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Guest post by Martina Sola

Our adventures continued together that night in this tiny town only a few kilometers away from the border of Serbia, a town which US President Barack Obama would later refer to as a place which “forever will be associated with the darkest acts of in history.”  Despite the experiences which haunt the minds of those who remain, we were greeted with great hospitality.  We dined with new friends in local restaurants and mixed with soldiers, locals, political dignitaries, and international visitors in simple cafés.  We were each different but had come for the same purpose and a valuable common bond was established. 

July 11th marks the official yearly memorial ceremony for thousands who were killed in Srebrenica in July 1995.  This year, 520 people were buried along side another 5,000 already resting in the nearby village of Potocari.  2,000 people remain unaccounted.   One of the longest ongoing human excavation efforts in modern day history continues in surrounding areas. 

It was another fiercely hot afternoon and the town had now filled with thousands who had come to pay their respects.  We walked through mounds of dirt which had been dug to make space for the new caskets.  Despite the heat, women sat with their heads covered and bowed in prayer.  Men greeted one another and stopped to touch the caskets.  Politicians arrived with escorts, police kept close watch on the crowd, and all I could think was that this didn’t have to happen. 

The emotional day continued as we visited two large factories originally meant to be UN Safe Haven’s for refugees attempting to escape Serbian forces.   Tragically, they were no place for peace and instead marked the locations where families were dramatically torn apart.  All men and young boys were sent to their deaths, some women were thrown into buses, and others were kept behind to service the impulses of enemy soldiers.  We continued to a more remote area up narrow, curvy roads and onto nearby mountains which provided breathtaking views.  We met with two older women who had lost their entire families and had been participants of the Women for Women program.  They offered us simple, yet delicious homemade pastries and traditional Bosnian coffee.  We sat on their hand made rugs beside a tiny home where they showed us their garden and shared their stories.  At times their voices wavered and their eyes filled with tears. At other moments they teased each other and smiled warmly upon us.  Their hearts were broken but the strength of virtue in their spirit remained, and while they thanked us generously for our time, it was each of us who walked away with the gift of hope.

Onwards we went with our journey, returning to Sarajevo, a city filled with layer upon layer of history.  The streets were filled with exotic bazaars selling colorful scarves and glimmering copper coffee cups.  The beats of Bosnian music could be heard from nearby shops during the day and by night every corner buzzed with the voices of beautiful people.  It’s hard to imagine that this was a city under siege, but a look closer reveals scars in the forms of shell marks on buildings, eerily abundant gravesites, and wounds on the bodies or in the hearts of many who I spoke to. 

It’s been said that tragedy begets passion and progress forward can be seen.  Attending Women for Women International training centers in the heart of Sarajevo and in nearby Zenica provided examples of women who wanted to create.  It was visible in the form of the clothing pieces I saw being knitted in partnership with international fashion brands such as Kate Spade and Anthropologie.  It was visible in the enthusiasm of women who draped me with beautiful jewelry they had made by hand.  It was evident in the intensity of a legal training session regarding farming cooperative contractual agreements.  It was seen by the proud support of men waiting for their wives to finish their classes. 

We finished the week by attending the Sarajevo Film Festival and by taking part in an inspiring dinner with many of those we had met along the way.  Gifts were shared, speeches were given, business ideas exchanged, friendships forged, and vows declared to return again.

I think back upon the woman I met during my first evening in Srebrenica standing on the side of the dusty road.  An older man walked by the procession with tears streaming down his face.  She reached out to him and said,

“Don’t cry…everything will be OK.”  

This type of strength is a reminder that while we may not always understand the actions of others, we know where we are now and we have a choice.  Women for Women International provides opportunity and through such an organization I have received far more than I could ever give.

Over the next few months, WfWI’s new CEO Afshan Khan will be visiting each of WfWI’s eight country offices and sharing her experiences of the different people and places that are part of WfWI’s mission to change lives, one woman at a time. This is her first blog post on her journey.

In the past few days I have had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan and see first-hand the impact of the work of Women for Women International. In a country that has recently been in the press for the brutal treatment of women, including the public execution of a young woman by the Taliban for alleged adultery, I witnessed the diversity of opportunities for women. As I met and spoke with women there, I was reminded that even in the harsh reality of a country where 90% of rural women are illiterate and maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world at 460 deaths per 100,000 live births (compared to 21 per 100,000 live births in the US) all the women had dreams of a better future for themselves and their daughters. Against all the odds, they had sought change and created opportunity so that as women they could define their destiny.

I found none of the passivity nor victimization that is so readily portrayed in the press – what I found were determined women, who broke barriers to enroll in WfWI’s program, where they learn to sustain an income, improve health and wellness, engage in family and community decision-making, and participate in social networks and safety nets. They continued to challenge the boundaries around them by opening their own business, forming networks or associations, and daring to dream of a future where they can readily earn an income, contribute to their families’ needs, send their sons and daughters to school, and act as agents of change in their own communities. This was the story of Zergona Sherzad a WfWI graduate who was producing women’s clothing and employed more than 80 women. It was the story of Raisa Jahn and Mehbooba Jahn who welcomed us to their modest home in Kabul where in the front room they had set up a very small beauty parlor where they cut hair, shape brows, and provide make-up to brides. They proudly showed us their products, and I watched as they carefully plucked the brows of their client.

Nowhere was this determination more apparent than in Istalif. There I met a young woman, Shazia, who had walked two hours from her neighboring village to try and enroll in WfWI’s program that will start in September. I cannot get the image of Shazia out of my mind, a young woman in her early twenties who no doubt had to seek the permission of her husband or her brother or her father to make the long trek from her village of Shurawa to Istalif, a verdant village in the hills surrounded by mountains. Her piercing eyes showed her determination as she told us she had walked for two hours to get to the enrollment session. With her blue burqa tossed over her head and her headscarf casually draped over her curls, she was adamant in her commitment to attend the yearlong training sessions. She spoke clearly of her burning desire to learn a craft that would give her the dignity of being a contributor to the household income, and allow her the opportunities to share her dreams, her hopes, and her fears beyond the confines of her home with other women whose imaginations went far beyond the four walls of their mud homes.

Sweeta Noori, WfWI-Afghanistan’s Country Director, and I sat and listened to women as they identified barriers to building on the assets and skills they already possessed. They needed to create a market where women could sell and buy. In Afghanistan while women are often buyers in markets, they are traditionally not allowed to sell their goods. Men are the sellers in the markets. These women wanted help in setting up a local market for women, and they wanted to learn the business skills necessary to determine the costs of producing their goods and the market price at which they could be sold. A few of them had sewing machines but needed additional training so that their products would be of good enough quality to sell. Many of them had chickens and eggs but wondered what was a safe way for them to sell their produce, and how could they access the market? Sweeta patiently translated these concerns and many more. I listened and learned of the profound importance of adapting Women for Women International’s income generation programs to the cultural realities of each community we work in.

Women enrolling in WfWI’s yearlong program in Istalif, Afghanistan.

Several hundred women squeezed into the women’s community council in Istalif, a small building with wooden beams and concrete walls that had been built with support from a woman in Virginia. This small building allows women a place to meet and gives the WfWI enrollment team an opportunity to interview and screen potential candidates for our yearlong program.

In the room, three women carefully screened and interviewed each of the potential candidates. One of the head trainers tried to keep some semblance of schedule and order as hundreds of women jostled and pushed to be first in line and enter the room. It was a brutal reminder of how committed these women are to redefining their lives. Women for Women International in Afghanistan could make it possible for 245 women in this group to have that opportunity; others who squeezed into the room were put on a waiting list, and some may have to wait another year before they can join. The resources are not available to accept them all. Women for Women International will enroll more than 4,750 women in the core program in 2012. What this day made clear to me was that if Afghanistan could seize the potential of its women, they would surely change the image and the destiny of their country.

Learn more about how you can become involved and support Women for Women International’s work in Afghanistan.

Guest post by Martina Sola

It was close to 40 degrees Celsius outside.  Sweat had soaked through our clothing and dirt was blowing through our hair.  People were greeting one another with faint smiles and polite kisses on both cheeks. Bottles of water were being shared; the murmur of other languages mixed in with camera shutter clicks could be heard in abundance.   There was a sense of anticipation in the crowd that stood under the golden glow of the scorching sun, but this was no summer festival.  

“This is a shame on humanity,” softly spoke a middle-aged women standing beside me on a street near the town of Srebrenica.  Steps in front of us, dozens of caskets were being carried out of a factory which marked the former site of a failed UN Dutch peace haven.  Each casket carried by solemn, young men contained a few remains of their loved ones which had been discovered in nearby mass grave sites.  Each box was draped in green, a symbolism towards their faith which remained steadfast in spite of the horrific atrocities they had faced.  The woman standing next to me had been forced to watch the deaths of three of her brothers.  Her losses were in addition to another 8,000 men and children who were systematically killed in a matter of days in July 1995.  She had been held captive prior to their deaths, beaten and threatened.  With intent to remain respectful of her privacy and pain, I asked how was she able to not give in and reveal her brothers’ whereabouts? 

“Had I told them, they would have continued to abuse me just the same.”  

My heart skipped a beat.  I looked into her sad eyes with all the sympathy I could gather realizing the best I could do was just continue to stand beside her.  In that moment, any reservations I had about the foreign surroundings I had put myself in or the discomforts of the day were washed away.  I felt grateful for the opportunity from Women for Women International to not only gain first hand knowledge of a significant historical event, but be a symbol of support to those whose lives have been shattered.

I met fellow Women for Women supporters that afternoon in the town of Srebrenica.  Young women who had roots in America, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, and Bosnia had walked 120 kilometres from Tuzla to Srebrenica as a part of a larger internationally organized march for peace in commemoration of the victims of the area.  They walked near mine fields, mass grave sites, picturesque villages, and destroyed homes meeting interesting people along the way.  Most shared their passion, some did not…but they continued fearlessly forth alongside thousands of others proving that a greater good can reign.

Tomorrow a group of Women for Women supporters will embark on a journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina where Women for Women International opened its first office in 1993.  They will participate in the annual "March of Peace", a 120 km route through Bosnia and Herzegovina to Srebrenica, which commemorates victims of the 1995 genocide and have the unique opportunity to visit the Women for Women programmes in Sarajevo and Zenica. Read more.

Guest blogger: Martina Sola 

Martina Sola is a business woman, writer and committed supporter of Women for Women International. She lives in California and is part of the group visiting our programmes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She will be sharing her experiences here. 

Twenty years ago an international city fell under siege.  A city which had hosted the Olympic Games, rich with diversity was suddenly a setting for some of the worst acts of humanity in modern day history.  I have been to the region countless times to visit family. 

….a mere three hour drive upon curvy roads, across mountains, and along fields away from the entrance to a city which once displayed a sign with the words: 'Welcome to hell.'

The city of Sarajevo marks a unique point where the East meets the West and is the capital of a country which is home to my own Croatian, family roots.  I have seen the first hand remains of completely destroyed villages, I have heard the stories of lost lives, and I know the look of strain in a human being who has had their family and heart broken.   I was only a little girl when I last visited Sarajevo before the siege and now return as a woman with great curiosity and empathy for a place where horror has turned to hope.

Women for Women International is an organization that has had a piece of my own heart for three years.  Their work in war torn regions globally allows others in better circumstances to truly touch women in dire need.  The women of Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are noble examples of those who have seen the face of evil and have managed to gather strength to rise above extreme adversities.  It is a great honor to join them on their journey. 

Earlier this year Women for Women supporters Valerie Boffy and Becky Bellworthy set off to summit Mount Everest and plant the Women for Women International flag of peace. We are now happy to announce that not only did they reach the summit, but Becky Bellworthy is now officially the youngest British woman ever to climb Mount Everest at only 19 years old!

To find out more about Becky's journey to Mount Everest read one of our previous blog posts and check out Becky's Everest 2012 page. You can also read about Becky's experience in this Daily Echo article. 

You can continue supporting Valerie and Becky by sponsoring them through JustGiving

copyright: Becky Bellworthy

For your chance to take part in the Women for Women International trek to Everest Base Camp in November 2012 (link coming soon) or to Bosnia in July 2012 please contact Izzy Clark at 

Mende Nazer told the heartbreaking story of her early life in the 2005 book ‘Slave- My True Story’, in which she documented her ordeal as a slave in Sudan from the age of 12. She is now releasing the sequel, ‘Freedom’, in which she tells of risking everything to return to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, her homeland, in 2007. We spoke to Mende about her life, her new book and the plight of women in Sudan:
Could you tell me more about your background, where you were born?
My child hood was cruelly cut short at the age of twelve when the Mujahidin rode in to my village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. I was abducted and sold to an Arab woman in Khartoum. For seven long years I was kept as a domestic slave, an 'abida', without any pay or a single day off.
What was it like growing up in Sudan as a woman?
Growing up in the Nuba Mountains it is peaceful and amazing, even though the lifestyle is tough. Women in the Nuba Mountains do more than men, working equally in the field with men. In addition to that they collect water and fire wood from long distances, and cook.
When you returned to Sudan in 2007 what differences did you find? Were there positive changes? What was still wrong?
There is nothing much changed, people are still struggling from shortages of food and medical attention. Children study under trees or in ruined class rooms without any equipment whatsoever. At present in the Nuba Mountains so many children and pregnant women die due to lack of hospitals.
What is your message to people around the world about the women in Sudan and South Sudan?
My message to the world would be I'm crying out loud for the international community to intervene and to save the Nuba people who have been displaced by aerial bombardment and ground offensives, or who are hiding in caves or forests, with no shelter or access to essential supplies including food and water. Khartoum has continued to deny access to aid organisations, and once the rains begin, they will be unreachable.
In your book, ‘Freedom’, you say: 'I had realised then how important it was for me to tell, and keep retelling, my story.' For you, why is storytelling so important? How far is it grounded in Nuba tradition and how far is it (if at all) connected to the notion of healing the trauma of the past?
It is important for me, as living proof of the horror of slavery, to raise awareness and be the voice to those who have no voice. It is grounded in the Nuba Mountains because we tell stories orally, that is our way of getting messages around. It is also very much connected to the notion of healing by telling your story to someone. Ultimately you are sharing your plight, which is a massive relief. Telling your story, it seems like seeing a psychologist.
Although you are Nuba, and your family obviously would always accept you as Nuba, was there ever a fear that you wouldn't feel a sense of belonging in Sudan? Was there also a fear that you wouldn't find this sense of belonging in London? Is this one of the most awful things about slavery? That it can tear you away from your home and the right to feel a sense of belonging anywhere?
My early memorise about my upbringing in the Nuba Mountains are very vivid. The strong relationship between my family and I in that small land where we shared so much laughter and love, it's our treasure. So my sense of belonging has never faded away, my heart and soul were buried there. That kept me alive in my darkest days.
London is my second home, where I was reborn. It had offered me what I had missed during my seven years in slavery in Khartoum, so I miss London wherever I go.
What does the word Freedom mean for you? Do you consider yourself to be truly free now?
Freedom is light of life and priceless, you are in charge of your life. And being able to say NO. Am I truly free? Yes partly, leading the same life like anyone else, but in today's world some children in Sudan are still in slavery. I know how they feel, my heart goes out to them.
Women for Women International has operated in South Sudan since 2006, and has helped more than 8,500 women. Our programme in South Sudan includes direct financial aid, rights awareness classes, job-skills training and emotional support. From 23rd April to 4th May 50p from every copy of ‘Freedom’ sold will be donated to support the programmes we run in war-torn countries. You can pick up a copy here.

Last year nine of our supporters joined Susan Harper Todd in the first Women for Women International trek to Everest Base Camp, to raise awareness and funds for women in war-torn countries. This year one of the original group members, Valerie Boffy, will be joined by the youngest woman ever to attempt to summit Everest – Becky Bellworthy. Together they aim to reach the summit and plant a Women for Women International flag of peace.

