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Female Empowerment in Crisis Areas: An Interview with Women for Women x This Place

Im Gespräch 02.08.22 11 min. read

Female empowerment in crisis areas:
“We invest in the sustainable empowerment and self-confidence of women."


"Female empowerment" is a hot topic in the business world. In this context, it’s as an emphatic demand and firm objective.  

But women's empowerment extends far beyond equal rights in the world of work and careers. For almost 30 years, the women's rights organisation Women for Women International has been illustrating what it means when women stand up for other women, in order to make basic things like education, health or knowing their own rights accessible.

In an interview with This Place, Caroline Kent, Executive Director of Women for Women International Germany, talks about how the organisation helps women look to the future educated, empowered and encouraged.

1. For almost 30 years, the women's rights organisation Women for Women International has tirelessly stood by a particularly vulnerable group: female war survivors. How did the foundation come about in 1993? 

We were founded about 30 years ago during the wars in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia. Our founder Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American human rights activist, realised that being a woman in a modern conflict is often more dangerous than being a soldier. 

That is why Zainab Salbi, together with supporters, tried not only to provide food and resources to the encircled women in Sarajevo, but also to give them comfort through messages in the form of letters. In these letters, she wrote that women all over the world were thinking of them. 

Shortly after, we started supporting marginalised women in Rwanda who had lost everything in the genocide there.  

2. In total, Women for Women International has helped more than 500,000 women to escape traumatic experiences and move forward. Step by step, thanks to this support, women are entering a phase of life that allows the wounds of the past to slowly heal. 
Which countries does Women for Women International specialise in? What kind of support does Women for Women International offer?

What we have achieved so far, we have mainly achieved directly on the ground: thanks to our country offices in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan. 

We also work with partner organisations in Ethiopia, Syria, Myanmar. Recently, we have also started helping women in Poland and Ukraine. By the end of 2021, we could reach more than  520,000 women.

But no matter where in the world we help, we want to act quickly, flexibly and innovative. This is also why we launched the Conflict Response Fund (CRF) in 2018. Thanks to this fund, we quickly initiate activities together with local partners to respond to urgent, unmet needs of women survivors of war

For example, in 2019, we launched activities in one of the world's largest refugee camps in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, to support young Rohingya women with vocational training so they can build a livelihood and earn an income. 

We are currently doing something similar in Poland and Ukraine. There, we are supporting our partner organisations in providing holistic assistance to refugee women in order to give them a new perspective in life. To achieve this, we provide shelter, financial support, legal counsel and trauma therapy. 

"In a modern conflict, being a woman is often more dangerous than being a soldier." 

3. Women for Women International operates in different locations in different countries and even on different continents. What does it take to organise a network of helpers across borders? 

It is particularly important to show solidarity and to show that we as women are united by more than we are divided by, no matter where we are in the world. For this, the survivor-centred approach is particularly important - we invest in women and recognise their strength instead of seeing them as "victims". The results of our work further motivate and show what is possible when we invest in women's potential and strength and stick together. 

The support we can offer is one thing, but above all, particularly great networks of solidarity are created among our programme participants when they come together in classes of 25 women. Many of the women stay in touch even after they have finished school and join forces, form savings groups or start businesses in smaller groups

4. Women for Women International supports the women on site with helpers. Who are these helpers? What distinguishes these people?

We are uncompromising on this point: we work exclusively with professional, experienced and empathetic people who enjoy the trust of the communities in which we help. They understand the situation on the ground, are very familiar with it. This aspect is crucial for us.  

Many of the trainers who run a programme today have been through the programme themselves before. This is also the case with Audry Shematsi, our former country office manager in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Audry started her step back into life as a participant in our "Stronger Women, Stronger Nations" programme. In the end, she became the head of an office with more than 40 employees. 

13 countries, 1 goal: helping women in need.

5. What obstacles does the organisation and its helpers face? And to what extent do helpers themselves receive support, for example at the political or legal level?

Well, the conditions under which we work are not only difficult, but also complex. That's why we have to be particularly flexible and adaptable. Of course, the safety of our colleagues and programme participants has absolute priority

And yet, many of our helpers have experienced traumatic scenes, have had to flee themselves - including our colleagues from South Sudan. 

And in Afghanistan, our colleagues found themselves in similar situations in the summer of 2021 after the new de facto government took power. Here, together with our global colleagues, we have tried to evacuate many colleagues.

In order not to lose hope despite such circumstances, we offer psychosocial support for our programme participants as well as for our colleagues.

