We spoke with Antoinette Uwimana, the Country Director for Women for Women International – Rwanda to reflect on the journey women in Rwanda have taken since the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. After surviving the sexual and gender-based violence that comes with conflict, women were left with the burden of rebuilding their lives. Join us in remembering the history, strides, and long-term investment women in Rwanda have made in peace, tolerance, understanding, and the stability of their communities.
The first thing we do is help women find hope.
We work with the most marginalized women but also women who have been impacted by the conflict and genocide in Rwanda.
After the genocide, lives were shattered completely. There was so much destruction of their lives, of the things that would help them survive.
Life had to start fresh for people, especially women. Some were left with orphans, many left with nothing. Women were traumatized. Some had physical wounds or were sexually traumatized. A high number of women were raped. They lost parents, husbands, or maybe they had husbands involved in the conflict. If not, they are carrying the history of the conflict in their families.
It was a critical moment for our communities. When Zainab Salbi began the Signature Program in Rwanda in 1997, women who were most affected by the genocide became a priority.
Women needed food, medicine, love — everything.
So this is why we start with hope: If someone does not have hope for life, they can’t build peace into their communities. Some women felt completely isolated because of trauma or mistrust in the community. They feel like, “Maybe it’s not even worth me living because no one cares about me or my history or that people have killed my family.”
We bring women together in a space that is a peaceful so they can form meaningful friendships as they build skills, and they make their own hope. They care about each other and realize that not only do they matter, they have power.
People with hope — they get together, they work together.
Integrating women into communities is restoring peace.
Learning how to support women’s healing and connections required the program to grow. We started with the cash transfer and stipend program, and by following the lead of our sister organization in Bosnia, a country also healing from conflict at the time. From women in Bosnia, we understood that women didn’t just need cash; they needed support to reclaim social power. They needed to build economic skills so they could continue to grow after their year in the program.
In Rwanda, the program evolved in the same way. Big donors like Bloomberg Philanthropies and Oprah Winfrey also helped us grow, especially between 2000 and 2017. We were able to make changes like teaching women to use calculators and phones as part of their business training. The savings trainings evolved to teach women to form Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs). Most recently, we have introduced digital components to the VSLAs, that we will likely expand.
Evaluations and research have been crucial to our evolution to meet women’s needs.
Evaluations helped us identify that women needed advanced coaching and training to make their vocational skills viable. We introduced other elements, too, such as linking with private sector partners like Marriott Hotels. These partnerships have been key to supporting women. It opens a door for them to get interviews and placed in jobs.
On the economic side, conflict is part of what pushed women to the margins. They became excluded from opportunities. Supporting them with dignity builds peace in the longer-term because women become able to take care of their families and then educate their families. Many become educated themselves.
Women invest in stability. Their children now have food, can access medical care, and go to school. They grow up with peace in their homes, as women learn to demand their rights from men in their household and by engaging men to be allies. This has a long-term impact as they grow up seeing women make decisions at home and for their businesses.
And when women have the power to make decisions, they do it to take care of the people around them. They make good choices in their community. From the classroom, they bring the power and connections they’ve made with each other to build trust and harmony among community members. If people cannot trust each other, it’s difficult to build reconciliation.
Many women who graduated from the program have gone on to become leaders in their village councils. As women contribute to their community, there is less burden on people and less conflict while building more support for everyone.
Eventually, that all grows. With hope, women can see a vision in which they can make decisions on a national level. Women realize they can be leaders. That’s important to building lasting peace.
*All images above taken pre-COVID