Becky's first attempt to summit Everest last year ended in disappoinment and frustration as she was taken ill and forced to abandon the expedition. This year she is determined to finally conquer the summit, realising her dream of becoming the youngest British woman ever to have achieved the feat at only 19 years old.

Their journey began earlier this month and you can keep up to date with their progress on Becky's Everest 2012 page, or on the Everest Trek section of the Women for Women International UK blog. As well as achieveing incredible personal goals, Becky and Valerie are climbing to raise valuable funds for the programmes we run in war-afflicted countries – show your support by sponsoring them through their JustGiving page.

We look forward to reading about their progress over the coming days and wish them both the very best of luck!

The 8th End of the Pier International Film Festival ( took place on Saturday 11th February, at the Butlins’ Conference Centre in Bognor Regis. Women for Women International Director of Marketing Communications, Maria Andrews, was invited to represent As if I am Not There writer and director Juanita Wilson and lead actress Natasha Petrovic, who were unable to attend.

Juanita Wilson received the Best Director of a Feature award for the film at the End of the Pier International Film Festival Grand Prix. Juanita provided Maria with her acceptance speech: 

"Thank you for this award which I am deeply honoured to accept on behalf of my team. I am sorry we cannot be here in person but I really appreciate the work you do at this festival, bringing films like this to an audience here. Without all your hard work and commitment, stories like these would simply not get told. So many, many thanks. I accept this award on behalf of my creative team – Nathan Nugent, Tim Fleming and my main producer James Flynn without whose support and skills this would and could never have been made. Finally, I dedicate this award to the up to 60,000 brave women of Bosnia, whose courage to speak out about their experience has resulted in rape being officially recognised as a war crime for the first time ever in our history”. 

Natasha Petrovic received the Best Performance in a Feature award. Natasha made her on-screen debut in 2007 in a Macedonian film called Shadows – in 2009 she landed the lead role in As if I am Not There, which premiered in 2010. The film has gathered many great reviews; ‘Powerful’ – Sunday World, ‘Astounding’ – The Sunday Times, ‘A superb film’ – Irish Examiner, as well as numerous awards and accolades. Natasha’s own performance has earned her international recognition in the USA, Italy, Ireland and the UK. She was thrilled to accept the award and thanked everyone involved in supporting the film and story of the women of Bosnia. 

The film itself tells the story of a young woman from Sarajevo whose life is shattered the day a young soldier walks into her apartment and tells her to pack her things.

Rounded up with the other women from the village and imprisoned in a warehouse in a remote region of Bosnia, she quickly learns the rules of camp life. The day she is picked out to 'entertain' the soldiers, the real nightmare begins. Stripped of everything she ever had and facing the constant threat of death, she struggles against all the hatred she sees around her. It's when she realises that surviving means more than staying alive that she has to make a decision that will change her life forever.

The story is based around the real life war and genocide that occurred in Bosnia during the early 1990s. During this time rape and torture were systematically used as weapons of war. Rape camps, like the warehouse mentioned in the film, saw women as young at 15 or 16 subjected to mass rapes by soldiers after being forcefully removed from their homes and families. The psychological and physical scars left by this abuse are still visible today, but many of the women affected found the strength and courage to speak out about the crimes they endured, and it is thanks to them that for the first time ever, rape was prosecuted in international courts as a war crime. Despite being over 15 years since the end of the war, the horrific acts that many women were subjected to see them still struggling to rebuild their lives. Films like As if I am Not There are important to bring global attention to the suffering of women in Bosnia during the war, and also to remind people that its affects are still felt by many of them today.

To learn more about As if I am Not There visit the website, or watch the official trailer for the film.

To find out how you can help a woman survivor of war in Bosnia to rebuild her life, visit the Women for Women website.

Photo: Maria Andrews and Bryan Gartside with the 3 awards for the As if I am not there film.

Brita Fernandez Schmidt, Director for Policy & Development, travelled with a group of 20 Women for Women International supporters to Rwanda and shares here a few highlights from the trip:
On Monday after we had all arrived, we had dinner together around one big table and all introduced each other, and it was super inspiring to hear from all the participants about their motivation for joining the trip, their passion for Women for Women International and how excited they are! On Tuesday morning we departed at 7.30am for a briefing at the Kigali office and had the opportunity to attend different classes which are part of our Life Skills training that women who are supported by our programme go through in their year-long training programme. I went to a session on the importance of safety networks, which was really fantastic, all about how important it is to have friends and talk to each other about problems and seek support. The other session I went to was on violence against women and that was incredible. The 25 participants spoke really openly about the challenges they are facing in negotiating sex, in protecting their daughters from abusive relationships, etc etc. It became really lively when they started asking us questions and they realised that violence is also a huge issue in the UK and that women all over the world have challenges negotiating sex etc – it really connected us and brought us together, which was really amazing. Needless to say there was a lot of singing and dancing, which made us all extremely happy.
In the afternoon we visited Nyamata Memorial – one of the churches that have been kept with all the clothes of people who were killed there during the genocide. It was really so so sad, I cannot tell you, it left us all thinking ‘Why’ and ‘How can this happen’ and ‘What can we do to ensure this never happens again’. We were joined by an amazing psychiatrist, Dr Munyandamutsa, who works at the Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace and together we talked about these questions and he had so much to say about how important it is to have a dialogue about these things and that we might not find all the answers, but that it is so important to ask the questions anyway and to keep a conversation going, to ensure we don’t forget. He also talked about the importance of nurturing democracy and participation from the bottom up, to ensure that people have a voice and the confidence to speak their mind, so that it is less possible for them to be influenced and dictated in the way they were – which made the genocide happen. You can imagine how inspired we were. It made us think about our programme and how important the combination is of teaching women to use their voice and participate in community life as well as teaching them income generating skills. My revelation came when I had gone out of the church because I could not bear the sadness and inhumane nature of what I was seeing and learning about to just stand there and think, when I looked up and saw a group of the most beautiful children in a building right next to the church – which was a school – waving and smiling at me with such joy and hope. It was just incredible and reminded me of how amazing life is and it also really sums Rwanda up – there is so much trauma and sadness, but there is also so much joy and hope and a young generation that will make Rwanda a different country – you can really feel it.
The following day we got up again really early and went to visit our Farm 2 hours outside Kigali in Kayonza and actually got to do
weeding with the women of the 6 cooperative who work on the farm. It was fantastic – you cannot imagine how the women laughed at us in our wellies in the middle of ahuge maize field, sweating and trying to help with the weeding using machetes – most of us were worried we were going to injure someone….It was a fantastic experience, because it felt like we were really connecting with the women. The farm is coming along really well. When I visited it last year there was no shelter and now there is a large classroom/gathering space with a roof. The maize fields are high and rich and the women seem very happy to have this land together. They are in urgent need of manure and were asking us for cows. The produce from the cooperatives get sold at the market and the profit shared. Each woman also has her own plot of land where she grows food for her families’ consumption. It was visible how much the women treasure the company of their sisters and working together in the cooperative.
After our visit to the Farm, we stopped over in Kayonza at the site of the Women’s Opportunity Centre, that is being built at the moment, designed by Sharon Davies, an architecture firm in the US. It is the most amazing design, which is scheduled to be completed within a year. All the 450,000 bricks that will be needed have been produced by our own women graduates – and they have already made 300,000 bricks! Some of our women graduates are the construction builders, all builders are from the local community. The buildings are designed to generate energy through solar panels and with roofs that will ensure maximum rainwater collection, which will provide water supply all year long, as water is a real scarcity in that area.
In the evening we had dinner with a few guests, the Head of the British Council for Rwanda and the DRC and three young women, one who works at a performing arts centre, another who is a bio-technologist and another who is a designer. It gave us a real different perspective and insight. All three had been educated abroad and have come back, because they call Rwanda the land of opportunities, where young women can do anything! It was really incredible to hear them talk.
Then on Thursday we went back to the offices, where we had the opportunity to attend a few more classes and where we had a celebration together with the women. We did a lot of dancing and singing and some of us met our sponsor sisters afterwards. Unfortunately I was unable to meet my sister, but just observing others meting their sisters, it was unbelievably moving and just showed me how incredibly powerful the personal connection is that is established through the one on one sponsorship. And overall, every day, the women we have met have told us about how much they want to receive letters from their sisters and how sad they are that many of them don’t. So we are all determined to bring that message back home and encourage sisters to write more!
In the afternoon we had the opportunity to split into smaller groups and go and visit a few women in their own homes. I joined a group who visited Christine, who lives in a small mud house with her sister and two children. She is a widow of the genocide and the government built the house for her. She graduated a year ago and learned business skills through the Women for Women International programme, which she is now employing to sell beer and fanta. Thanks to this, she is able to send her daughter to school and she is immensely grateful for that.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at Gahaya Links, one of our main partners in Rwanda, where our women get trained in bead work, weaving and sowing. We saw the new Kate Spade product – a beautiful necklace, which will go in the stores in May. In the evening we had dinner with the senior management staff in Rwanda, which was really interesting and a great opportunity to talk and clarify any questions we had about our work, but also about the political and economic situation in Rwanda.
On Friday morning we visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which actually enabled us to piece together all the information we had received over the week. The sheer scale of the genocide in Rwanda is unbelievable – 1 million killed in 3 months, and even though this was the second time that I visited the museum, it shocked and saddened me very much. In particular the fact that the war left 37,000 children orphaned – they are now between 18-25 years old and are bearing the scars of this horrible conflict forever. Knowing the reality of what happened in the three months from April 1994, the sheer unbelievable nature of the violence and the senseless loss of life just reinforces in me the determination to do whatever I can to ensure that this will never happen again.
At lunch, we were joined again by the staff, including a number of the amazing Life Skills trainers we have in Rwanda. Afterwards, the group split up, with a few leaving to do the Gorilla Trek, and another group going on to visit a bakery project, and the rest of us headed for the airport to go back to London. The group who visited the bakery is our ‘Cookbook Team’, a group of wonderful women, including Jesse Ziff Cool, a chef from California, and Simon, an incredibly talented photographer. They are working on a cookbook which will feature recipes from all the countries where we work as well as recipes from influencers who have made a difference. We have just secured a publisher, so now we are working hard to get photos and recipes together – which is why they joined us on the trip. Over the next few days they will be attending cooking classes with our women and visiting markets. This morning they will be participating in the national clean-up day, where the whole nation goes on the street including the president, to clean the streets.
I am finishing this email on the plane with a huge sense of happiness and inspiration. I was worried about us taking such a large group of visitors – 20 in total – and the result has been far beyond my expectations. Everyone got on so well and we all felt enriched by getting to know each other, meeting our amazing women participants and learning so much about this amazing country and its people. Despite the horrors and atrocities, we are leaving filled with hope and joy and a determination to spread the word and intensify our support for women and their families at this critical juncture in Rwanda.

Anni Abel first heard about Women for Women International at the hairdressers!

“I was reading an issue of Marie Claire and there was an article interviewing Zainab, the founder, talking about her story – which was in itself quite incredible – and then how she decided to start up this charity. It just sounded absolutely amazing! I was inspired by this courageous and go-getter woman who, in her basement, set up her own charity to help other women.”

Since reading that article back in 2006, Anni has transformed the lives of five women, their families and their communities, by supporting them through the Women for Women training programme in Rwanda, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I’m not the richest person in the world, I’m not the poorest person in the world, but I want to do something more with my life and I feel it’s quite important to help women. I know there are lots of fantastic charities that focus on all sorts of aspects, but I’ve not heard of many that really focus on helping women. Who, after all, are 50% of the world’s population and are the people who support children and the elderly. 

Helping women and being in contact with them, the fact that Women for Women International really urge you to write and communicate and build a relationship for the year that you sponsor a woman really appealed to me.

I am helping this one person and she can tell me how she is getting on; I can learn something about her and I can see my money doing good at the same time.

I’ve sponsored five women since 2006, when I started, and they’ve been from lots of different places. I’ve had two lovely ladies from Rwanda, two equally lovely ladies from Nigeria and lastly a lovely lady in Bosnia & Herzegovina. So, I’ve had a chance to learn a bit about all of these different cultures and different countries."

Anni explained that writing your first letter to your sister can be a challenge. She always asks how they are finding the training and what they are learning. 

“I remember writing my first letter and it’s quite difficult in a way, because you think: ‘I don’t know anything about this person – apart from the sheet you get which tells you her name, how many children she has, where she lives’ – and you’re conscious of whether it’s going to mean anything to her when I say ‘I work in an office’. 

I remember getting my first letter. I’d sent off my letter and then one day there’s this envelope that comes and says, ‘A letter from your sponsor sister’ and… I bawled my eyes out! 

You really feel like you’ve done something worthwhile and you’ve made a connection with someone. It’s just wonderful – the feeling is indescribable and I think more people should do it!” 

And whilst sponsors are encouraged to send messages to their sister, sometimes you don’t get a reply:

“Some of the ladies don’t write at all, so you have to be prepared that you are sending letters into the void and sometimes you get a tiny note that says: 

Dear Sister Anni,

It gives me pleasure to put down these few words. How is your health? You have made me to blossom again at 40 years old.

Thank god for you and god bless you.

Yours faithfully


When I get these few lines, it’s all worth it.

It’s very important to me to feel that I’m actually helping and assisting other people, who aren’t necessarily people that I know – this feeling that, somewhere in Rwanda, there’s a lady and her family who are able to not go to bed hungry every night, that they are going to be able carry on and have a better life. 

And it’s not just been ‘here’s some money, go and buy some rice or cassava’, but it’s also that they have been given training and tools and that this lady can use these tools to help her family, and she’s very likely to also use those tools to help another woman, so that it spreads out and it’s nice to feel that you’re part of that web and connectivity.

Mediatrice learnt how to knit and she said that one of the other women in the group was then teaching her also how to do basket weaving. Terese started a poultry small-holding, so she got six chickens and said they were growing well. My sister in Bosnia is learning about herb cultivation to make teas and drinks, together with her husband. They learn all sorts of things: health, training, hygiene classes, women’s rights. They all enjoy going to the classes, they’ve said they enjoy being together and discussing their problems together – helping each other out and coming up with solutions. 

So who knows, maybe one day I’ll be wearing a jumper made by one of my sisters!”

For the last five years, Anni has supported five women and their families and communities through the Women for Women programme. Looking through Anni’s six years of correspondence with these women was a very humbling and moving experience. Anni has made connections and forged friendships with people in countries she has never been to. She has gently offered help, encouragement, a world of possibility and a better future for women and their families.

“All I can say is ‘Do it!’ It is just amazing!”

Watch the video below to see highlights from the 2011 bridge event in Kabul, Afghanistan. This was the first Bridge event held in Afghanistan, with women from all over the country marching to show their government, and the rest of the world, that they demand peace and equality.

Men For Women

By Kuber Sharma

 Yes I am writing this blog post on the Women for Women website. But I would prefer to write it for ‘Men For Women’. Don’t ask me ‘why?’. Ask me ‘why not?’. Isn’t it time that men don’t just say to violence against women but also actively work to stop violence against women. Most men whom I know, given even the teeniest bit of encouragement, would love to do that. It’s just that they don’t know what, how and why.

 Because there are barriers. Just take the women rights community for example. Working within the gender activist circle in Delhi over the past few years, I have realized that most gender violence and women rights organizations here are almost completely female staffed. Sure there are men, but usually in administrative or accounting roles. And I have a problem with this. Not sure if this is usually due to an organizational mandate or its just a series of incredible coincidences. But that’s the reality. Maybe, what we need is affirmative action to include men to fight for women’s rights, and to fight against violence against women.

