In war-torn countries across Africa and the Middle East, it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier. International organization Women for Women International works to empower these women in an effort to rebuild their lives, families and communities.
The nonprofit works amid ongoing conflicts in countries like Nigeria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have pushed already marginalized women into debilitating poverty. Women for Women International President Laurie Adams said one of the most pressing problems facing the women she works with is the extraordinarily high risk of sexual assault.
“Rape and the degradation of women is a weapon of war,” Adams said in an interview with Humanosphere, “and rape comes with so much stigma that when a woman is raped, not only does it severely damage her, but it often pulls apart the fabric of her family and the community.”
Jumpstarted with a grant from the Hilton Foundation in 2002, the nonprofit has helped women empower one another by offering training programs geared toward establishing businesses. According to Adams, the areas of the programs are selected based on where women are most vulnerable – widows, women who are stigmatized or have virtually no income – but where there is still some potential for work.
“The headquarters in South Sudan was in Yei. In Nigeria, we’re based in Jos. In the DRC, we’re in Bukavu,” Adams said. “None of those places are capital cities, but these are the places where women are most marginalized.”
The one-year program brings women together several times a month for training on life skills, human rights and occupational skills. Women choose their career paths based on knowledge of what may have the most potential in their region, such as beekeeping in Rwanda, or poultry farming in Afghanistan.
Adams, who has eight years of experience measuring impact for a much larger international nongovernmental organization, ActionAid, called the results of the programs “phenomenal.” External evaluations have shown that after the program, women report an average personal income of more than $1 a day (compared to $0.34 U.S. dollars before the program), and a 30 percent to 87 percent increase in family planning practices.
Adams added that she recently visited Rwanda, a country still rebuilding after the devastating genocide in 1994, where she interviewed some of the program’s participants about the training’s influence on their lives. Many women told her that their families had developed a newfound respect for their role in the family’s income. One woman said that while she once felt invisible walking through her village, people now approach her, seeking advice.
“What’s striking to me is that almost nobody mentioned income,” said Adams. “… We often think the most important statistic is the one that says the income has improved times four. But when I interviewed the women, what they point to is this respect, this connection, that means they’re no longer isolated.”
In some countries, Adams said it has not always been possible to work directly where women are most in need. The organization recently suspended its program in South Sudan, where organizing meetings became too dangerous amid ongoing violence and recent killings of aid workers. More than 70 percent of women living in four protected civilian sites in Juba said they had been raped, primarily by police and soldiers who are there to provide protection, according to a new U.N. report.
Adams said the organization will soon expand its programs into Jordan, however, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are living in rural regions outside of camps with limited access to humanitarian aid.
World Bank figures indicate that the labor participation of women in Jordan is one of the lowest in the world. But after the Jordanian government last year opened its labor market to Syrian refugees in return for preferential access to EU trade agreements, Adams said there is new potential for refugees to benefit from a program that helps equip them for the formal work sector.
“Now is the time for the kind of program we do,” she said. “[Because] at this stage of the crisis, it’s very clear that people are not going to be able to go home any time soon.”