I was very moved to see how much solidarity we received from other supporters and friendly organisations during this time.

Women for Women International also sees itself as an advocacy organisation.  That is why we are in close contact with political representatives in Germany. In this way, we want to improve the framework conditions for marginalised women affected by conflicts.  

6. Health, hygiene, nutrition and contraception - the aspects in which Women for Women International educates women show what absurdly basic information is still lacking. How do adult women react when, after years or even decades of being cut off from education and information, this knowledge is shared with them?

There is no universal answer to this question. Because despite quite comparable experiences in life, every woman reacts individually. 

But there is one development we almost always observe: In our experience, women not only accept the knowledge well, they even pass this knowledge on to their families and communities. On average, a woman shares her new knowledge with three other people from her environment.

The numbers also support this success: for example, in a survey of our "Stronger Women, Stronger Nations" programme in 202082% of female graduates in Rwanda reported practising active family planning. When they enrolled in this programme, on the other hand, the figure was only 62%

Here it becomes particularly clear: the knowledge acquired gives the women more independence, more self-confidence. At the same time, it creates a ripple effect on entire communities.

Henriette, one of our course participants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told us that the health promotion course helped her to give herself and her family a more balanced diet and to introduce small changes in everyday life. And thanks to the reproductive health courses, she now understands her body better and knows how to take better care of it. 

From participant to trainer:  Thanks to the programmes by Women for Women International, many women not only take their fate into their own hands. They share their newly acquired knowledge to show other women the path to independence.

7. Caroline, allow a very figurative thought experiment:
If Women for Women International had not been active in 2021, what would have been the consequences for women in war zones?

To illustrate the impact of Women for Women International, we need to talk about numbers: If it wasn’t for us, 20,614 women would not have participated in our programmes. 

And in concrete terms, this means that they would have had to skip meals and would have had far fewer opportunities to protect their health. We would not have been able to provide support during the Covid 19 pandemic, where we gave women the means to protect themselves and their families through special health education and financial support. We distributed over 5,900 hygiene kits, provided over 80,000 masks - almost 50,000 of which were made by the participants themselves - and over 6,000 women received additional cash payments to feed themselves and their families.

In Afghanistan, too, the lack of action by Women for Women International would have had devastating consequences. Here, the new de facto government took Kabul on the 15th of August. A date that changed everything. In Afghanistan, we made sure that particularly vulnerable women staff members of our organisation could go into hiding or be evacuated. Fortunately, it was only thanks to generous donations that we were able to resume our programmes in January 2022. We have supported the women with cash and seeds for vegetable cultivation to feed themselves and their families during the crisis. Currently, almost 2000 women are enrolled in the programmes in Afghanistan.

8. Women for Women International consciously focuses on getting men on board as well to prevent women from experiencing protection, acceptance and respect only in a kind of "Women for Women International bubble". By the end of 2020, the organisation was able to convince around 40,000 male family members and leaders to stand up for women. This socio-cultural shift is no easy feat even in affluent countries like Germany. But what does this success mean for the countries you help?

We work in regions with deeply rooted patriarchal structures. Regions where girls grow up believing that they are worth less than their brothers. To put it more bluntly, we are talking about misogynistic violencegender discrimination and structural disadvantage. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles that deny women access to a self-determined life. 

Thanks to our experience on the ground, we know about the prejudices or attitudes of many fathers, brothers and husbands. 

This is exactly why our special "Men's Engagement Programme" is designed to actively involve men and thus make them take responsibility. We strengthen their understanding that they themselves benefit when their wives become more self-determined and earn their own money. 

At this point, Francis, a community leader from South Sudan, comes to mind. Francis shows that our "Men's Engagement Programme" can support precisely the intrinsic motivation of men to move their communities forward. He has publicly spoken out against forced marriages. In doing so, Francis has strengthened a future where his children and grandchildren have a life of opportunity. His stance had a decisive impact on his community. 

Our studies also show how successful our programme is for men: after completing the programme, 75% more men expressed a positive attitude towards women's participation in decision-making than at the beginning!

Yes, it is an incredibly long process. But it has a lasting effect! We have seen many times that our holistic approach produces real change in communities: Women are not just having their say more in their own homes. Rather, they become a part of society. They are included in decisions and can bring their sense of peaceful coexistence there, for example. 

On average, a woman shares her new knowledge gained from the programme with three other people from her environment.

9. During your one-year mentoring programme, women are trained in health and legal topics as well as learning economically relevant skills. These three pillars are complemented by a support network. Tell us more about this programme, Caroline!