 That old strain of ‘anti-man’ feminism needs to be buried now. If we constantly blame an entire gender and see all of them adversaries, very little will be achieved. Men are not the problem. Ok a few of them are. But the 99.9 per cent of them are actually part of the solution. We just need to include them. All it takes is simple communication that leads to impactful collaboration. It’s all about sharing your perspective and getting to know the male point of view. In most cases that I have seen, this simple exchange of thoughts brings about the much-needed clarity and eventually leads to positive change. Remember gender affects and controls men too. The big difference is that the men’s problems are never talked about.

 I consider myself a second-generation feminist (my father’s a feminist historian and mum’s a Marxist activist) but even then never imagined that I’ll end up being a women’s rights activist. My parents didn’t encourage me because they never expected me to be allowed into the pink club. But times they’re a changing. Now for almost two years, I have worked alongside a group of excited and exciting young men; and women to question and stop gender based violence at a small social media campaign called Must Bol. And I think that the most crucial aspect of our success was the fact that we were primarily a male group, talking mostly to a male audience. When women talk to men, they generate sympathy. When men talk to men, a lot of empathy comes out.

 No, I don’t think men can take singular leadership in the crusade to end violence against women, but they can surely play a very important role. Don’t tell them off. Include them. Let’s be men and women for women.

 Author Bio


Kuber Sharma is a digital & media enthusiast. As a filmmaker, his body of work is around ethnographic portraits of urban India. As a Social Media practitioner, he works with online campaigns towards social change. Kuber lives in Delhi and outside the media domain, enjoys Body Pump. Follow him at 


Women for Women International were invited to be part of the Aspire Leadership for the Future Conference 2011, organised by the founder & CEO Dr Samantha Collins and her team.

The two day conference (29th to 30th November) focused on ‘life, work, world’ – where inspirational international speakers from a multitude of different fields from politics to charities, business to academia came together to inspire over 250 delegates.


During the conference there was time for delegates to experience and immerse themselves in The Life (less ordinary) room where you could reflect, revive and review for 2012 and beyond; The Work (that matters) room is where you could gain access to the latest workplace research, debate issues, share knowledge and hear case studies; The World (of difference) room explored the broader community and world perspective, understanding how you can make a difference to economic, social and political world issues. This room featured Women for Women International and Sweeta Noori, Afghanistan Country Director –where delegates could sign a banner of peace to support the women in Afghanistan and sign up to be a sponsor. The banner was presented to Sweeta by Cherie Lunghi at the finale of the conference. And Aspire has set a challenge to find 1000 inspirational women to support a woman in Afghanistan by International Woman’s Day on the 8th March 2012. Is that you? Please learn more here




Your donation to help women survivors of war in Afghanistan, like Zharquona, will be worth twice as much!

On Monday 5th December any donations to Women for Women International will be matched by
the Big Give. Find out more and sign up for a reminder email.

Wednesday 23rd November

Gina Fuller, Grassroots Campaigns Intern, talks about her experience coordinating an exciting MP action in parliament to support Afghan women’s rights activists:

As up to 90 states prepare to gather in Bonn, Germany this December, Women for Women International are taking action to make sure women’s rights and women’s participation in peace negotiations are not an afterthought.

On Wednesday I joined various organisations, including Amnesty International UK, Womankind and ActionAid in asking MPs to show their support for Afghan women by having their picture taken in front of a wall of miniature kites. These kites were just some of the 8,500 made by activists of all ages, all bearing messages of peace and solidarity for Afghan women. Stood in a room in the Houses of Parliament at 11.30am, none of us could have guessed that 80 MPs would show up to have their picture taken in support of our campaign. Many of the MPs spoke of how important it is to secure women’s safety in Afghanistan, and to make sure they play a significant part in peace building in their country.  All of this took place on the same day we were told that 30% of the Afghan delegation are women, a wonderful first step in the right direction.

To continue this momentum we need to keep Afghan women’s rights on the agenda throughout the Bonn II International Conference and after. Any agreements made at Bonn must explicitly call for women’s rights in Afghanistan to be protected and for Afghan women to meaningfully participate in all peace processes.


If you would like to learn more about women’s involvement in peace building then please join Women for Women for their Empowering Women to Empower Nations event at SOAS on 2nd December, with special guest Sweeta Noori, Women for Women Country Director for Afghanistan. For more information please click here.

If you would like to find out about Women for Women International’s current internship opportunities, please find them posted on here.

The London Women for Women International student societies invite you to an important discussion featuring special guest Sweeta Noori, Afghanistan Country Director for Women for Women International.

Date: 2nd December 2011
Time: 7-9pm
Venue: SOAS Khalili Lecture Theatre
            Thornhaugh Street,  Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG – map

On the eve of the Bonn Conference, where representatives from 90 countries will meet to discuss transition, peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, Women for Women International opens a dialogue in London examining the disregard for Afghan women’s rights in the political sphere, and where the future may lie.

Over the last 30 years Afghanistan has experienced tremendous and violent changes in both its political and social structures. The largest impact of these upheavals has been felt by the women of Afghanistan who have had their basic rights hindered and suppressed. Women for Women International is an organisation that work in Afghanistan, giving women the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.

The discussion will be chaired by Kate Nustedt, Executive Director of Women for Women International UK, and include Shelagh Daley from the Gender Action for Peace and Security coalition, and another guest speaker TBC. 

This event is free, however all donations collected on the evening will go directly to supporting Women for Women International's work in Afghanistan. For more information about Women for Women International please click here.

Meet Nadia

Severely injured during a bombing, neither Nadia’s father nor her mother could work. The burden of scraping together an existence fell to nine-year-old Nadia.

Desperate to bring money and food to her family, she disguised herself as a boy to work as a labourer on construction sites, as an animal herder and a hawker at local markets.

When she enrolled in the Women for Women programme and learnt about her rights, income generation and support networks, Nadia realised that she held the power to change her life and sustain her family. Nadia soon started working as a vocational trainer and is now saving money to go to law school.

With your support, we can help even more women and girls like Nadia achieve economic security, stand on their own feet and take an active role within their families and communities. You can double your impact by donating through the BIG GIVE on Monday, 5 December, 10:00am.

Read more about the Big Give campaign & sign up to receive a reminder email on the 5 Dec here:

Chris Jackson ran 12 marathons in 12 months and took part in the longest kayak race in the world to help women survivors of rape and war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

This is Chris' speech at the award ceremony:

Thank you very much for this award. I never thought I’d win this, especially when I read that only 3% of cosmo readers said they liked a man with a moustache….

In all seriousness….. 

I’m not the one who deserves this award and won’t be keeping it. I’ll be buying some bubble wrap and sending it out to the women I met in Congo.

Many women in the Congo have spent their life running from fear, suffered the cruelest attacks, but still get up in the morning and remain strong and work, work to pay for their child to go to school. It should be those beautiful, courageous and resilient women that are recognised for their determination. Women like Solange, Alice and Genarose.

From my time out there, the one thing that helped was for the women to know that people, women like them in the UK were aware, so that they did not feel alone, forgotten or further stigmatised.

I’d like to thank Cosmo for helping to spread awareness about the Congo. It is an excellent recognition of the work that Women for Women do in the Congo and the fantastic film work of Millie Harvey.

I made a promise to myself, after visiting Congo the first time, that i would make people aware of the plight that many women and children had suffered. When you’ve sat and listened to ordeal that many women have gone through, running a marathon is nothing. Today is another step in making more people of the impact of the conflict on women in the Congo. But it isn't enough and I’ll keep running till one day they won't have too.












Earlier this year Afghanistan was identified as the most dangerous country to be born a woman. Violence against female public officials, dismal healthcare, rising poverty and a dramatic increase in assassinations of women are only a few of the realities Afghan women face daily.

“Women who do attempt to speak out or take on public roles that challenge ingrained gender stereotypes of what is acceptable for women to do or not, such as working as policewomen or news broadcasters, are often intimidated or killed." Antonella Notari, Guardian.

 Afghan women, like you, have the right to work and secure a safe and happy environment for their families and for future generations to come. Recent studies have shown that the life expectancy for an Afghan woman is a mere 44 years, 12% of Afghanistan’s women are literate and 40% of Afghanis are unemployed. The women have a powerful desire to overcome these difficulties that face them in order to provide security, peace and happiness for their children.

 “With every gain enormous obstacles persist. We have 25% women in parliament but conservative extremists retaliate, threatening the brave women who do seek leadership. We are building bridges and schools every day but women are not safe enough to walk across alone, nor are girls sure that they will not be attacked if they dare to fill the schools.” Sweeta Noori

Please, send a message of inspiration and encouragement to the Women in Afghanistan and show your solidarity. Women for Women International and The Aspire Foundation aim to present 1000 of your support messages to the women of Afghanistan by handing them to Sweeta Noori (Women for Women Afghanistan Country Director) at the finale of the Aspire Leadership for the Future Conference on 29th – 30th November. Sweeta Noori will then deliver the messages to the women who are participating in the Women for Women programme and who will enormously appreciate your support and encouragement. Help to boost their optimism and realisation that they are the future and they can bring about change.

Sweeta has, in her work as Country Director of Women for Women International, assisted over 20,000 women in Afghanistan through the Women for Women programme encompassing financial assistance, rights education and vocational skills training.

The Aspire Leadership for the Future Conference is a 2-day event organised by the internationally renowned coaching company for women Aspire, and its sister non-profit organisation, The Aspire Foundation, who provides pro-bono mentoring, campaigning and leadership development to women working in charities that impact women and girls around the world. Over 30 innovative speakers, including Sweeta Noori, Baroness Verma (government spokesperson on equalities and women’s issues), Lindy Wafula (CEO and Founder, Project Africa) and Dr Smantha Collins will give access to new thinking through inspirational talks, panel discussions, networking forums and presentations. 

Pictures just in from the first days of the Women for Women International Everest Base Camp Trek Challenge. For more information and to read Major Gifts Officer for Women for Women International,  Nora Russell's Everest Diary click here. 



by Nora Russell, Women for Women International UK Major Gifts Officer

Learn more about the Everest Trek campaign. 

With less than one month to go, the countdown to Women for Women International’s first Trek to Everest Base Camp has truly begun.

The aim of our 10 Everest trekkers is to connect and to mobilise women around the world in support of a common goal: to create a more peaceful and equitable world for everyone. It’s not just about raising funds for our programmes, but about generating awareness of the need for real investment in women in order to bring about sustainable peace and development.

The group will be taking a chain of prayer flags up to Base Camp with them bearing messages from women all over the world; women from different backgrounds and walks of life but with a united voice. Some of the flags have been made by the participants in Women for Women’s programmes, displaying their visions of a peaceful and prosperous future. Others will carry messages of support, solidarity and hope from Women for Women’s supporters from the UK, the USA and around the world.


In August, we launched our ‘Bearing the Flag for all Women, Everywhere’ campaign by sending out chains of handmade prayer flags to publicise the trek and generate support. Smaller versions of the traditional Nepalese flags were inscribed with messages from each of the trekkers, expressing their motivations and hopes for the trek. A group of hard-working volunteers did an amazing job of hand-writing the messages onto 500 flags! The trekkers’ personal messages of strength and solidarity echo Women for Women International’s firm belief that ‘one woman can do anything, many women can do everything’.


Get involved with our campaign!

You can add your own message to the chain of prayer flags that will be carried up to Everest Base Camp. Send a message of support for the women in our programmes, or share your own vision for a better world.

Email or tweet your message to @womenforwomenUK using the hash tag #WFWEverest. You can donate towards the trek fundraising goal online or text TREK20 followed by your donation amount to 70070.

Join us and our partners No women, no peace. and Channel 16 on Twitter this Peace Day.

On Wednesday 21st September, tweet your questions to Afghan women's right activists about the state of women's rights in Afghanistan. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the challenges and realities faced by Afghan women.

The questions generated by this Twitter action will be used in a video interview with prominent Afghan women's rights activists, including Wazhma Frogh, recipient of the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award.

Send through your questions on Peace Day (21st September) via Twitter using #AfghanWomen and @womenforwomenuk

Join our Twitter action


Kosovo Blog – Nora Russell, Major Gifts Officer – Women for Women International UK

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. 

Day 4 – Thursday 24th 

Our final day, and it feels like we have been here so much longer – everyone has been so accommodating and welcoming and the group are tired but also so happy to have met the women they sponsor. Our last trip before dashing to the airport is to visit a vocational skills class which is a mixed group of women from many different communities Albanian, Ashkali and Egyptian. I meet Igballe Behluli who recites a poem she has written about her schooling and leaves us with these words;

 ‘The End of Primary School’

At the end of primary school I received a message,

They are stopping me from going to school.

I was very sad, I started to cry.

The books and school bench was awash with my tears.

Walking down the road I tore up my notebooks in frustration.

I didn’t deserve this.

But truthfully, my father did not do this on purpose.

It was the war and there was poison in every school.

Now I am happy, my dream is fulfilled.

My children go free to school. 


Read Nora's "Notes from Kosovo" series by checking out the following links: 

Notes from Kosovo Day #1

Notes from Kosovo Day #2

Notes from Kosovo Day #3

We are very happy to announce that Lisa Shannon, founder of Run for Congo Women, will be joining us for the Adidas Women's 5K Challenge on September 11th!  All those who raise more than £500 will receive a free signed copy of her book, A Thousand Sisters. Read more about Lisa Shannon's story, featured in Runners World here

By registering to Run for Congo Women at the Adidas Women´s 5k Challenge 2011 you will be supporting the Women for Women programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo, enabling women affected by conflict to rebuild their lives. 

We ask participants to raise at least £150, enough to provide one women with Life-Skills Training equipping her with the knowledge and self-confidence to become an agent of sustainable and lasting change within her family and community. So far the Run for Congo Women movement has been able to fundraise, with the help of our amazing runners, more than £85,000 enough to support more than 550 women in our programme in the DRC.


Date: Sunday 11th of September 11th

Location: Hyde Park

Distance: 5k

Fee: £15 (£5 of this goes directly to Women for Women. The remaining £10 pays your registration fee).



Kosovo Blog – Nora Russell, Major Gifts Officer – Women for Women International UK

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more.

Day 3 – Thursday 23rd June 2011 WOC Opening

A gloriously sunny day started with the official opening ceremony, where the newly appointed Country Director of our Kosovo Office – Iliriana Gashi  was joined by Carol Jackson from the Private Equity Foundation as well as Molly Cronin from Sharon Davis Design Studios who for Women’s Opportunity Centre, Prishtina.

The Official ceremony which featured speeches from Iliriana Gashi, Carol Jackson, Molly Cronin and Ramize Rexhepi , a graduate of Women for Women’s year long programme in Kosovo. 

Carol said ‘I have been inspired by your resilience and determination. Our CEO Shaks Ghosh can’t be with us today but she sends her congratulations. The Private Equity Foundation was delighted to fund this centre and it will be a leading light for women in Kosovo. I know from my visit that this centre is an excellent hands. I have learnt so much about the amazing work of Women for Women International’ 

Molly Cronin added that ‘this is not just a building – it will be a safe space for women to meet and share and continue their learning.’

Iliriana thanked the trainers of the Women for Women programme, ‘Thanks to our trainers who go 4 or 5 times a week to remote villages, in snow or sunshine to deliver our programmes and support women with literacy and vocational skills’ After hearing Besa’s story earlier this week, I truly believe this too.

Next to speak is a graduate of our programme, Ramize Rexhepi , who chose to specialise in horticulture and food processing and has now set up her own women’s cooperative producing pickles, Burek, and Ajar.

Ramize said ‘In the beginning I was only interested in learning about gardening, but through the Women for Women course I decided to take some of my produce to market and on the first try I made 46 euros. It was so good to be able to buy things for my family and now I led a cooperative of women making food for sale at market. I can only say – Women, participate in as many fairs as you can! ’

The ceremony was closed with a beautiful rendition of ‘Songbird’ by singer and UK supporter of Women for Women International – Laura Comfort

After the ceremony I had the chance to catch up with Ramize and hear her story of moving from Survivor of the war to active leader of a 17 woman strong cooperative.

