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A Stitch in Time Saves Lives

Like the masks made at the Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC), the benefits of the large-scale, Rwandan sewing effort are manyfold. Throughout each week, dozens of Women for Women International graduates put their skills to collective use to sew small, folded fabric rectangles as part of a local effort to create and provide more masks while also earning an income despite the economic impacts of COVID-19.  

In a room at the Women's Opportunity Center in Rwanda, women sit at sewing machines spaced apart for social distancing and sew masks
Graduates making masks at the WOC

Many women who graduated from the program made their livelihoods farming, using business skills to increase their earnings selling food. Though exceptions allowed them to tend to their farms during the stricter lockdowns, limited access to markets to sell products and a decrease in customers were a blow to their income.  

Lessons from training on managing finances, household planning, and being part of household decisions kicked into gear. Florence said, “I am a tailor, and my husband a mason. Since the COVID-19 outbreak started, my husband could not go to work nor could I. If we had not learned how to save and plan together with our partners, I think we would not survive this crisis.”  

Sewing masks at the WOC has given women an opportunity to supplement their income while collaborating with the Rwandan government. It’s no secret that around the world, masks suddenly became a necessity, high in demand with not enough supply. Women everywhere have stepped up to meet that need, and especially in Rwanda.  

Berthilde said, “Being part of the team producing face masks made me proud; I have gained money to survive but mostly, am contributing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic among community members.” 

One man stands in a circle of other men, attending the Men's Engagement Program in Rwanda. They are all wearing masks created by women graduates of the signature program at the Women's Opportunity Center
Participants of the Men's Engagement Program wearing masks produced by graduates at the WOC

The effort started with 23 women, producing a Herculean number of masks at a rate of 800-900 a day. Women for Women International – Rwanda would then purchase these masks from graduates to distribute to local communities.  

Thanks to a partnership with Gahaya Links, 79 more graduates could join the effort. Since May, the group has produced 54,000 masks. 

“Life has changed because we were no longer going to market, where I would sew. So, the income of the household has also decreased,” said another graduate, Leontine. Learning from the financial impacts of coronavirus, Leontine and her savings group have decided to increase their contributions, which will help collectively support each other for future business decisions but also future crises.  

“Fortunately, we have been called to the Urugo (WOC) to make face masks; we regained hope.” 

Using that hope, women in Rwanda invest in the power and future of the people around them. Many graduates educate their friends, family, and community about health, hygiene, and government guidelines to aid prevention. But they share other lessons, as well.  

Jeanette bought a second sewing machine with her income to pass knowledge onto her nieces. “Skills we acquired during our journey with Women for Women International have changed our lives remarkably. I have started my two nieces on tailoring. I taught them myself, and later I hired a trainer to improve their skills.” 

Jeanette, a graduate of Women for Women International, wears a mask while sitting at her sewing machine to create more masks
Jeanette, a graduate of the program in Rwanda, sewing masks

Besides equipping more women with life skills, she is crucial to the resilience of her family. “We have a large family of eight people,” said Jeanette. “My husband is a mason, so he does not have permanent job. But since I have gained skills from the program, I am contributing to the development of our household. We can pay the medical insurance on time.” 

Jeanette, Berthilde, Leontine, Florence, and graduates at the WOC show what happens when women can use their power and combine it. They reinvest it to transform the world around them for the better.  

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