1994 caused the deaths of 800, 000 people in a short 100 days. UNIFEM, The United Nations Development Fund for Women, reports that "few events since World War II could be compared with the Rwandan genocide in terms of the horror and scale of the massacre and the worldwide shock that ensued. "According to UNIFEM, ten percent of the population was massacred. Rwandan women were raped and murdered on a massive scale, with men making up the majority of murder victims.

In a visit to Rwanda earlier this year, Zanaib Salbi, founder and CEO of WFWI, was surprised to learn that 70 percent of the remaining population in Rwanda are women, and that the job of rebuilding the war torn country was one that these women took very seriously. Salbi wrote in an editorial for The San Francisco Chronicle that "Women solved the country's national orphan crisis by every woman taking at least one child into her home. "

In response, Rwandan president, Paul Kagame issued a mandate that 30 percent of the parliamentary seats should be held by women. Due in part to the lack of able bodied men as well as the recognition of women actively nursing the country back to health, Salbi observed and wrote "today, Rwandan women represent 49.9 percent of the country's lower house of parliament, a larger percentage than any other country in the world.

Rwanda is still a relatively poor country. It faces great challenges like overcoming trauma from the genocide and decreasing the escalation of women and children living with HIV/AIDS as a result of rape and abuse. However, the growing representation of women in government has proved inspiring for its people, African neighbors and the world.

The AFRican Magazine's Kwadjo Boaitey had a chat with Ricki Weisberg, spokesperson for Woman for Woman International by phone about its global initiative to improve the status of women by working with women survivors of war.

AFRican: What is Women for Women International?
Weisberg: Women for Woman International is an international non-profit organization that works with women survivors of war. Our objective is to move women from being victims to survivors [and from there,] to active citizens. We do this by enrolling the most socially excluded women in these countries (we don't use the term poor) in a one year sponsorship program where they are matched with women all over the world.

For instance, a woman in Philadelphia will be matched with a woman in Rwanda. The woman in Philadelphia will send her Rwandan sister $27 dollars a month. The money is a hand up rather than a hand out. It's merely enough for the woman in Rwanda or in other war torn countries to catch her breath.

The woman from Rwanda will receive $20 cash and the rest of the money will go to support the programs she will be utilizing. The programs include: job skills training, and rights awareness training or life skills. Every other week she meets with twenty other women enrolled in the program, and they explore women's rights in politics, the role of women in society, women and nutrition, health, topics that resonate with them and apply to their daily lives.

Job skills training varies from country to country. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the women learn tie-dye, batik, and tile making. In Rwanda the women learn basket weaving, and carpentry. In Sudan they are learning to be bee keepers. Each country is different depending on their individual market.

They also receive a letter from their sponsor each month that creates an emotional connection. It provides incredible emotional support for the women knowing that someone living so far away cares about them.

After the women have completed the program, they graduate and we help them start small businesses. In some countries we are able to provide micro credit lending. We help the women become self sufficient.

AFRican: How do women in these areas find out about WFWI?
Weisberg: In the Congo for instance, there are hundreds of women at our center wanting to enroll in the program, but we can't enroll these women unless we are able to match them with a sponsor. Women are finding out about our program largely by word of mouth, from other graduates, and by presentations Zanaib Salbi makes. Sometimes in new communities we talk with chiefs, community leaders, pastors, and imams. It really depends on where we are.

AFRican: How does WFWI get in and provide services in a war torn or postwar countries?
Weisberg: We work in conflict and post conflict areas. For example, we are in Bosnia and the Bosnian war ended over ten years ago. We are also in the Congo which is very much a hot conflict zone. The key to our success is that our staff is entirely local. In Congo our staff is entirely Congolese. They live there. So when we, those of us on the management team from Washington DC and London, go there, we drive second hand cars, not big SUVs with our name splashed on the sides. We travel like the people. We go in and people don't really notice.

The true heroes are our staff in the field. It is unbelievable to see and hear what they do to deliver our program on a daily basis. We still have an office in Baghdad. We are still providing services in Iraq.

Zanaib Salbi, who is Iraqi and knows firsthand what they are going through, said that it is too dangerous to be in Iraq. We can shut this down and open again at another time. But our Iraqi staff, the women said please do not shut us down. If you do we will die, they said. We need to have something to do. We need to have a part in making this a better place. That was four years ago and we're still there.

AFRican: It is hard maintaining an uplifting perspective in a world climate that seems to equate war or the use of force as a normal and necessary means. It is harder still to see images and hear stories day in and day out of women being brutalized, raped, and used as sex slaves. What sustains your hope? What keeps you coming to work? What makes you believe that we can and will progress?
Weisberg: Every morning when I wake up I listen to the news as most people do and the state of the world is extremely depressing. But who am I not to have hope? I met a woman when I was in Rwanda. She was a survivor of the genocide. She hid in a church during a massacre and smeared blood all over herself and her children. She and her children lay among dead bodies on the floor to hide from people trying to kill her. I met her this past spring and she has started two small businesses, employed other women and it's all through her sponsorship fund. She started a truth and reconciliation committee because the people who were part of the genocide were moving back into the community. She thought to herself that we are all neighbors and we must get along. So she, a group of women who went through the program with her and the community get together to meet with the intention of forgiving one another on a daily basis. It's unbelievable. They've now started a cooperative weaving company and are making baskets together. This woman lost her husband in the genocide, but she has hope for the future because her children will have a better life. She can now send them to school and she knows that things are going to be okay.

Whenever I'm feeling down or depressed I think about these women and realize that by helping one woman you can really make a huge difference in this world. These women are so hopeful; there is no way that we can't be hopeful.

AFRican: Do you have programs for men?
Weisberg: We do. A few years ago our office in Nigeria started a men's leadership program. It was an intensive program that included chiefs, traditional leaders, religious leaders, etc. and focused on why it is important to involve women, why it is important to consider women's rights in your community and how this benefits you as a leader. From this program they have been able to stop female genital cutting in many communities in Nigeria. We've implemented the program in Iraq and the Congo.

AFRican: What are some of the challenges WFWI faces?
Weisberg: Daily challenges like being able to access our participants while a war is going on. But honestly, our biggest challenge is getting enough sponsors, women from the United States and around the world who want to support these women for a year. We have so many women who want to join the program, who need help and we can't bring them on board without a sponsor. Today we have over 23,000 sponsors. That's a lot, but we need more and men can be sponsors too.

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Women for Women International is currently working in nine countries: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Nigeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. To learn more, go to womenforwomen.org and become a sponsor.

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