Ramize cultivates everything she needs, cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and I took part in all the trainings available, particularly the food processing course and a course on making 13 different types of cheese. The most difficult parts of the training was the literacy classes as during the war she had missed a lot of schooling.

Now she is in a group of 17 women and they are trying to get funds to increase the ability for them to unify their production, so that the goods can be marketed easily and they can increase production.  When she first started taking produce to market her family were bemused, they asked ‘What is the fair for? They felt it was a shameful activity for a woman to sell goods at market and were worried people would laugh at me’ 

Ramize laughs, ‘Now we have no problem and it is seen as normal, in fact now my family are always asking – when are you going to the next fair?’ Her father is so impressed that he has given the cooperative  5 km square to support the development of their business, which they hope to build a processing factory for pickling and preserving . She says her most profitable product is the jars of Ajar, a red pepper paste and Pinxhur and similar product that is made from Tomatoes.

The guests then shared a lunch of traditional Kosovar food, catered by graduates of the Women for Women programme and were able to browse a women’s product fair, featuring handicrafts, food and honey. 

Supporters then also had the opportunity to tour the new WOC facilities and visit different training activities and classes in a open house, including an opportunity to view our Life Skills classes, Vocational Classes and letter writing. 

After the Opening ceremony we took a bus trip to the Old city of Prizen, walking to the top of the City Fort, once built by the Ottomans. Our guide tells us how she and her family were unable to leave the city during the war (unlike many of the city residents) and that as an 8 year old child she watched how the city burned and the fear this struck in her.  

Ramize Rexhepi, WfWI-Kosovo graduate, addressing the attendees at the inauguration of the first Women's Opportunity Center in Kosovo. 


Article by Melanie Blewett

Sexual violence against women continues to plague the DRC despite increasing international awareness and assistance on the ground. Melanie Blewett examines why.

It’s a hot afternoon in Bukavu, South Kivu. A group of women are sheltering from the sun outside the Women for Women International’s office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Amongst the sound of clicking knitting needles the women are telling stories, continuing an age-old Congolese tradition practiced already by generations of women before them.

Among them sits 24-year old Lucienne. Like all women here she has her own story to tell.

Lucienne was just 19 when she was kidnapped from her home, raped and held captive for three and a half months as a sex slave.

“My husband was away when members of the Interahamwe, terrorist militia, broke into the house where I was staying with my sister-in-law. They tied my arms behind my back with a rope. When we got to the bush, they pulled me down to rape me in front of my brother. As he hid his face in shame, they struck him with a gun and pulled him away to kill him.”

Sexual violence against women in the DRC is widely considered to be the worst in the world. The American Journal of Public Health has recently calculated that some 1,100 women are raped there each day. Rape results in victims contracting HIV amongst other diseases or unwanted pregnancies.

Not surprisingly, the history of the DRC has been riddled with war that continues in spite of a peace accord signed in 2003 and 17,000 UN peacekeepers deployed in some of the most critical areas. Rape is systematically used as a weapon of war and has continued to be used as a means of control in post-conflict zones. Rape here fuels poverty, keeping women powerless to control their own lives, meaning they are unable to improve their own social and economic status or that of their community. To make matters worse, rape victims are often ostracized by their husbands and male leaders in their community.

One man is systematically bucking the trend: Dr Denis Mukwege, winner of the King Baudouin International Development Prize 2011, is an experienced gynaecologist who operates on women who have suffered serious damage to their reproductive and digestive systems as a result of sexual violence. He has also become a leading voice on the situation in the DRC. He believes that all too often silence is simply a means of condoning the violence, saying: “Qui ne dit, mot consent” (“silence means consent”). Women for Women International helps men to speak out through their ‘Men’s Leadership Programme’ aimed at training male community leaders to change their perceptions on the role of women in their communities.

A major stepping stone in placing sexual violence on the international political agenda has been the appointment of UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, whose role has been to bring the subject to the UN Security Council. Ms Wallström states that a ‘naming and shaming’ of perpetrators is planned as part of a new comprehensive strategy by the UN to target sexual violence against women. However, the UN has come under considerable criticism regarding the impact of its actions locally, which are represented on the ground by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). Where were the UN peacekeeping force during the mass rape of Walikali in August last year? Based just 15 km away they did not intervene to stop the violence.

Howard Mollett, Conflict Policy Advisor at NGO CARE International believes that one of the greatest challenges to changing the status quo in the DRC is linking diplomatic decisions to humanitarian needs on the ground: “The MONUSCO peace-keeping force had only one person based near to where the violence happened who could speak the local language. So when the violence started up there were no communication channels.”

He notes that launching prosecutions on the international level can expose the stories of women which may conflict with the interests of the women victims on the ground.

“Many women don’t always want to come forward, or if they do they are at greater risk.”

The challenge is reconciling the top-down with the bottom-up: “There has been encouragement from the UN to strengthen early warning systems such as by giving mobile phones to communities. But when rebel groups find this out then the victims are targeted again. We must integrate early warning systems in a way that is sensitive to the risks of the people on the frontline.”

Giving these women the choice to have a voice is the first step towards change and development. Women will need to continue to make their stories heard, as will Congolese men: it needs to be the international community’s responsibility to ensure those narrating are also understood. 

Photo: Fiona Hill (DRC) 

Kosovo Blog – Nora Russell, Major Gifts Officer – Women for Women International UK

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more.

Day 2 – Wednesday June 22nd 2011

  Life Skills Training in Henc

Henc is a small village, with a few shops and a primary school – which is where we meet. This year is the first year Women for Women has worked with women in the village and in fact it is the first year any NGO has come to offer support. We met a class of women who have recently enrolled on the programme and are here for their second week of training. They are so positive, so excited for the opportunity to learn, and they want to know all about our lives. What do we do in the UK, what can we achieve. Julie shares her day to day life with then and it seems pretty normal to us all but to these women, who before this programme very rarely left the house, for them it is almost unimaginable. Their stories are heartbreaking and many of us cry. When they find out that one of our group has recently met the sister she sponsors you can see the excitement in their faces, stretching their heads to see this lucky woman. Besa tells us that it is often not the money they care for but the letters that is held so dear. Besa leads the class in some of the key words that they will hear repeatedly during the course of the year, safe (this is a safe place, to share all you want to, it is confidential it is a place of friendship), sister (your sister is the woman who sponsors you, who you may not ever meet, but who is always supporting you and cheering for your success on the other side of the world), participation (here Besa wags her finger – ‘you must participate! Participation is not just about turning up to class and signing you name! It is taking part in the discussion, sharing and listening and learning together), listening (particularly active listening) What wonderful words to remember  and guide us in life let alone a one-year class. I wonder what they will feel like and think of the programme one year on?

One of the women comes up to me and says ‘Thank you for bringing me here, this is the first time I have had the chance to come and visit the school where my children go, it is only 500 metres away but I never go out, the children always go on their own.’

By the time the class is over the local kids have heard who has taken over their school for the day and are waiting for us outside for pictures and shy smiles.

In the afternoon we head to a village near Mitrovica, a town which is still divided between Serbs and Albanians and where some of the most brutal atrocities of the war took place. Mitrovica is the town where everyone was a refugee, and men were taken out of their homes and shot in front of their families regardless of age.

Here we are greeted by the most amazing spread of delicious food and drink and are hosted by an all women’s Bee Keeping Cooperative. The Cooperative has grown from some initial funding from the Herman Miller Foundation and with support from our Income Gerneration Coordinator, Faruk Beqa.  The Cooperative is made up of 40 women from Runik and 35 in Prekaz and together they have survived through their first winter with their beehives only making a few loses.

Initially, the cooperative lacked everything they needed to start a successful business, from protective clothing to a computer. By pooling their resources and money saved from their sponsorship contributions they have been able to set up an office with computer and printer and to hire equipment that they all share such as the centrifuge for separating the clear honey out from the bees wax and the lower quality honey. 

by Karak Mayak, South Sudan Country Director, Women for Women International 

Today, the world welcomes a new country into the global family: the Republic of South Sudan. In a historic referendum last January, roughly 99 percent of people living in Sudan’s southern regions voted for independence from the Northern government. For a country that endured Africa’s longest civil war–a brutal campaign of violence in which 4 million were displaced, 2 million were killed and 2 million women were raped–this vote represented the first opportunity for southerners to articulate their own vision for the future, in peace.

Women for Women International ( welcomes the new Republic of South Sudan, where we have been providing a number of services to marginalized women since 2006. For the women of South Sudan, independence is a symbol of peace and equality. Without women, we would never have achieved peace, or achieved independence. Without the voice of women, there would be no South Sudan.

It’s true. Women have been a tremendous force for peace and active architects of the new republic. 52 percent of the voters during the referendum were women, and many women returned to the South after years of displacement to take part in the historic vote. 60 percent of the families that returned to South Sudan to vote in the referendum were led by a single woman. Participants in Women for Women International’s rights and vocational skills training program proudly walked together to the polling stations, showing their community the importance of their participation in the historic vote. Despite exclusion from formal peace talks, women have campaigned tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Moving forward, the Constitution states that 25 percent of the seats in the legislature must be held by women. Currently, women hold 34 percent of parliamentary seats in South Sudan. Research shows that governments with higher percentages of women in power show decreased corruption and increased attention to humanitarian and development needs–key priorities for a new country emerging from war and needing to build services, infrastructure and a peaceful future.

Yet despite this inspiring progress, today is not only a day of celebration, but of reflection on the the work still ahead. We call upon the international community to rededicate itself to ensuring that true peace is achieved in Sudan and in the new Republic. Although a formal peace agreement was signed in 2005, the new nation has not been at true peace. An unknown number of lives have been lost in fighting throughout disputed border territories. It is estimated that 113,000 people have been displaced in Abyei, a disputed border region, and at least another 73,000 more in South Kordofan, an area of Northern Sudan that has a high population of ethnic Southerners. Reports indicate that aerial bombings have killed civilians.

As in all wars, women are at a particularly high risk of violence. There were 2 million rapes during the civil war, and women and their children are always the majority of displaced persons. The 2010 State Department Human Rights Report points to violence and discrimination against women as a growing problem in South Sudan. “Security, development and education are the top priorities for women of South Sudan now,” says Mayik. “And for us to achieve a democratic South Sudan, this requires women’s active participation in all community and national matters.”

On this Independence Day, there is much work to be done, and women can lead the way forward. Women in our programs are courageously tilling their fields to feed their families and investing in the education and protection of future generations–building the foundations of an emerging civil society that is the bedrock of a stable nation. WfWI-Sudan agriculture trainer Rebecca Yar says she prays for a nation that upholds the dignity of the human person, putting an end to what she describes as the “cruelties of the past.” For her, the kind of commercial farming programs Women for Women is conducting in the countryside are laying the groundwork for a self-sufficient country, while opening needed sources of food and income in South Sudan’s under-developed rural areas.

As South Sudan continues down its path to peace and prosperity, the international community must take steps to protect women’s rights and provide space for them to share in articulating the future vision for this emerging country. “This is the end of a war, but it is only the beginning for my new country,” says Mayik, “we cannot do it without the women, and the women cannot do it alone. The violence must stop. Women must be supported in our efforts to create a peaceful future for our families, communities and this new country, starting today.” 

Article taken from

Kosovo Blog – Nora Russell, Major Gifts Officer – Women for Women International UK

Women for Women UK Major Gifts Officer Nora Russell traveled to Kosovo in June. She has written about her experiences and the women she met. We will be sharing her travel notes over the next month, so check back next week for more.

Day 1 – Tuesday  June 21st 2011

   We meet a group of exited supporters, including representatives from the Private Equity Foundation and Neal’s Yard Remedies, at the departure lounge in Gatwick, London. The short (3 hour) flight to Kosovo is filled with expectation and the knowledge that as soon as we land it will be all systems go! Bette Anne, one of our group members will be meeting her sponsors sister, I will be taking a smaller group to visit the Green market and find out more about everyday life in Prishtina and my Director, Brita will be leading the rest of the group through the centre of Prishtina. I am excited to meet my colleagues in Kosovo, who have never hosted a group visit before and have been so helpful over the phone in planning this trip.

As we fly over Kosovo, you can see the strips of land, divided into thin sections. I am shocked to learn that in this country of such fertile land, 80% of the food is imported and in the past year food prices have risen 50%. For the average family on an income of 250 Euros per month this has had significant effect upon their ability to afford the ‘luxuries’ of school books and a nutritionally balanced diet. More and more families rely upon remittances from relations working abroad.

I meet Faruk Beqa, WfWI Kosovo Income Generation Coordinator and Vehbi Kllokoqi, the Income Generation Manager and they take myself, Lauri Pastrone and Simon Wheeler, our photographer to visit the local Green Market. The Income Generation staff teach women to grow vegetables for their own family nutrition and then to expand and sell some of their produce in markets like this one. Vegetables fetch 10 times more than standard crops of wheat and corn which are more staple and popular with farmers.  Main crops include vegetables, strawberries and cherries in June. They also teach our participants how to grow onions, potatoes, carrots and cucumber and peppers, a favourite for pickling in preparation for the harsh winters. Cabbage is also popular as it is the main ingredient of a local cabbage & salt water drink prepared especially for the winter months.

The day ends with a beautiful and traditional meal of many courses on the hills overlooking Prishtina and as the sun sets Besa, one of my Kosovo colleagues takes courage in telling me her own story of experiencing the war, which officially started in 1997, but which was the result of many years of segregation of the two communities – Serbian and Albanian Kosovars.  

Besa was 16 years old when the war began, she was living with her parents, her nine year old brother and her grandmother. When Serbians entered their home they were given 3 minutes to pack and leave. Her parents were taken to a village and Besa, at 16, took on the responsibility of getting her grandmother and brother across the border into Macedonia. They took a bus. And then the bus broke down and they walked across the border, setting up a makeshift shelter amongst the other 500,000 refugees who had fled Kosovo into Macedonia. They stayed there for 5 days until they were able to take a place on Germany’s quota for refugees. Besa says she chose Germany as it was the closest to Kosovo and easier to get home. She was always thinking of returning home.

Whilst in Germany she heard that there had been a massacre in the village where her parents had been taken and not knowing whether her parents were alive or dead she waited by the phone to hear of news of them. The phone lines were cut when Nato bombed the Post Office and all main communication routes. Besa refused to go to school in Germany although she sent her younger brother and she says he was hysterical, crying and having nightmares every day.

Finally she heard the good news that her parents had survived the war and were safe and after 9 months they were able to return to Kosovo and found her parents. Besa now leads our women participants in life skills training classes.

Seeing the tears in her eyes, I thank her and tell her she is brave for telling her story, and she shrugs her shoulders and says; ‘This is everyone’s story. Everyone at this table has a similar story.’ 

To me this is amazing, she is the same age as me; could quite easily fit into my friendship group in the UK and yet at 16 she wasn’t studying for exams or going gooey over her first boyfriend. Instead she was fleeing for her life, responsible for two vulnerable family members and without her parents to turn to for help.  She sits opposite me with such resilience and composure and now she is working to change the lives of women who have similar stories every day.   



Recently, a global survey has named Afghanistan as the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a woman. But within this place, one woman in particular has been hailed “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.” With a long list of achievements to her name, and the recipient of many international awards, politician and activist Malalai Joya is most commonly known for her outspoken long-term commitment to women’s right, peace and justice in Afghanistan. A critic of the Taliban as well as the present ‘warlord’ government and the occupation, Joya claims that the situation for women has not improved since the invasion stating that war is never better for women. She believes that left to their own self-determination, the progressive men and women of Afghanistan could move the country forward for themselves.

