In the minds of many, Rwanda is fixed in time—frozen as it was in 1994 at the end of a genocide that claimed over 800,000 people and saw nearly 500,000 women raped in one hundred days. Perhaps we have not revisited this country’s story because the truth was so painful; Rwanda is, after all, a shameful reminder of how little the world did to help as millions were murdered, tortured, and displaced.
It’s time now to look again at Rwanda. Just fourteen years after the horrific genocide that tore this nation apart, Rwanda is a country rebuilt and revived. Its triumphant success story holds many lessons for the rest of the world: namely, that women are crucial in the rehabilitation and healing of any war-torn country.
The genocide in Rwanda literally left the women behind to pick up the pieces. After the violence subsided in 1994, 70 percent of the remaining population of Rwanda were women. If communities were going to survive and if the country was ever going to recover, it was up to them to make it happen. They forced themselves to face the inconceivable and they rebuilt. It was women who cleaned the dead bodies from the streets, women who rebuilt the homes, and women who solved the national orphan crisis—over 500,000 children with nowhere to go. Nearly every woman took at least one child into her home.
When Women for Women International began working in Rwanda in 1997, it was clear that women needed the skills to rebuild their country. Over the past eleven years, over 21,000 women have gone through our intensive one year sponsorship program where they were matched with a “sister” overseas who sent them $27 a month and a letter to support her emotional transformation. The direct aid each month addresses the woman’s immediate economic needs such as feeding her children or paying for school fees. During her intensive training, she is grouped with twenty other women from her community and receives job skills training and women’s rights education. At the end of the year, the woman is able to stand on her own feet and has moved from victim of war to a survivor, and an active citizen in her community.
After just one year in Women for Women International’s program, participants’ lives have improved tremendously. Seventy-one percent say their economic situation is better, 49 percent say that they plan to start their own business, and 99 percent of the women feel that their health and families’ health have improved.
Each year I invite supporters of Women for Women International to join me in an excursion to see the beauty and learn from the strength of Rwanda. During the trip, we will meet women who have risen up against their horrific memories, damaged bodies, and pain to rebuild their lives and their communities after war. We will be inspired in discussions with Rwanda’s women leaders, who put in place one of the world’s most progressive gender policies so that the country’s women could build a more just and peaceful future, making Rwanda a model in the global arena. Currently Rwanda boasts a parliament that is 49 percent female.
It took the world more than a decade to start talking publicly about the genocide in Rwanda and to face the world’s passive acquiescence to the horrors that took place there. Let us not wait another ten years to acknowledge Rwanda’s lessons about the importance of women’s participation in the rebuilding of a country, and implement those lessons as we focus on the humanitarian crises before us today and those that lie ahead.
This year, Divine Caroline contributor Lisa Nastasi is joining us on our journey to Rwanda. Here she will share her thoughts and impressions as she meets with the courageous women who continue to inspire me. I hope her words will inspire you.
Zainab Salbi is the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, an international non-profit organization dedicated to providing women survivors of war, civil strife, and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies. To learn more about the organization and how to sponsor a woman in a war-torn country visit their Web site.