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Voices from the Field: Rwanda Under Lockdown

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, we are hearing from our global colleagues about how the crisis is affecting them and the women they serve.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Women for Women International?

My name is Clemence Bideri, I am the Economic Empowerment Manager at Women for Women International in Rwanda. My day to day job involves working with marginalized women – most of whom have not been to school – to improve their financial independence and become successful entrepreneurs.

Clemence Bideri, our Economic Empowerment Manager at Women for Women International in Rwanda. Photo: Serrah Galos
Clemence Bideri, our Economic Empowerment Manager at Women for Women International in Rwanda. Photo: Serrah Galos

How is the Coronavirus affecting daily life and your work in Rwanda?

The government acted very quickly after the first case was reported on 14th March, restricting people from moving around and traveling to work. On Monday 16th we were required to close our offices in Kigali, and we also had to suspend our training programs to limit the spread of the disease. Our staff team immediately had to adjust to working from home, which was new for most of us.

Before our training programs were suspended, our trainers were able to reach out to the elected group leaders from each class and set up a system to communicate with them every day.

"Group leaders have their own mobile phones, unlike most of our program participants - so we asked them to report to us regularly on behalf of their group and community. We share these updates amongst our team so we can decide how best to respond and provide support."

We have had to immediately provide additional airtime for staff, because they are making so many more calls than usual, and we are asking them to be connected and online all the time. We don’t know how long this will go on for - we have planned for the lockdown lasting for the next couple of months, in the best-case scenario, and we are committed to sustaining this level of contact and support.

We are also using phone-trees to pass on health information and guidelines from the government, so women know how to protect themselves and their families from coronavirus. In the future, if all participants and graduates had their own phones, we could use SMS to stay in contact and share information that is tailored for them, and women could easily connect with each other.

How are the women we serve coping during this crisis period?

One positive is that the government stepped in quickly, and local authorities are identifying those people who are vulnerable and distributing supplies to them. As Women for Women International, we are hoping to support this initiative in the districts where we work.

Additionally, we have been talking to graduates and participants who are trained in tailoring, to see if they can start producing face masks, which we can buy in bulk and supply to the local authorities. They are working out how to measure and cut the fabric, how many masks it will yield, how much time will it take to make each mask, and at the end of the day how much they should sell each item for to make a profit, based on all of those calculations. The masks can then be distributed at health centers, and included with packages of food and supplies sent to vulnerable people.

"Ordinary Rwandans cannot afford the disposable face masks being sold in pharmacies, so if we can provide fabric ones that can be rewashed and reused, this is one way our women can support the wider country."

Women for Women International - Rwanda program participants work on their cooperative farm. Photo: Serrah Galos
Women for Women International - Rwanda program participants work on their cooperative farm. Photo: Serrah Galos

Do you think our training program has helped to prepare women for the challenges they are currently facing?

Yes, definitely. The women who have gone through our program have been trained in how to work in networks and support each other when they have problems, which is crucial at this time.  

Last year we began establishing graduate networks across the seven districts where we operate, connecting women who have been through our program who can act as advocates in their communities and share knowledge and ideas. So far about 40,000 graduates are now part of self-sufficient networks, operating independently of Women for Women International, and they are reporting back to us and giving us recommendations.  

For example, in Nyaruguru, many of our graduates are involved in agribusiness. The government has said that this sector is an essential service, and since we cannot stop the rain from falling, Rwandans must continue with their agricultural activities, whilst also being very careful to practice social distancing while working in fields and taking other safety and hygiene precautions. Our graduate networks are telling us that they have organized themselves into smaller groups who take turns to farm, so 10 women will go on Monday and maintain a safe distance from each other, then another 10 on Tuesday, and so on.  Our program gives them the connections, confidence and skills to analyze the issues that they are facing and find solutions together. 

"Our graduates have organized themselves into smaller groups who take turns to farm, keeping a safe distance."

What other challenges are women facing during the lockdown?

During this time rates of domestic violence are shooting up, because many people are finding themselves penniless and hopeless in this situation, and they are locked up together. Based on our training, our participants and graduates know the signs to look for, they are able to support each other and share advice, resources and information about service providers.   

We are also talking to the men we work with through our Men’s Engagement Program, who are helping us a lot during this period, because they are able to challenge harmful attitudes that cause violence. For example, if a woman cannot go out to work in her cooperative business, so she is unable to earn money for the household, it doesn’t mean she is useless. If the husband has been laid off from his manual work and loses his income, it doesn’t mean he is less of a man. These lessons about gender roles and relationships that they have learned in our program, are really strengthening men and women in their daily lives right now. 

Marie Claire, Program Participant from Rwanda

Your gift can help provide critical items such as a mobile phone and SIM card with credit for women to stay in touch with local staff and women in their communities to share information about COVID-19.