Her refusal to compromise when exposing the truth about the realities of life in Afghanistan has left her the target of many assassination attempts. And yet she demands her voice to be heard as an elected member of the Afghan Parliament, touring internationally and authoring an autobiography ‘A Woman Among Warlords’. The most dangerous place to be a woman is clearly not stopping this woman becoming an increasingly influential figure spearheading justice for Afghan women and all peoples of Afghanistan

Last year he ran, this year he paddles…

At Women for Women International UK we take a lot of pride in our volunteers, specially in people like Chris Jackson. After visiting the DR of Congo some years ago, Chris was enormously struck by what he saw and heard, specially on the use of sexual violence in conflict. And so, last year Chris set on himself the amazing challenge to run 12 marathons in 12 months in order to fundraise money for Women for Women International UK.

Now in 2011, Chris has set on himself a new and rather exciting challenge, to kayak 427 miles on the Yukon River Quest! Chris' adventure starts this Wednesday at 12:00 sharp and will end on Friday 1st of July. 

At Women for Women International UK we want to wish Chris the best of luck and we hope to see him back in the UK very soon. 




If you would like to support Chris Jackson and raise funds for Women for Women International UK please go to

For more information on Chris' journey please visit his blog and follow him on twitter.



Women for Women International UK has been an active member of Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS UK) since its creation in 2006. GAPS UK works as a group of NGO's, academics  and grassroots dealing mainly with peace and development. Building on the mandate of UNSCR 1325 GAPS UK monitors the inclusion of women and a gender perspective in all aspects of UK policy and practice of peace and security. 

GAPS is currently running the No women, no peace. a campaign to ensure that women's voices are heard in peace negotiations. Watch the campaign video to find out more about the importance of women's participation in peace and reconciliation. You can't make peace by leaving half the people out. Take action for women in conflict at

Speakers in order of appearance: Nounou Booto, Enid Kakaire, Hilary Page, Natalie Sharples, Shelagh Daley and Helen Pankhurst.

Now you can sign up to our Newsletter in three easy steps!  

STEP #1: Look for the "Join Our Mailing List" box in the right hand column of the page.

STEP #2: Write down your email address, first name and last name.

STEP #3: Go to your email and click on the confirmation link provided AND YOU'RE DONE!

Our Newsletter comes out every month and includes  all the information you need to know about our up-coming events as well as reviews and pictures of our past events.

You can check out our June Women for Women UK Newsletter here

At Women for Women International UK we would like to extend a special heartfelt thank you to Ricky Mayer for her dedication in organizing a beautiful event that helped raised 1,000 euro! We would also like to thank Mary Reiss and Karina Magnussum who donated the wonderful pieces that were sold at the event.

If you want to get involved but don’t know how be sure to check out our website or send us an email to

Harper's Bazaar, together with London's  fashion boutique Browns, have joined forces to support Women for Women International by creating a line of "must have" limited edition T-shirts designed by six of the hottest and most renowned female Italian fashion designers.

This is the second year Bazaar has worked with Women for Women International for its "Women for Women" t-shirt campaign which was launched last year with English fashion designers.

The global launch took place at s*uce on May 16th.

Donatella Versace, Frida Giannini for Gucci, Veronica Etro, Angela Missoni, Albert Ferretti and Rossella Jardini at Moschino are all supporting Women for Women Interational UK.

de Südsudan en Southern Sudan ru Южный Судан

Image via Wikipedia

While the referendum in Sudan was conducted without violence, the period between the referendum and the declaration of independence (scheduled for July 9, 2011) has been marked by an increase in tension and violence throughout both northern and southern Sudan.  There are many issues still to bet settled between the governments of Sudan and South Sudan, however, much of the tension between these governments stem from the conflict over the disputed border region of Abyei, where much of the country’s oil wealth is found.  While the status of Abyei was to have been settled during the referendum, this was postponed due to its contentious nature; Abyei remains a disputed territory, with both Sudan and South Sudan laying claim to it.  As a result, Abyei has seen the increased presence of military forces from both northern and southern governments and has played host to violent clashes as negotiations continue.  Sudan and South Sudan seem to be no closer to a resolution of this issue today.  Most recently, South Sudan included Abyei as part of its territory in a draft of its new constitution which resulted in Sudan stating that it will not recognize South Sudan’s independence unless South Sudan removes Abyei from its constitution.

Yet, conflict in both Sudan andSouth Sudan goes beyond the disputes between the two governments over independence. South Sudan has seen a rise in violence from various rebel factions throughout its territory.  The rebel forces are expressing discontent with the government and their exclusion from the political process.  This increase in violence has disrupted the distribution of food by aid organizations to the many hungry and needy in South Sudan, increasing the already large humanitarian need within the south.  At the same time, Sudan has seen an increase in violence in Darfur, with thousands of civilians fleeing to already packed refugee camps.  Sudan is also experiencing an increase in humanitarian need from citizens who are attempting to return to the south but are stuck waiting in camps for transportation.  This increase in insecurity and violence in both Sudan and South Sudan has prompted much finger pointing, with both governments accusing the other of supporting the rebel factions within their territory.  There is still much to be resolved between now and the July 9th deadline to both quell the rising violence and to come to agreements regarding the details of the partition.

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This video discusses the impact of war in DR Congo and the way that rape has been used as a weapon in the conflict.

Programme director Christina Karumba, country director, Women for Women International – DRC, says:

Women are dying two types of death. The two types of deathare the physical and the emotional death. The physical death is where you are no longer alive to walk the earth, and the emotional death is where you no longer see signs of hope and are dead inside.

You can find out how the programme helps women regain hope to rebuild their lives and become active citizens who can speak out for others in their community. There is also footage of some of the hundreds of women who queue outside Women for Women International’s offices in the hope of an opportunity to be helped to rebuild their lives.

Our Run for Congo Women on 3 April will raise funds to help women take part.

Just £150 is enough to provide skills training for one woman in Congo, enabling her to earn an income and provide for her family.

We’re planning our next Run for Congo Women on 3 April and hope that, along with special guest runners Pamela Stephenson and Sam Roddick , you will help us make this year’s run even more successful.

The run is a great opportunity not only to raise funds for Women for Women International’s work with women in DR Congo. You can find out more about the conflict there and it’s impact on the lives of women and children by watching the above video.

The first Run for Congo event took place in the UK in July last year – you can watch a video of that run here.

Through this and other runs organised by supporters around the country – from Sheffield to Bristol to Leeds – we have been able to send an amazing £55, 700 to our programmes in DR Congo, which is enough to train 371 women.

Thank you to all our supporters and we hope that even more of you will join them and become part of the Run for Congo Women movement.

If you would like to book a place for this event please email

Here’s a copy of a letter sent to our office by Equality minister Lynne Featherstone after she attended the Join Me on the Bridge event in London.

It’s over a week now since International Women’s Day when an incredible 464 Bridge events took place in 70 countries across 6 continents. The photos and stories are still coming in, so here are some of the photos as a reminder of a wonderful day.

About 200 of the events took place outside of US and UK compared to 23 in 2010, which was a remarkable achievement by women everywhere.

Alicia Gomez Campos and her team make their banner in Brussels, Belgi

We are grateful for all the photos that have been coming through so far – they include some very beautiful images from children in Philippines and stunning shots from Accra in Ghana, to families in Malaysia and Brazil, women on top of Sydney Harbour Bridge and women in the snow in Armenia, as well as fantastic banners from Brussels, Mombasa, Lubeck and Liberia, doves in Niagara Falls, speakers in Paris and Canada and many many more.

Women in Accra, Ghana

The sense from these pictures is of true celebration and of the warmth and power of participants to stand for positive change.

Please take a look at the photos that have been uploaded so far onto the Google map, visit our gallery or take a look at the hundreds of photos posted on Flickr. There’s also a round up of all the events and news here.

In our Country Offices the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day was also a great success. In Afghanistan, 100 courageous women marched in Kardese in Kabul to call for peace and for women’s involvement in the peace-keeping processes. In DR Congo and Rwanda women from each country met on La Corniche Bridge that crosses the border to demonstrate how stronger women really can build bridges of peace.

Fundraising for Women for Women International can come in all shapes and sizes, and in this case it takes the form of a new wardrobe of clothes.

An avid supporter of Women for Women International, Lisa Tritton organised her first clothes swap in October last year, inviting 10 family and friends to bring their unwanted garments and trade them for new and improved items.

Based near Gympie in Queensland, Australia, each attendee paid a $10 entrance fee, receiving a voucher which could be exchanged for clothing. Some who could not attend simply made donations, adding to the already generous efforts of Lisa’s father and husband – her husband has even vowed to literally double each sum raised for as long as he can!

After the fun and frolics of the trying on of clothes, Lisa spoke to her guests about the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and played the Women for Women International DVD, followed by a Q&A and sponsorship discussion. Lisa says that the whole aim of the clothes swap project is to get people together so that she can share with them the atrocious circumstances for Congolese women living within the war zone, and what WFWI is doing there, encouraging awareness in the hope that they too will be inspired to sponsor and reach out to others in war torn countries.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has been named as the world’s most dangerous place to be a woman, and the systematic abuse, abduction and rape of females has long been utilised as a weapon of war. Inspired by Run for Congo founder Lisa Shannon’s book ‘A Thousand Sisters’, Lisa’s project has since roused significant interest in WFWI programmes, with several prospective donors and sponsors in the pipeline.

The first clothes swap alone raised $200, and Lisa has been continuing the clothes swap mission ever since, spreading the word of Women for Women International and raising awareness of the desperate situation for hundreds of thousands of women caught in the DR Congo’s sexual crossfire.

The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day generated a lot of thought-provoking articles about women around the world.
Here are some links to articles discussing women’s rights that discussed Women for Women International’s work and the Join Me on the Bridge campaign.

International Women’s Day: a century of slow progress
Caroline Davis, the Guardian

World Marks 100th Women’s Da
Voice of America

To empower African women, turn words into action
Belinda Otas, CNN International

NYC commemorates International Women’s Day in City Hall Park

Zainab Salbi, Iraqi American CEO and founder of Women for Women International
Homa Khaleeli for the’s Top 100 women: activists and campaigners series

International Women’s Day in London

Eurythmics star Annie Lennox: ‘cutting services to vulnerable women really worrying
Ross MacMillan, 24dash

On 8 March women in 70 countries took part in 474 events to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day, standing on bridges to say no to war and yes to peace.

This short video gives just a small taste of some of the remarkable women from Kabul in Afghanistan to Sydney, Australia and Goma in DR Congo who took part and made the day so memorable.

Sweeta Noori, Country Director for Afghanistan of Women for Women International, speaking on International Women’s Day, explains to David James why it was such a significant day for women in Afghanistan.

International Women’s Day means a lot to the women of Afghanistan. It means for us  that we are here to stand and express our unity and solidarity with other women that have the strength and stand for women in Afghanistan all over the world. It means for our women today that they are not alone. There are other sisters, sisters and brothers who are supporting women to have their voices.

We are here today to ask our government that from the grass root level women that we are now, that we know everything. We know that a lot is going on behind the closed door of government. For
instance we know that now there is negotiation with the Taliban. But we know, Afghan women know, that this is at the expense of women’s rights. We want 50 per cent of seats in the High Peace Commission because women are half of the population.

Half of the whole population of Afghanistan are women. They are power. They have their unity. As long as Afghanistan leaves women behind there will be no peace in Afghanistan. There is no development in Afghanistan for the long term.

We need our government and the world to recognise women’s rights in Afghanistan. There is huge movement of Afghanistan, now the women in Afghanistan they realise they are not alone. With that hope they start their movement.

We need from the world, we need their support. Not short term support but long term support we need until we have that capacity to run by our own foot. That is what we need from the world. And I am sure that all women around the world standing on the bridge, they are standing together to show their support. That the women in war torn areas, theyare not alone.

Of course we have a message for Hilary Clinton. I want to tell her we have a huge movement. We NEED the troops of the US and NATO to be with us. To support these women to move for the future and be involved in their country’s development, to have a bright future [for] Afghanistan. If they leave us, in this time, I’m sure that all of that movement will stop; because we need support.

This is the time that our women start the movement. We need long term support for our women. We need to make sure that the US government and the international community, to make sure that the assistance reaches these women.

Billions of dollars have been spent in Afghanistan but the minority of that support reaches these women. But you see they are power. We have to move… we have to wake that power for the future of Afghanistan. Again I want to emphasise that if we leave these women behind there is no peace, no development, no stability in Afghanistan. We are half of the population in Afghanistan. That’s what I want to tell Ms. Hilary Clinton.

Bridge event in Kabul by David James

Written by David James, Kabul

We’re standing on a bridge on an overcast and muddy morning in Kabul
waiting to see if anyone is going to turn up for the International
Women’s Day Join Us On the Bridge event.

The Kabul river is little more than a sluggish stream at the best of times and today its exposed muddy bed is strewn with litter. There’s not really anywhere in Kabul that could claim to be salubrious and this particular part of town certainly isn’t going to feature on any postcards any time soon.
I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to get pictures that convey
anything other than overwhelming gloom and despondency in a location
and weather like this.

At 8:15, right on time, one, then two, then three buses arrive and the
street becomes completely choked with Afghan women. The traffic in
this little piece of Kabul at least comes to a standstill. There’s a
word I’m searching for. Dignity. Despite the mud and the gloom there’s
a palpable sense of dignity in the air as the Afghan women assemble
behind their banners.

Sweeta Noori, the Women for Women Country Director for Afghanistan
encourages some of the women to write messages of peace on the
banners. There is an eagerness to express something, to make a public
statement perhaps for the first time ever and the women queue in a
demur manner to make their mark. Most cannot write, some may have
never held a pen before, so they draw what they cannot write -
flowers, birds, smiling faces, a rising sun….

When the moment is right, with no obvious command, signal or sign the
women step forward in unison. Perhaps it is the cold, perhaps it is
fear but the women draw their scarves tightly about their faces and
march forward in the mud. It is almost at the very moment that the
first woman’s foot touches the bridge that the sun breaks through the
black clouds to envelope the women in a golden light.

There is a real sense of accomplishment as the women claim the far
side of the bridge and Sweeta speaks passionately about how proud they should feel about what they have achieved. It certainly feels
to me that I am witnessing a small but potentially significant piece
of history and I think the women feel it too.

The question we, as the international community and individuals, have to ask ourselves is have we got what it takes to meet these women of dignity on the bridge or are we going to convince ourselves that Afghanistan is a lost cause and leave them to their fate?

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The Institute of Chartered Marketing shares its centenary with International Women’s Day this year. To mark the occasion
the Institute is holding a Women in Marketing conference focusing on diversity between 6.30 pm and 9.30 pm.

Maria Andrews, marketing communications director of Women for Women UK will be presenting at the event, which you can book here.

Ade Onilude from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, says:

Women in Marketing Diversity is quite a topical subject this year aka latest press coverage on diversity in the board room and the goverments support for more female representation

Ladies and Gentlemen be educated and inspired by our stella list of speakers and distinguished guest celebrate with wine and canapes the Centeneray of International Women’s Day and The Centenuary of CIM.

The Liberia Crisis Center is organising a march in the capital, Monrovia on 8 March. In the morning, women, girls, and men will gather along both side of the Stephen Tolbert “Double Bridge” in Gardnerville, Monrovia

Participants will include the two communities that connect the Bridge, along with student’s representatives from the Africa Christian Fellowship, and New Georgia Public School, and several invited guests.

A second event is also planned in the Town of Kparblee on the Bridge over the Quee River, Nimba County, where refugee women from Ivory Coast who are now living in Liberia will be taking part and there will be music, singing and dancing.

Beverly Goll Yekeson explains what the Crisis Center hopes to achieve on International Women’s Day:

This is a great opportunity to share the message of peace

I heard about the Join me on the Bridge campaign during the planning phase of my 2010, 20 miles run Taking Steps to End Violence against Women and Children in synergy with the 16 days of Activism. I visited Women for Women International website to read about the Run for Congo Women and saw details of the Bridge campaign.

