Grace is a 45 year old mother of six and a trainer at the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center located outside Kigali, Rwanda. Today, she beams with confidence, but this wasn’t always the case. To support her family, Grace worked under difficult circumstances as a day laborer on farms for years. She didn’t make nearly enough money to support her family. In fact, they lived in such destitute that she only had a few items of clothing to wear. She was ashamed to participate in community meetings or other events in her village.
Grace felt isolated and alone until she learned about Women for Women International-Rwanda. Through the organization’s year-long program, she learned basket weaving, numeracy and business skills, and about her health and rights. Soon, she could earn a small income, made new friends, and joined a savings group. In this group, women pool their money and take loans for emergencies or to expand their small businesses. The savings groups are truly sisterhood in action! They allow women to have shared wealth, but also to meet regularly and assist each other through difficult times.
Using her income and savings, Grace bought her children school uniforms and started to save money for health expenses. Today she teaches other women basket weaving so that they can rebuild their lives, just like her. But for Grace, the most important part of her journey at WfWI-Rwanda is the sisterhood she has found.
“…we learned how to make new friends and how to work with others in groups,” she says. And now she is paying it forward by teaching her skills to other Rwandan women.
I met Grace when I visited Rwanda with Career Girls, an organization dedicated to raising the capacity of young women around the world. During my trip, I visited the Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC), which is part of WfWI-Rwanda. I have sponsored women through WfWI for many years and this was my second trip to the country office in Rwanda, but what I saw firsthand during this trip was incredibly empowering.
Walking around the center, it was impossible not to feel joy and sisterhood. Every woman I met was committed not only to her own success but to that of every other woman in her community. At the center, women worked collaboratively and learned skills such as yogurt and cheese production, handicraft, and other small businesses. They sold their colorful products including peace baskets, fabrics, décor, and jewelry at the marketplace. There was also a small café with delicious and sustainable coffee. At every part of the center one could hear women laughing and joking with each other as they worked on their products. For me, another highlight of the day was visiting several English classes and interacting with the women. They were proud of their accomplishments and eager to share what they have learned. They even taught me Kinyarwanda!
I had the chance to meet many women and like Grace’s every one of their stories inspired me. WfWI-Rwanda has served more than 75,000 women since 1997. I am sure every one of them has a story as compelling as that of Grace because, as I learned during my trip, Rwandan women are the force behind peace and progress in their country. They are the glue to their families, communities, and their nation and despite conflict, genocide, and discrimination, their resilience and insistence on empowering themselves and their communities is indestructible.
A major theme in the conversations I had with women is that they firmly believe that the circumstances into which one is born should never pre-determine her destiny. The women I met were a testament to the fact that with just a small amount of financial support and encouragement women can transform communities and can raise the standard of living for themselves and their families. They are the embodiment of sisterhood. As they rebuilt their own lives, they simultaneously did the same for the women around them. What happens to their fellow sisters is important to them, no woman must be left behind. I’ve learned important lessons in sisterhood and resilience from the women of Rwanda and I will cherish them forever.
Beverly Thompson is an engineer, a scholar of peacebuilding and development, and an advocate for the rights of women and girls.