8 November, 2016 – H.E. Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda, and the First Lady Mrs. Claudine Talon of Benin, toured the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center near Kayonza today. They wanted to see firsthand how the center is contributing to the social and economic development of marginalized women in the community.
Built and operated by Women for Women International (WfWI) with the generous funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies and others, the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center provides a safe environment and dedicated facilities where women can learn, build new skills, and operate businesses that directly contribute to Rwanda’s economic growth.
“This is a high-level profile event for the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center,” said Antoinette Uwimana, Country Director of Women for Women International, Rwanda. “It was an honor that she came to see what we are doing and perhaps to use our work as a model for what she could potentially do for the people of Benin."
More than 90 graduates of WfWI’s training program for women lined the entrance to greet the first ladies, who were accompanied by Judith Kazayire, Governor of the Eastern Province, and Jean Claude Murenzi, Mayor of the Kayonza District. Mutima W’Urugop, a local musical group, played drums and sang songs in honor of the visitors.
Mrs. Uwimana welcomed the first ladies before a large map of the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center. She explained WfWI’s mission and the organization’s vision for the center.
The group and the first ladies looked on as a a large group of men and women participated in a Men’s Engagement Program training session. The trainer provided an overview of the impact of the program, which educates men about women’s rights, gender equality, and the importance of preventing gender-based violence.
One participant, a village leader from Kinkoronko, in the Kayonza District, shared how the Men’s Engagement Program changed his life. The man’s wife was a graduate of WfWI’s core training program for women. His family was about to break because of conflicts at home, when WfWI trainers invited him to participate in the Men’s Engagement Program. The training changed his perspective, the conflicts with his wife subsided, and he decided to keep his family together. The couple now make household decisions together, such as finances and family healthcare, the participant proudly saying, “My family life has improved and we are developing.”
The first ladies and their local hosts then visited one of the craft-making spaces, with training carried out by partners such as Gahaya Links. These circular structures build with locally made bricks were designed by award winning architect Sharon Davis specifically to accommodate Rwandan women artisans, who prefer to work together in a circle on the floor.
The artisans presented the first ladies and their entourage with examples of the Imigongo art-form, which has been made by local Rwandan people since the 18th century. The artist creates a spiral design using cow dung, then transfers the spiral to a wood base and paints it in traditional colors of black, white and red. The spiral represents togetherness, with the center point signifying the family’s role at the center of community.
The first ladies were then presented with baskets also made by women at the center. More than 50 basket weavers demonstrated their skill for the visitors, constructing intricate baskets using traditional forms and designs. Monique Mukarukwaya, an elder and artisan weaver, expressed her gratitude to the first lady of Rwanda and her husband, saying her life has improved thanks to their leadership.
The tour continued through the center’s water catchment area and solar system, to the eco-lodge and restaurant that host both leisure and business travelers. In the food processing facilities, where women produce organic peanut butter, cheese and yogurt, Monique Muhorakeye demonstrated the yogurt-making process.
Market stalls erected by the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center line the entrance just off the main road, enabling women to display and sell their handmade products. The first ladies and the Governor spent quite some wandering through the marketplace, admiring the crafts and talking with the artisans.
“This important visit has a direct impact on our sisters here in the community and among the women who learn at the Urugo Women’s Opportunity Center,” said Mrs. Uwimana. “This visit not only gives market exposure for our commercial products, like crafts, food products, restaurants, and the eco-lodge, it will also help us engage with more potential partners and donors, so we can expand our program activities and continue to improve the lives of more women and men in the community.”
The first ladies’ concluded their visit at an outdoor table by the center’s Roadside Café, where they signed the visitor book as the crowds looked on. In elegant script, H.E. Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda, wrote, “Mukora ibintu byiza cyane: You do great things.” Mrs. Claudine Talon, the First Lady of Benin, inscribed, “Felicitations pour toutes ces oeuvres. Courage pour la suite: Congratulations for all your deeds. Keep it up.”