I was prompted after attending some of the UNHCR meetings in Liberia back in December of 2010 on the current election violence in the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). According to latest data there are now 31,339 Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia.

We want to share how important the message of peace is in the entire sub-region of African, especially with Ivorian refugees who are in the east because of the election violence in Ivory Coast, and the upcoming Liberia election scheduled for November 2011.

The event will also have an indoor programme at the Monrovia Vocational Training Institute – personal stories, special prayers for the refugees and for the people of Ivory Coast, music, and more to mark the event. We have contacted the local newspapers and radio. Public services announcements will play all of next week in Monrovia.

We want to emphasise the message of peace.

Our event is an important way of bringing attention and awareness to women and children displaced by the election violence in the Ivory Coast and the hardship they are currently bearing in the eastern part of Town of Bahn/Town of Kparblee in Liberia.

Looking back to the first International Women’s Day Event in 1911, we have come a long way.

I see more and more women coming to together to advocate on human rights issues, better policies and programmes.

The “Join me on the Bridge” campaign is a good example and the just new creation of UN Women. We have to keep empowering women and letting they know they are not alone in their quest for peace. There is still much work to be done, but with our partnership with Women for Women International Bridge Campaign is one positive effort that the Liberia Crisis Center is making to extend the issues of women’s right.

When mothers, grandmothers, aunts,daughters and sisters come together we have a very large impact

And that violence can be stopped when women are resilient in expressing their demur against the act, and also supporting others still suffering sexual violence, and struggling to live in peace.

On 8 March we hope to reaffirm women’s solidarity in the struggle for peace and to show what women have achieved. We also hope to also support others still suffering sexual violence, and struggling to live in peace.

It is vital that women other women join us

Without their involvement, violence against women and girls, and lack of economic empowerment for women in Liberia and in other war torn countries will only remain an unrealised dream.

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Afghan women voters line up to cast their ballots at a mosque made into a polling station in Kabul in August, 2009

Hope is dying in Afghanistan.

These are the words of my colleague, Sweeta Noori, who directs Women for Women International’s Afghanistan programmes. These words from a woman who has seen it all: from socialist government, to Mujahidin rebels, to Taliban control. She has seen more than three decades factions vying for power, of popular hope for peace, of alternating promises to curtail or to create women’s rights. Only now is the last of hope evaporating for the women of Afghanistan.

As I celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this March, Sweeta’s words resonate in my mind and my thoughts turn to my sisters in Afghanistan. It strikes me that if hope is dying in Afghanistan, our celebrations are premature.

This centennial anniversary of International Women’s Day, Afghanistan is for me a stark reminder of the distance we have to go in ensuring equality for all: equality economically, equality politically and equality socially.

Women and their children are still 70 per cent of all civilians killed in war and 80% of all refugees. Only eight per cent of all peace talks have included women at any level. International Women’s Day is a time to come together and see how far we have come but to not get caught up in the remembrance; it is also a time to move forward. It is a time to recognise that women are standing up on their own and that we as the international community need to honor that act of courage and support them and protect the space in which to do this.

The women of Afghanistan are not silent; they are ignored. Last September, a record number of women ran for parliament and were sworn into the national army. But female parliamentarians, once sworn into office, report that male colleagues switch off their microphones and revile them when they attempt to govern.

In 2009, the government quietly ushered through a law severely restricting the rights of women of the Shia minority. But hundreds of women of all backgrounds took to the street in protest. Last summer’s Peace Jirga, which would determine whether or not to hold peace talks with the Taliban, was initially only open to twenty women, out of more than one thousand participants. It was only after intense lobbying and international pressure that the Afghan government allowed 350 female participants to attend. The current High Peace Council, tasked with administering those talks, holds only ten women. But hundreds of women will be participating in a peace march in Kabul in honor of International Women’s Day.

Let us stand with them. This International Women’s Day, stand with us to raise awareness about the rollback on women’s rights that is happening today in Afghanistan. Together, let us shine light on the behind-the-scenes debates that will make or break the future for women’s rights and participation in Afghanistan. Women build bridges of peace and development. Join us on bridges around the world this International Women’s Day to show your solidarity.

By standing together globally this International Women’s Day in support of our Afghan sisters, we stand to ensure that it is politically unacceptable to rollback women’s rights; that it is politically unacceptable to exclude women from peace talks; that it is political suicide for government to ignore the rights of the governed.
All around the world, these many weeks have been marked by protest. The world has again come to know the power of the people’s voice. This March 8, 2011 thousands of women in New York, Rwanda, London, Lahore, and Kabul will be joining together to build bridges of peace and development. Add your voice to our call for peace and prosperity for all.

Together we will bring their hope back to life.

By CEO and Founder of Women for Women International, Zainab Salbi, originally posted on Huffington Post.

Photo credit: Visionshare via a creative commons licence.

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Claire Hughes Johnson, VP, global cnlinesales and chair, Google women’s professional community, writes on the Google blog, about the resources that are available to help you set up an event or find out about an event near you.

Take a look at the map here and make 8 March 2011 a day to remember by joining women on a bridge.

In Afghanistan, past, present and future, a post for Her Blueprint, the blog of the International Museum of Women, Kate Stence writes about the women of Afghanistan and the importance of the Join Me on the Bridge campaign as a show of support for them.

Here’s an extract below – and it’s well worth reading the whole piece here.

This year also marks the ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001, the day which provoked the War on Terror and initial invasion of Afghanistan. Late last year, after Afghanistan elections took place and the US announced plans for a 2011 slowdown and 2014 pullout, myriad articles focusing on Afghanistan were published by mainstream news sources reflecting life for the Afghanistan women and children who remain alive.

In Nicholas Kristof’s What About Afghan Women?, the New York Times reporter and human rights advocate shares that although less women wear the full burqa, they keep them on hand “just in case.” Kristof also shares that most women he interviewed, “favored making a deal with the Taliban — simply because it would bring peace. For them, the Taliban regime was awful, but a perpetual war may be worse.”

“Oppression,” Kristof says, “is rooted not only in the Taliban but also in the culture.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree, cofounder of The Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation, which is dedicated exclusively to “nation building through information sharing and to raise awareness and broaden knowledge about the history and culture of the people of Afghanistan throughout the United States,” has spent most of her life studying Afghan culture.

Recently honored as archivist of the year, Dupree was quoted in 2009 by the Global Post commenting on the U.S. Military and diplomatic approach in Afghanistan. “They make strategies for people who they don’t talk to… They sit behind the fortress with razor wire walls… They don’t seem to realize the strategy has to be about the people,” Dupree said from her home in Kabul.

Last November, Canadian Journalist Sally Armstong’s To the Women of Afghanistan made an outright call for Afghanistan women to push for rights.

Women of Afghanistan, it is time to go to the barricades.

Now is the hour to claim your rights. Negotiations are under way in earnest; the Taliban are at the table, so are the warlords and bandits, tribal elders and the president. There’s not a woman in sight. Yet everyone knows you are the ones who can yank Afghanistan into the 21st century.

You’ve been denied everything from human rights and jobs to health care and education. You refer to your illiteracy as being blind because as one woman said, “I couldn’t read so I couldn’t see what was going on.”

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With the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day getting closer each day, the sense of anticipation is growing.

We particularly get excited when we hear about your new bridge events and ideas. From a gathering underneath Oxford University’s Bridge of Sighs to a march across the Great Wall of China the events being planned are so inspiring. Please keep them coming!

You still have plenty of time to organise your own bridge event and join the growing worldwide movement.

Now’s the moment to stand strong with women to build bridges of peace across the world today, and to honour our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers who took such a strong stand for women’s equality 100 years ago.

This year, to mark 100 years of International Women’s Day we are showing our support for women in Afghanistan – and asking you to raise £100, €100 or $100 to help women currently enrolled in our programme there.

If you raise that amount you will have your name added to our online peace banner, a Virtual Wall of individuals like you who want peace and development around the world.

Your place on the banner will be something to be proud of, and you can share it on Facebook to show to your friends and family.

If you reach the goal of raising £/$ 100 by 1 March 2011 your name will also be included on a visual display that will be presented to the 6,000 women survivors of war currently enrolled in our programme in Afghanistan. Show them your support! Of course, you can carry on fundraising after International Women’s Day.

If you raise over 500 a special gift will be sent to you to thank you for your contribution to our appeal. Please remember to give your contact details. Thank you for your support and donations.
Women for Women International UK is sending out special bracelets like these made from silver and copper.

Annie Lennox, who took part in last year’s Join Me On the Bridge campaign, has since spearheaded the creation of EQUALS, a coalition of leading charities with the aim of using the centenary of International Women’s Day to renew the call for a more equal world.

The singer and humanitarian will be leading the march in London, which will begin at Borough Market at 10 am on 8 March. Will YOU join her on the Bridge?

The letter Vikki Ericks (pictured) urging friends and supporters to help put Rome on the “fund-raising map” and take part in two events organised to raise awareness of the plight of Congolese women and Women for Women International’s work is an inspiring read.

You can read more about the event on our Get Involved page here.

In 2009, when I left the theatre in New York after having seen Lynn Nottage’s play “Ruined”, a dramatic account of the horrific lives of Congolese women, I felt that ‘I had to do something’. Those words echoed those of Lisa Shannon, who felt she “had to do something” when she learned of the plight of the women of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), while watching a segment of the “Oprah Winfrey Show”. The mantra “I had to do something,“ has inspired women around the globe to get involved in helping these women.

For more than a decade the women of the Congo have been subjected to escalating violence and the most unimaginable physical abuses — gang rape, mutilation, torture and murder — by a monstrous militia fighting regional wars that have ravaged the country. After such unspeakable suffering, these women are cast out of their villages and forbidden to rejoin their children and families. They are left without provisions, without shelter or medical care – many of them having contracted AIDS from their tormentors.

In order to raise funds to relieve the suffering of these women, in 2005, Lisa Shannon founded “Run for Congo Women”, which operates under the umbrella of Women for Women International. The initiative provides Congolese women with the same measure of support they provide to women of seven other countries: financial assistance, job training, education, human rights awareness, trauma counselling and small business assistance so they can rebuild their lives.

Within its first year “Run for Congo Women”, aided 1,600 women. Since 2005, the initiative has raised more than 800,000 U.S. dollars. Women around the world have organized runs, walks and cycling teams. Let’s not leave Rome off the fund-raising map. Join me in making a donation to a very worthy cause. The success and health of one woman anywhere is the success of every woman everywhere.

There are more photographs of both events on our Facebook page here.

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Friday round up


The coming months will be crucial for women in Afghanistan as discussions continue about the withdrawal of troops and reconciliation with the Taliban. There were reports this week that Canada could play a role in protecting women’s rights after July 2011.

Interest in women’s rights initiatives in Afghanistan “remains lukewarm” says the National Post, adding  that many activists argue the West, including Canada, has failed to live up to its promises to Afghan women.

From the very beginning, I think women’s issues in Afghanistan were a way to gain public support for intervention,” said Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, a conflict studies professor at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa.

It has allowed advocates and activists to then hold the international community and hold leaders accountable for those promises but I don’t think the promises have been fulfilled in the ways and in the extent to which they could have and should have.


Angelina Jolie has been refused permission to film in Bosnia, the Telegraph reports. The film, which was to be her directorial debut, has sparked controversy because of its storyline relating to the Bosnian rape camps. The Telegraph also published letters from victims’ associations.

DR Congo

A military solution championed by Rwanda and DR Congo for restive eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has failed and the region risks deteriorating, the International Crisis Group has warned,  AFP reports

… instead of improving, the humanitarian situation in the Kivus has deteriorated and violence has increased in a region plagued by various rebel and militia groups, the ICG said.

Women and girls, particularly, have suffered the consequences of impunity and of a highly militarised environment in which rape is endemic.

As the UN works to be more “proactive” after its failure in the summer to protect women and children from mass rape in DR Congo, the Guardian has an interview with gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, which reflects the scale of rape in the region. Denis Mukwege and his team have surgically repaired more than 20,000 women out of the thousands who have been war-raped in the Congo’s Great Lakes region.

Rape destroys women beyond the bounds of the describable.

The indescribable events here amount to the worst form of terrorism. In any other part of the world, the international community would have put a stop to it. International justice is not doing its work here. There are people in some parts of the world who believe that other human beings – Africans – somehow have a higher threshold of pain, that they love their children less, that savagery for them is normal, or rape culturally acceptable.

Photo credit: Jayanth Vincent via a creative commons licence

Leah Chishugi, who describes herself as a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda and has recently written a book A Long Way from Paradise was speaking at an event at London’s Frontline Club recently.

She spoke about her decision to speak about her experience after years of silence, explaining she could see that atrocities “were not finished yet” and people “had to see what war did to other people”.

Now working with women in DR Congo, Leah Chishugi described the “privileged, sheltered” life she lived before the day she saw the plane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994.

Aged 17, with a young baby at the time, Leah Chishugi spoke of the “nightmare” of violence that erupted and the way that life was “transformed in one second and you become nobody and you just don’t have anything at all”.

You can hear more from Leah Chishugi about rebuilding her life and her commitment to “writing and speaking out” to prevent further atrocities happening in DR Congo here.

Go to our website for more  information on Women for Women International’s work in DR Congo and Rwanda.

Women for Women International UK’s Marketing Communications director was one of a great team who put on their running shoes on Saturday to take part in a 10k Run for Congo Women in Greenwich Park in south east London.

Here’s what she wrote about the day:

It was an early start for me on Saturday 13 November as I travelled from my home in Brighton to Greenwich Park for a 10k run – supporting women we work with in DRC.

I’ve had some amazing support from friends and family from all over the world including generous donations from my Australian friends. THANK YOU GUYS.

Your donations go towards enabling the women in DRC to rebuild their lives after surviving the extreme sexual violence because of the conflict.

My challenge was to run the 10k in under an hour, which I managed in 55 minutes. A much easier task to how the Congolese women needing to be so strong and resilient to be able to support their families and their communities. Yet with your help you have provided an opportunity for more women to join the Women for Women International programme in DRC –be able to turn their lives around.

Thank again for all your support, kind words and donations.

Photo credit: Zuzia Danielski

Friday round up

Democratic Republic of Congo

There have been further reports of sexual violence in DRC: Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the U.N.’s humanitarian agency, said they were investigating reports that some 700 Congolese women were sexually attacked when they were among 7,000 Congolese expelled from Angola in October.

Many of the victims said they were locked in dungeon-like conditions for several weeks while they were raped repeatedly by security forces. At least one woman died from her internal injuries, The New York Times reports.

Maurizio Giuliano called on Angola and Congo to investigate the claims:

We call on them to investigate these allegations and to prevent any human rights violations during any future expulsions.


Alissa J. Rubin

writes in the New York Times about the women driven to attempt suicide in Aghanistan:

Even the poorest families in Afghanistan have matches and cooking fuel. The combination usually sustains life. But it also can be the makings of a horrifying escape: from poverty, from forced marriages, from the abuse and despondency that can be the fate of Afghan women.

In this beautiful piece, Dinner Plans in Kabul, multimedia and TV journalist Anita Sreedhar writes about the adjustments she had to make when she lived in Kabul:

My first weeks here were the most painful – having to unlearn everything I had picked up in rambunctious, loud Delhi. In Kabul, I felt like as if I was a captive – wrapped around the head with a scarf that acted as a leash that instructed me to behave in a certain way. My first week was a string of commands from my male, Afghan co-workers and crew, who for my sake taught me how to behave on the streets – “don’t laugh too loud,” “keep your hands hidden,” “don’t say things too loud,” “try and keep your chin down,” “stop walking like you own the street!” And the ever familiar, “wear your headscarf tighter, Anita-jaan, it is falling off!

Women for Women International

Chris Jackson completed number 11 of twelve marathons he plans to run this year to support women in the Congo. Read his blog post about the run here.