Our “Stronger Women, Stronger Nations” mentoring programme lasts one year. This duration is deliberately chosen. Because we want to promote the long-term independence of women in the best possible way. Our approach here is to invest in women and in their economic power so that they can earn their own money and lead a self-determined life. We know from our decades of experience that this works. 

"Stronger Women, Stronger Nations" is a holistic programme.  It therefore encompasses almost all areas of life. This includes legal knowledge, health, income and savings as well as self-confidence. The programme is of course adapted to the respective circumstances and conditions on site. 

Similar to vocational training, experienced trainers guide the participants through the programme. In this way, we give the participating women the chance to earn a regular and secure income. 

And then something happens in each group that is a magical moment for me: when 25 women who were previously on their own, who have experienced similar things, who have experienced exclusion and trauma, poverty and violence, come together, you can literally watch the women gain confidence and self-esteem through the shared exchange and mutual support.  

Investing in women and their economic power works. We know this from our decades of experience.

People all over the world can make it possible for a woman to participate in this one-year training by making a monthly donation. We call this "Sponsor a Sister". As part of this sponsorship, the sponsors have the opportunity to write personal letters to their sister.  

10. At This Place, we believe that regular self-care is one of the anchors for being strong for others. What do you think, Caroline, Self-Care means for the participants of the mentoring programme?

Self-care – both mental and physical health – is also one of the anchor points in our programmes. After all, our programme participants are often women who themselves do most, if not all, of the care work. In their everyday lives so far, they have learned that they have to think of others first before they are allowed to think of themselves. For this reason, participation in our programmes strengthens the women's self-confidence.  Also in that they learn how important it is to do something good for themselves; not to always put themselves in second place.

For us, self-care also means that the women experience that someone is thinking about them: their trainers, other participants and, of course, their sponsors from Germany, who send them encouraging, valuable lines in letters.

In addition, Wormen for Women International offers support in health issues to promote the idea of self-care. Among other things, we facilitate regular breast cancer screenings and impart knowledge about nutrition and care

11. With the help of so-called change agents, women are trained in leadership and advocacy skills. How are women, who previously grew up in communities where many of them were not only discriminated against but downright oppressed, prepared for this role? And what can we learn from them?

Change agents first go through our general one-year training programme. Afterwards, an election takes place:  The class chooses the woman who will participate in our advanced training. 

During this training, the chosen women learn important skills. These include advocacy, leadership skills and social participation. In this way, the women develop into advocates for the women of their communities. This development is based on a solid foundation. Together with their classmates, the aspiring change agents have learned to stand up for their rights and understand the value of their work. 

At the same time, the transfer of knowledge and experience is anything but one-sided! There are many remarkable examples that reflect the unlikely resilience and strength of these women. For example, a group of change agents in the district of Kicukiro (Rwanda) has pointed out that "informal marriages", i.e. marriages that are not officially entered into before the law, are the greatest obstacle to women knowing their rights and also claiming them for themselves. Without the "protection" of a legally secured marriage, women quickly encounter insurmountable difficulties when it comes to inheritance, land ownership, custody and financial security

The change agents therefore introduced awareness-raising measures without further ado. These measures educate people about the importance and advantages of a formal marriage. To do this, they brought on board both women and men from their community, as well as local leaders. Together, they debunk the prejudices against official marriage and educate about the disadvantages of "informal marriage".

So far, in their everyday life, they have learned that they have to think of others first before they are allowed to think of themselves. Participation in our programmes strengthens the women's self-confidence for this reason.

12. In 2023, Women for Women International will look back on 30 years of empowerment. What goal would the organisation like to achieve by then?

Working for Women for Women International, unfortunately, means that the need often exceeds what we can do. That is why our goal is always to reach as many women as possible. And to lay the foundation for a self-determined life with them. It is no surprise when I say at this point that we are also dependent on donations for this.  

This year, more people are affected by flight and displacement than ever before: 

We currently count 22 active wars and more than 100 million people on the run. During the covid pandemic, many women - also in Germany - had to take on more unpaid care work. A piece of reality that has led to backward steps in gender equality. 

For us, this means that we have to change the global framework. It is time to recognise the special importance of women and equality when it comes to living in peace and prosperity. For all.  This aspect must be brought even more into the focus of development and foreign policy

In addition to fundraising, we therefore seek dialogue with decision-makers in the political arena again and again. We want to sensitise them to align German, European and ultimately also global efforts more strongly with the needs of particularly marginalised women in conflict countries.