In just 100 days in Rwanda beginning on April 6, over 800,00 people were brutally murdered in an ethnic cleansing campaign. This year we mark the 25th Anniversary of the beginning of that massacre. At Women for Women International, we choose to learn from the women who survived the worst moment in Rwanda’s history. The challenge of creating a lasting peace depended greatly on the actions of women, who were the majority of survivors.
Since our inception, Women for Women International has been on the front lines, responding to marginalized women in countries affected by war and conflict. Our work in Rwanda began in 1997, in the aftermath of the devastating 1994 Genocide. In just 100 days in Rwanda beginning on April 6, over 800,00 people were brutally murdered in an ethnic cleansing campaign. (To learn more on the genocide click here) This year we mark the 25th Anniversary of the beginning of that massacre. At Women for Women International, we choose to learn from the women who survived the worst moment in Rwanda’s history. The challenge of creating a lasting peace depended greatly on the actions of women, who were the majority of survivors.
Violette is one of those women. After graduating from our yearlong social and economic empowerment program, she’s utilized the skills and knowledge she gained to create sustainable change for herself, her family, and community.
As armed militias started fomenting a civil war in Rwanda, the country disintegrated into chaos, as Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups clashed on the streets and in homes across the country. As the chaos closed in, Violette was alone with her children. Her husband was working three hours away in Kigali where he could earn a better living than in their small village. Violette instantly knew they were in grave danger.
Carrying her two children in her arms, she fled to a nearby church where she thought she and her family would be safe. Instead of finding sanctuary, Violette and her family walked into a nightmare.
"There were shootings going on, and people were falling on others and dying everywhere," Violette said.
The church was under attack by a machete-wielding militia. To survive, Violette was forced to lie down in the aisle and smear blood on herself and her children. Pretending to be dead, they hid among the corpses. Afraid to move, to cry, to even breathe, they stayed there for an entire week until the Rwandan army came to liberate the area. Violette estimated that there were 700 people in that church and only 20 survived.
In the chaos and violence, Violette’s husband was brutally murdered. She was left to raise their five-year-old son and four-year-old girl. Like so many other women in Rwanda, Violette decided to take in a child orphaned during the Genocide.
With little support, she tried to rebuild her life. She farmed other people’s land and barely earned enough to feed herself and children, let alone have enough money left over to pay for school or buy essentials like medicine and clothing for her family.
The Path to Healing and Prosperity
In 2004, Violette learned about Women for Women International’s programs. She enrolled and was matched with a sponsor in the United States - a woman named Liz, a Boston mother of two. Liz pledged to support Violette’s trainings via her monthly sponroship, a portion of which also helped her pay for food, school fees for the children, and clothing.
As the year progressed, Violette flourished. She learned marketable job skills and honed her innate leadership abilities. Despite having only a high school education, Violette had become a local businesswoman and a leader in her community.
Using sponsorship dollars that Liza contributed to Women for Women International, Violette expanded her fledgling operation of harvesting sorghum, a local grain, into a full-fledged business of making sorghum-based drinks. Violette’s business savvy does not stop there; she also has harvested beans. She used half to feed her family and the other half she sold to make a profit.
Before joining Women for Women International, Violette would have never imagined she could own and operate a thriving business. "It was only through this program that I realized I could start my own business," Violette said recently. “My business allows me to pay school fees for my children, to send them to school” she said. Having begun but never graduated from high school, Violette is determined to see that her children are educated.
In a move not typical for a woman in Rwanda, Violette applied for, and was awarded, a bank loan of $370 to bring water to her business and to her community from a water pipe that runs through her community. Although the pipe ran directly through the community, there was no accessible tap. A scarcity of potable water in her village meant that women would have to walk for hours to reach a water tap. In Rwanda, women can spend hours of their day walking to get water and then carrying the heavy jugs back to their homes.
Violette has now graduated from Women for Women International but the lessons she learned are still a part of her. In fact, she has become the president of a local women’s crafts cooperative that is made up of graduates of her rights awareness training group. Violette says she counts on these women as her closest friends and business partners.