Since 1981, 25 November has been marked as a day against violence by women’s activists in recognition of the Mirabel sisters: three political activists assassinated in the Dominican Republic on the orders of the dictator they opposed, Rafael Trujillo.

Women marching through the streets of Equatorial Guinea's capital, Malabo, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

The three women, Patria Mercedes MirabalMaría Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal were intercepted on 25 November, 1960 as they returned from visiting their husbands in prison and beaten to death.

Their sister, Bélgica Adela “Dedé” Mirabal-Reyes, still lives and is dedicated to preserving the three womens’ memory.
On 17 December 1999 the UN General Assembly designated 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and encouraged governments, international organisations and NGOs to organise activities to raise awareness.

Twenty years on, one in three women globally experience violence, and this number rises in countries affected by conflict. This year at a special event, Women for Women International UK and No Women No Peace will be focusing on violence against women in areas of conflict, with a particular focus on Nigeria.

Women for Women International’s Nigeria Country Director, Ngozi Eze, will be speaking about the current situation for women in Nigeria and the disproportionate impact that violence has on their lives. She will also talk about how economic opportunities are key in providing women security. She will be joined by Chinwe Azubuike — a contemporary African poet and campaigner for the rights of widows.

For more information, go to our website or you can register for a place by emailing with “Nigeria: Stronger Women, Stronger Nations” as the email subject. Tickets are £5 waged, £3 unwaged, and payment can be made at the door.

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Photo credit: John and Mel Kots via a Creative Commons licence.

Friday round up


The bodies of two women were discovered in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, CNN reports. One of the murdered women is said to be founder of the Mahjoba Herawi Organisation that helps women become economically self-sufficient by setting up small enterprises such as raisin mills and textile factories, and convincing other businesses to take them on.

Majabeen Subhanzada who ran a construction business, as well as Mahjoba Herawi, which works with impoverished, widowed and disabled women, spoke to journalists Lynne O’Donnell in an interview published in March this year titled Afghan women dice with death to work:

The threats, she said, come from the Taliban, Islamists who still hold sway across no-go areas of the south, often in tandem with drug traffickers.

I am very afraid of the situation in Helmand province because despite reports that it is secure, it is not secure, it is not safe.

I have been warned to stop working, to stop encouraging other women to work.


Speculation over a film directed by Angelina Jolie about rape in Bosnia has sparked a “fierce debate over the political and social influence of war victims’ groups” writes Peter Beaumont in the Guardian.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Chris Jackson writes on his blog about marathon number 11 in New York on Sunday 7 November:

I’ve had a tricky few weeks with a bad ankle of late. I started to feel quite down about the whole thing, but then I started to think about many of the women I met in the DRC, who continue to be incredibly upbeat and positive despite suffering horrific wounds at the hands of their attackers. Two of these women standout and I’ll be thinking about them when I run on Sunday.

Women for Women International

In an interesting Huffington Post interview with Karen Sherman, Women for Women International‘s executive director of Global Programs, describes the programmes and what they set out to achieve.

When asked how relationships of trust were built with women was built, Karen Sherman answered:

First, we listen. We have trainers/social workers, if you will, who spend a lot of time not just teaching, but listening to the women and encouraging them to tell their stories, many of whom are opening up for the first time.

I think what’s unique about the program is that women are able to find their voice, and because we provide a safe space for them they feel comfortable speaking out. I was amazed when I was in Iraq recently, my first visit to the country. I met one woman whose vocational track was candle making, through a partnership we have with Prosperity Candle. The woman told me that before she joined Women for Women International, she had actually tried to commit suicide. Her life was really a mess. Her parents were getting divorced; the war was tearing everybody apart and she was just at the end, desperate. She took some pills and ended up in the hospital. While she was in the hospital, her aunts came to see her and asked her if she had heard about the Women for Women International’s programs. She hadn’t, but she decided to give it a try and since then, her life has been changed for the better.

Now she’s earning money for herself and her family. She is making candles and she also secured a job as an assistant in a medical clinic. She looked more beautiful and confident, and I think her ability to earn an income was a great source of pride. She was able to afford things not just for herself, but for her whole family. Her transformation was amazing to witness.

No women no peace

A letter in the Guardian signed by Laura Hotchkiss, director, Gender Action for Peace and Security and other GAPS UK members, including Kate Nustedt, Women for Women International UK’s executive director, called on the government to “commit new energy and resources to address the issues faced by women in conflict”:

Ten years ago last weekend the UN pledged to involve women in building peace around the world. Yet a decade on, women continue to suffer the devastating impacts of war, while being denied a voice for peace.

In so many conflicts, women experience extraordinary levels of brutality and distress. Sexual violence against women is used as a weapon for intimidation, humiliation, displacement and control. Often primary caregivers, women bear the brunt of destroyed hospitals, schools and farms. Widows often face extreme stigma and poverty.

The UK government was influential in ensuring women, peace and security were placed on the global agenda. However, after 10 years, it must commit new energy and resources to address the issues faced by women in conflict.

In this crucial anniversary year, the No Women, No Peace campaign calls on the UK government to put women at the heart of peacebuilding.

Laura Hotchkiss Director, Gender Action for Peace and Security and the following GAPS UK members: Belinda Calaguas Director of policy and campaigns, ActionAid UK, Kate Allen Director, Amnesty International UK, Inge Relph Director, Arab International Women’s Forum, Geoffrey Dennis CEO, CARE International UK, Dan Smith Secretary general, International Alert, Lesley Abdela Senior partner, Shevolution, Jan Grasty President, Unifem UK National Committee (part of UN Women), Pat Pleasance President, UK WILPF, Sue Turrell Executive director, Womankind Worldwide, Kate Nustedt Executive director, Women for Women International UK, Margaret Owen Director, Widows for Peace through Democracy

Other stories

Again in the Huffington Post Kate Otto has written about women entrepreneurs in Rwanda and IndegoAfrica, which encourages women in business and Fair Trade.

Photocredit: isafmedia via a creative commons licence and Fjona Hill

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Denise Prentice who writes the inspiring Creatrix blog has written a thoughtful post about the Democratic Republic of Congo and its notoriety as ‘rape capital of the world’ and how she herself was inspired by the work of Women for Women International.

Here’s an extract from the post:

I came across an organisation called Women for Women International at a fundraising lunch in the summer and was inspired by the existence of an organisation dedicated to empowering women affected by war, by means of education and economic autonomy. With these tools, women are enabled to support themselves and their families, to the ultimate benefit of their communities. In the desperate circumstances characterised in the DRC, Women for Women International have sought to confront the endemic issue of rape by working directly with women, with the aim of making them aware of their rights and encouraging support groups and trauma counselling. In addition to this aim, an opportunity was sought in dealing with this issue in a progressive and innovative way.

The Men’s Leadership Program (MLP) was established in 2005, born of a recognition that in viewing women as victims and men purely as perpetrators, only provided a limited perspective to a very complicated problem. In moving a society forward, in which women’s rights and safety are treated with respect and integrity, the active engagement of men is not only desirable but essential. The methodology of the MLP is to partner and train with male community leaders, drawn from governmental, religious, traditional, security and military sectors, to reach out to other men with the aim of raising awareness about the destructive impact that sexual violence against women has upon the community as a whole.

In a country where the stigma of rape often leads to women being turned out of their homes and are even ostracised by their communities, this is a dialogue worth having. This dialogue enables men who in some cases have been the perpetrators of sexual violence, to speak openly about the desensitising effect that their actions have on a personal level. For in the destabilising climate of war, all rules are suspended and the resultant chaos can have an equally degrading effect on the mindset of the perpetrators, as well as the victims.

This dialogue has also enabled men to question and challenge the status quo regarding women in a broader sense. Re-evaluating how women are valued and perceived in the DRC has led to open discussions on domestic violence, female self-expression and land ownership – issues which were rarely discussed freely, or even considered as relevant.

In its attempts to rebuild a shattered society, the DRC faces a myriad of challenges emanating from infrastructural and governmental fragility and therefore has a long and difficult road to travel towards a functioning and safe society. However, the work of the MLP is a demonstration of the effectiveness of honest dialogue as a means of engaging ordinary individuals to effect change and to become the direct beneficiaries of the resultant peace. The most inspirational part of all, is that in refusing to resort to an oversimplified view of the world; where men are perceived as the dangerous ‘other’ and the cause of the problem, the way is opened up for real progress, in which men are an integral part of the solution.

Here are the final articles written by Lyric Thompson, Women for Women International’s senior policy analyst for Open Democracy to mark the 10th anniversary of a landmark piece of international law that codifies the link between women, peace and security – the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000).

1325: An Exciting Moment

In this 25 October piece, Lyric Thompson explains why, in the final week of the tenth anniversary of SCR 1325, there is a sense of guarded optimism in the women’s peace community.

UNIFEM, now part of UN Women, continues to be at the centre of efforts to tie the anniversary to action, both internally within the UN system and externally by engaging public support. The agency has launched a public campaign to “Make Women Count for Peace,” featuring a petition for activists to encourage their governments to implement 1325 by prosecuting those who command and/or commit sexual violence and exclude them from armies and police forces after conflict, ensuring that women participate in peace negotiations and all post-conflict decision-making institutions, and increasing the number of women in troops, police forces and civilians within international peacekeeping efforts. The campaign also features a social media component for activists to grow the movement on facebook and twitter.

Civil society diplomats at the UN

In this final 29 October piece Lyric Thompson describes the protest outside the United Nations and the Security Council debate on 10 years of progress implementing 1325 that followed and asks: what change will there be at the UN in the next ten years for women working for peace and security?

The path will be long. At a minimum, UN Women will become operational in January 2011, bringing more financial and human resources to gender issues than ever before—1325 prominent among them.  It will be headed by the ex-president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Her strong testimony at the Global Open Days in New York gave reason to believe that UN Women will take the leadership 1325 needs. With the other agencies in the Secretariat, the new agency will begin rolling out the global indicators and the Secretary General’s 7-point action plan for more gender-responsive peacebuilding. More countries will roll out National Action Plans to implement 1325, but whether we will see the first female chief mediator to peace negotiations appointed, sufficient funds allocated, or more attention paid to women’s role in early-warning and conflict prevention measures – only time will tell.

Photocredit: The US Army via a creative commons licence

A wonderful group of women in Singapore lead by Hannah Saulbrey Ross organised a swish evening, swapping clothes and books with friends to raise money for Women for Women International.

Below is a photo of all the women that helped to raise money to support women in war torn countries.

Women’s Forum 2010 – ZAINAB SALBI from No Country for Young Women on Vimeo.

Women for Women International founder and CEO Zainab Salbi spoke recently at the Women’s Forum 2010 highlighting the problems that women face around the world:

We live in a world where one out of four women is violated through rape and domestic violence, many kinds of violation in the world today and where two thirds of the most impoverished people in the world are women. We live in a world where

KATE SPADE NEW YORK landed in London last week and held a housewarming party to celebrate with Deborah Lloyd, chief creative officer (pictured below).

There was a girl band (pictured below, cocktails and canapes and time to wander around the store and admire all their lovely products.

Among Kate Spade’s beautiful accessories are those made by women who are part of the Women for Women International programme to support micro-enterprises for women who are working on rebuilding their lives following conflict and war. Here is a photo of one of the products – a bag made by women in Bosnia & Herzegovina (below).

Kate Stence, associate editor of International Museum of Women’s Her Blueprint and avid endurance runner, writes about Team Congo’s recent race together in the 20 K de Paris.

The Autumn sun was vibrant, if not spectacular, by the time we arrived at the start line for the 20 K de Paris. Dressed in Run for Congo Women shirts we readied to take off and got off to a strong start.

The sideline supporters were at times so noisy that those who came out to cheer us were simply lost in the crowd.
I often think of the following when I run:

Democratic Republic of Congo presents one of the world’s deadliest emergencies to date. More than 5.4 million people have died since 1998. Gang rape and brutal torture are a daily reality for the women and children of Congo. Women as old as 80 and as young as five have been victims of rape and other forms of sex
ual violence. 38,000 continue to die every month, 1200 a day. Half of these deaths are children under the age of 5 years.

That truth keeps me running even when I feel fatigued.

Crossing the finish line brought members of Team Congo Paris true joy. Alice Phan, pictured above, was literally elevated from happiness post-race. Team Congo Paris were delighted to have been out there running together raising awareness, pushing our own bodies as a metaphor for Congolese women.

Read more about Run for Congo Women and Team Congo Paris at the International Museum of Women’s Her Blueprint or join us for a 1.5K, 5K, 10K run as part of our 7 November Run for Congo Women event.

The launch of Tank Magazine’s Art Attack at DKNY’s flagship store in Old Bond Street last week was the beginning of a heady few days that culminated with the sale of five artworks donated to Women for Women International raising a staggering £239,000 at Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art Sale.

Take a look at some of the art works that were on display at the party. They are just some of the 23 works that are included in Tank Magazine’s Art Attack Issue, a stunning printed exhibition of work by artists invited to take part in this incredible project by Nadja Romain (second left in photo below) and Jose Marto (left) with designer Ron Arad and Mercedes Zobel (right)

Five original artworks by Michael Craig-Martin, Tracey Emin, Isaac Julien, Jenny Saville and Lawrence Weiner were sold at the Christies’s online auction.

The other artworks PLUS No 1 of the limited edition Art Issue that are sold with a certificate of authenticity in a box designed by Ron Arad (he’s pictured again holding one of the signed boxes below).

The artists who donated work for the second sale are: Matthias Bitzer; Ross Bleckner; Valery Chtak; Francesco Clemente; Alberto di Fabio; Tony Just; Jacques Martinez; Servane Mary; Domingo Milella; Andrei Molodkin; Sarah Morris; Robert Moskowitz; Shirin Neshat; Elizabeth Peyton; Richard Phillips; David Salle.

The auction, which opened on 12 October will remain open until 5:30pm(GMT) on Tuesday 19 October. All profits from the auction will be donated to Women for Women International. This is such an incredible project which has involved so much hard work and effort from so many people. We really are very grateful.

There’s no doubt that women were the focus of much discussion this week at the Millennium Development Goals summit in New York this week.

A new $40 billion initiative designed aimed at saving the lives of 16 million women and children over the next five years was announced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who urged world leaders to focus on women as part of their commitment to achieving the MDGs by 2015.

We know what works to save women’s and children’s lives, and we know that women and children are critical to all of the Millennium Development Goals.

Women and children play a crucial role in development. Investing in their health is not only the right thing to do – it also builds stable, peaceful and productive societies.

But how much cause for optimism is there over the two MDGs that directly relate to women: “promoting gender equality and empowering women” and “reducing by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio”?

Progress on women and children’s healthcare has been slower than on some of the other goals: There is round up of the progress reports on the MDGs here on One report published in June this year noted that when it comes to women, “progress has been sluggish on all fronts -from education to access to political decision-making.”

The Guardian’s Datablog has produced useful data examining the MDGs and the gender gap concluding that for “millions of women and girls” the success of countries in meeting these goals over the next five years is  “a matter of life and death”.

As Annie Q Syed (@so_you_know) said via Twitter: “let’s hope for more than ‘talks’.”

Here are some comments from two programme directors about the immediate needs of women on the ground:

Women are empowered by our programmes, but when they go back to an environment which does not offer economical, social and political opportunities because of the wars, conflicts, they lose what they have achieved through the programme. This is the case of the displaced women served in the North Kivu Province. A few times they had to relocate to their village of origin where the security situation was not yet improved, I will not expect to see these women overcome these challenges as the security situation is bad. They will go back to become victims… Peace and development go hand-in-hand. The pre-conditions for moving from instability to development are the establishment of peace, the reform of security institutions, including the army and improved good governance at all levels. Equal consideration needs to be given to the concerns of women and men in these processes.

Christine Karumba, Democratic Republic of Congo

We need national action plans to increase national-level ownership and implementation of 1325, but grassroots, local-level peace-building is essential. It’s important to link 1325 and the MDGs, because we can’t have peace without development, but development without peace will not be possible either.

Ngozi Eze, Nigeria

Photocredit: Fjona Harvey

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The Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York spawned a number of meetings and discussions this week focusing on women and development.
The first two are from the video archive from the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York this week.

Empowering Girls and Women

Businesses, governments, and development organisations that fail to invest in women are missing out on important ways to improve productivity, develop new markets, and address global challenges. In some countries, an increase of just one percent in girls’ education can boost GDP growth rates by 0.2 percent.
A panel discussion focusing on strategies for enabling girls and women to access education, high-quality health care, and viable economic opportunities.
With: Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan; Katie Couric, anchor and managing editor, CBS Evening News; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia; Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company

The Key to Women’s Economic Empowerment

When women are economically empowered, they earn income that they invest in their families, start businesses and employ others. A panel discussion examining latest strategies in enabling women to serve as their own economic agents by expanding access to the four critical areas of assets, property rights, technology, and information.

With: Pat Mitchell, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Paley Center for Media; Leticia Brenyah, women economic affairs director, African Women Initiatives for Development and Empowerment; coordinator, Productive Agricultural Linkages and Marketing Systems; Tim Hanstad, president and CEO, Rural Development Institute; James Mwangi, managing director and CEO, Equity Bank Limited; Dina Powell, global head of corporate engagement, Goldman Sachs; Roshaneh Zafar, managing director, Kashf Foundation

Philanthropy Goes Viral: What Girls Can Teach Women

A lively group of women including Women for Women International’s Zainab Salbi were at the Mashable/UN Foundation Digital Media Lounge in New York City to discuss how young women in developed countries can have a major impact on improving the lives of girls in developing countries. The discussion was hosted by philanthropic living and giving community Vivanesta and their write up is here.

Panel participants include: Kimberly Perry, director, Girl Up; Nancy Lublin, CEO, DoSomething; Zainab Salbi, Women for Women International; Nancy Zhang, International Trustee, Key Club; Layne Gray, CEO of Vivanista.

Kate Nustedt, the UK director of Women for Women International, received a letter yesterday from 10 Downing Street regarding the petition we delivered on 7 September about the need to invest in women and girls:

Petition response from Prime Minister

Friday Round Up

Each Friday we will gather up the week’s main stories about women and issues affecting them.

DR Congo

The UN Security Council criticised the Democratic Republic of Congo government for mass rapes in the country, demanding swift efforts to catch those behind “gross human rights violations” (AFP).

Channel 4 News broadcast footage shot by Millie Harvey during Chris Jackson’s Congo marathon of reformed rapists and women survivors of rape talking to freelance journalist Nicola York.

There was also a piece about rape as a weapon of war on PBS Newshour.


Security has been stepped up ahead of tomorrow’s elections in Afghanistan with 5,000 female police officers providing security at polling stations designated only for women voters. (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Turn out among women is expected to be low, however. Women candidates have faced threats and intimidation and also face financial obstacles because of lack of funds.

Women for Women International Founder and CEO Zainab Salbi in the news

We are helping people not because they are victims. “Come here if you want to stand on your feet!” I argue that refugees are the most eager to rebuild their lives because the memory of a stable life, no matter how poor or how rich they were, is very much alive.

In an interview with Saudi Aramco Wolrd‘s Nathalie Handel  Zainab Salbi, discusses her decision to speak out about her life in Iraq and the achievements of the women involved with Women for Women International.

Women for Women International’s founder and CEO Zainab Salbi discusses the issue of rape in DR Congo on Newshour with the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict Margot Wallström.

If you didn’t see it on Friday, or want to watch again, here’s the video of the report by Nicola York, who travelled to DR Congo with Chris Jackson, about Women for Women International’s work with women – and the men who admit to rape during the country’s civil war.

Chris Jackson has arrived in Rwanda ahead of his marathon run in DR Congo on 18 August. An article in Tonic today makes it clear how dangerous the situation is. Chris, currently travelling with Dominic Goggins before he meets up with the rest of his group, is running in the Congo in order to increase awareness of what’s happening in the region and support the work for Women for Women International UK.

Ugandan districts affected by Lords Resistance...
Image via Wikipedia

As Chris says on his blog, that situation is becoming “very real” with reports of a grenade attack in a cafe in Kigali yesterday:

The heady days of fun at the beginning have vanished now, and it feels pretty stupid to say but I can feel my ‘game face’ coming on. This is the face when I’m running and I start taking things a lot more seriously than before. The hard work and the challenge is well and truly here. Now’s the time to step up.

As Kendall Hunter writes in the Tonic piece, the marathon route that Chris has marked out himself from Bukavu, through Panzi and Kavumu  will take him into areas where people have suffered terribly as a result of the conflict over the last 15 years. Kendall Hunter refers to a report by the Enough Project which that claims that The Lord’s Resistance Army:

..has depopulated a remote corner of Northeastern Congo, just North of where Jackson will be running, killing and abducting hundreds of civilians, and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. An Enough Project Field researcher has documented 51 attacks by the LRA in this particular area resulting in at least 105 deaths and 570 abductions during the last 15 months.

South Kivu, where Jackson will be running, has been wracked by war for the last fifteen years, fueled by the trade in conflict minerals. Sasha Lezhnev, a consultant at Enough, explains that the specific region where Jackson will be running is unstable today, with different pockets of territory controlled by a range of warlord-like armed groups from the Mai Mai militias to the FDLR to independent units of the Congolese Army.  There is a major battle over the control of mines and mineral trading routes in the region, particularly over gold.

Keep up with Chris’s run and leave messages of support here or on his blog Running for Congo!.

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Raised Voices, a choir with a political focus will be in London’s West End today singing for peace and showing their support for Women for Women International in the UK.

The choir, which frequently performs at political and cultural events will be joined by staff and supporters of Women for Women International UK from 6.30 pm at the Edith Cavell statue on St Martin’s Place, across the road from the National Portrait Gallery.

Why not come along, show your support and join in!

Chris Jackson’s fast-approaching DR Congo marathon has attracted media attention this week: Here’s a round up of some of the stories and interviews:

Newcastle man will run ‘dangerous’ marathon in DR Congo (BBC Newcastle)

Hexham man takes on marathon to highlight warzone plight (JournalLive)

You can listen to Chris’s interview with BBC Radio Newcastle’s Jonathan Miles here until 11 August (Find it 2:06,19 hours into the show).

Chris, who is running on 18 August as part of his challenge to run 12 marathons in 12 months, will be visiting Women for Women International’s projects in DR Congo and meeting the women and men involved.

Millie Harvey will be going with Chris to film the marathon and create a series of short videos about the DRC along the way. Chris is planning to do 26 interviews – one for every mile – along his route. Documentary photographer Fjona Hill and freelance writer Nicola York will be joining him to document the trip.

You can follow Chris on Twitter and he will be using his blog to keep people informed of his progress.

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In just the first nine months of 2009 there were 7,500 reported cases of rape in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo alone:  The situation remains so extreme that Margot Wallström, the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, recently called DRC “the rape capital of the world”.

Chris Jackson Running for Congo last month

To raise awareness of the conflict and its impact on people’s lives Chris Jackson will be running in the Congo this month as part of the challenge he set himself to run 12 marathons in 12 months.
Explaining his decision to do this run, Chris writes:

It felt somewhat contradictory attempting to run 12 marathons in 12 months to raise awareness of the conflict in the DRC but not actually visiting the region myself during the course of this challenge. So I decided a few months back to head to the Congo this August and attempt to run a marathon there. My plan is to head to the DRC and not only run a marathon there, but embark on a harder challenge of communicating to the people of the UK the day to day struggle that people face in the Congo.

To do this Chris will be documenting his trip – filming short video clips and interviews with people of the Congo – 26 miles and 26 stories.

I intend to begin my run from the border of the DRC and Rwanda, along Lake Kivu, through the refugee camps, to a number of projects supporting the victims of this crisis, past the UN barracks, up to the frontline of the conflict and through the villages that have been decimated by this conflict.

I have no experience in filming, documentary making or photography. I’m approaching this as a amateur, but being the eternal optimist I’m hoping that this will be enough to help people understand what life is like in the Congo.

Chris Jackson and Christine Karumba, the country director of Women for Women International-DRC

The Stronger Women, Stronger Nations: 2010 DRC Survey shows that both men and women in 
DRC are exempt from violence and that all endure the costs.

In June 2009, Women for Women International (WfWI) surveyed 1,784 grassroots women and 246 men throughout the Eastern DRC, asking them about their views and personal experiences. Out of 100 women who took part in the survey:

75 earn $1 or less per day;
80 think a lot about upsetting events;
80 are from villages that have been attacked;
75 think their current village will be attacked;
50 of their spouses left because of war;
50 are afraid to work outside of their home.

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Watch video of the first Run for Congo which came to London for the first time on 3 July in Regent’s Park. The Run for Congo started in Oregon when Lisa Shannon began running to raise funds for for Women for Women International’s Congo programmes.

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Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International spoke at the US Senate on Foreign Relations yesterday.

Here’s an extract from her testimony – you can watch the video or download a full transcript here and there is an article on  Women for Women International website: Women for Women International Founder and CEO Zainab Salbi urges US Senators to build inclusive peace in Afghanistan.

No one is discussing how to protect the rights of the minorities or women, because that is not a major security concern for the major powers.   Now that is not inevitable -it doesn’t have to be.  Women’s rights are indicators for the direction of the
society. Violation, extremism is often first visible when it is directed against women.

…we cannot afford to compromise on women’s rights in Afghanistan.  We need to see what is happening to women as not a marginal issue but as a national issue that is telling about the direction for the society, as an indicator of our success or failure to achieve stability in a country and a region of great strategic importance. Women’s rights in Afghanistan is an issue of national security.  Perhaps not in the short term, but it is definitely in the long run..

Reports of the hearings:

Afghanistan: the long war will get longer (International Business Times)
Senate Hearing Cautions Administration on Timelines and Taliban Reconciliation (The Foundry)
Information about Women for Women International’s Afghanistan programmes and about reconciliation in Afghanistan can be found here.

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US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a promise at the Afghan conference in Kabul that women in the country “will not be sacrificed” in a future peace deal with the Taliban.

Women and civil society groups “will be essential to this country’s success,” the secretary of state told a conference of the world’s foreign ministers in Kabul.

If these groups are fully empowered to help build a just and lasting peace, they will help do so. If they are silenced and pushed to the margins of Afghan society, the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted.

Additional US funding to improve maternal and child health was also announced, including a scheme to women to seek medical care and make use of clinics.

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In an interview with Channel 4 News correspondent Lindsey Hilsum the only female governor of Afghanistan voices fears that the interests of women could be sacrificed in peace talks with the Taliban.

Pictured here  in talks with the US military, Habiba Sorabi, the governor of Bamiyan is concerned that the rights of women and her minority Hazara people will be surrendered for a peace deal: “It’s always we women who have to make sacrifices,” she told Lindsey Hilsum.

You can watch the interview and find out more about Bamiyan on the Channel 4 News blog here.

There is currently a lot of focus on Afghanistan with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, William Hague, the foreign secretary, and 40 other foreign ministers attending a conference in Kabul from Tuesday. There have been growing concerns that President Karzai’s plans for a reintegration and reconciliation with the Taliban could jeopardise women’s rights.

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Photo credit: The US Army via a creative commons licence

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Christine Karumba with women taking part in the DRC programme

Christine Karumba, Women for Women International’s country director in the Democratic Republic of Congo wrote recently in the New Statesman about the “devastating” effects of war for women “as rape and sexual violence replaced armed combat as a weapon of war”.

You can read the full article here and download a pdf of Women for Women International’s briefing on women’s status in DRC, Stronger Women Stronger Nations  here.

Team Ramstein, a runner’s group formed for the recent Run For Congo UK 10 km run in Regent’s Park, wrote an inspiring blog post about their experience at the race. Organised by Women for Women International UK, the run raised over £20,000 in funds for the aid delivered to women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Visit their blog here.

Iraqi-American writer and activist Zainab Salb...
Image via Wikipedia

Read Women for Women International founder and CEO Zainab Salbi on overcoming the complex cultural issues involved in improving lives of women in fragile and conflict-affected states published on the World Development Report 2011 blog.

Culture and tradition are too often used to justify the stifling of debate about change, especially when it relates to women’s lives. As an Iraqi-American woman who grew up with Muslim traditions and ended up traveling the world through my work with Women for Women International, an organization that supports women in conflict-affected areas, I have had plenty of exposure to these attitudes.

The use of culture as a defensive weapon blights the lives of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan and Afghanistan.  It is used as an excuse to silence opponents. Although the intention may be to respect cultural traditions, it often leads to policies that undermine the social and economic advance of women.

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Here’s a letter written by Women for Women International’s Christine Karumba, country programme director, DRC, and Kate Nustedt, executive director wrote in today’s Guardian highlighting the dangers women face and the need for further investment to support those who have been left traumatised by the conflict:

As the DRC celebrates 50 years of independence, women that we work with in the Congo have told us that there is little independence for them.

In research we recently carried out, women said that a lack of security to protect them both from the militia and from a newer threat – their neighbours – is their biggest concern. The lack of military discipline, of policing and legal protection for women has created an environment where attackers have little to fear.

The scale of violence in DRC is well documented, and women have been specifically targeted. In the first nine months of 2009 alone there were 7,500 reported cases of rape in eastern DRC. Girls as young as two and women as old as 80 have been victims of sexual violence.

As the UN plans to withdraw from DRC, we need to ensure further investment to support those who have been left traumatised by the conflict.

As the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marks 50 years of independence  some commentators are reflecting on the contrast between celebrations planned in Kinshasa today and the violent reality behind the lavish facade.

Writing on, Harry Verhoeven, from the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University, argues that the anniversary is also an opportunity for the international community to reassess its policies on governance and security in the Congo.

Verhoeven writes that since 1996, 95 per cent of crimes against humanity have gone unpunished. “It is high time the West replaced its 50-year-old illusion of prioritising ‘political stability’ with justice and accountability that has an emphasis on human rights and grassroots state-building,” he writes. “Why not finally empower the Congolese themselves to make their own choices as they struggle to build a more just, more citizen-friendly state from the bottom up?”

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times earlier this week about the campaign to “eliminate ‘blood minerals’ from cell phones, lap-tops, digital cameras and other cool devices,” says he is “mildly optimistic that Congo is gaining traction on the international agenda and that progress is possible after a pretty bad half century for Congo.”

Kristof highlights the work of Lisa Shannon of Run for Congo Women, who he interviewed earlier this year and is at the forefront of the grassroots campaign on conflict minerals.

“She reflects one of the paradoxes that the people making the most difference in Congo are often quite ordinary individuals who don’t initially have the platform or the expertise, but who are equipped with a powerful conscience,” says Kristof. “That makes the difference.”

Women for Women International is organising a panel discussion with Amnesty International to discuss the impact of the DR Congo conflict on women and the vital role that women are playing in building a stable country. Tickets are £3 unwaged, £5 waged. To register for a place, please contact with “DR CONGO: Stronger Women, Stronger Nations” as the email subject.

For more details, click here.

Fifty years after Congo won its independence a United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence says new legislation offers some hope of change in a country where rape has become an established part of modern warfare.

The dangers women face in Congo were highlighted by Margot Wallström, who says that the quoted statistic of 200,000 rapes since the beginning of the war 14 years ago “is certainly an underestimate.”

The fact that there is currently “almost total impunity” for rape is the foundation of the problem says Margot Wallström who says there is “a lot to do” to implement the new legislation on rape but believes it offers “an ambitious legal ground to stand on to be implemented by the police, judiciary and health care.”

An expert panel will be discussing the impact of the conflict on women in the Congo at an event in London on 6 July. For more details visit the Facebook site.

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