Friday, June 6, 2008

"Anchors Away . . ."

The Rwanda Women's Network and the Village of Hope

As I make my way into one of the offices I see a wall full of photos and immediately my curiosity is peaked – why so many mug shots of children? The board is sectioned into categories: both parents living, one parent living, and child head of household. With each face comes a different story – a painful reality of loss – mostly attributed to the genocide or HIV/AIDS. My questions are answered by two of the directors of the Village of Hope both of whom are Rwandan by ethnicity. Their paths are dissimilar yet they converge at this one organization and seek to create hope through action and empowerment. Peninah came back from Uganda a month after the genocide hoping to find any of her countless relatives alive, but her empty stare and heavy eyes alone foreshadowed the grim response to my question. Winnie grew up in Uganda and received her masters in social work in Britain. They say the change they have witnessed in the women of the Village anchors them to the organization. The omnipresence of the genocide and this anchor would soon become recurring themes throughout the day.

I started out in a room learning about the countless programs that are run through the Village of Hope. The comprehensive work done here delves deep into the cyclical nature of poverty, most often created as a product of the genocide or the HIV virus. I have come to learn poverty denies the access of three vital human needs - income generation, education, and health. The Village of Hope attempts to address these issues, and the sheer amount of area women (over 4000) who utilize its services speak to its success. As I step outside I meet a group of women from one of the Village-run income generation programs. They are the bedcover makers and they half-jokingly tell me I must visit the store before I leave. The materials, training, and sales location are all provided for by the non-governmental organization that runs the Village and only the cost of the material is subtracted after an item is sold. Generating income is perhaps one of the biggest steps toward empowering an individual and changing the life of a family. As I finish interviewing one of the women I make my way to a group of children who are trying on school uniforms (see photo). Although primary school education in Rwanda is said to be universal and free, Stephen Lewis states in A Race Against Time that hidden fees for uniforms and scholastic materials are the main deterrent to school enrollment in Africa; thus severely limiting individual opportunity and economic development. The Rawandan Women’s Network (RWN), the organization that founded and runs the Village, pays these hidden fees for over 100 primary school children. Furthermore, the Stephen Lewis Foundation and PEPFAR send over 150 teens to secondary or skills schools. In regards to health, the original initiative of the RWN is the Polyclinic of Hope, established in 1994. Here, women and children (and also some men) receive medical services including HIV testing, HIV counseling and nutritional support for HIV/AIDS.

When housing was deduced as one of the major threats to the post genocide women and orphans, the Rwanda Women’s Network sought funds to build the Village of Hope. In 2000, Japanese funds built the village center and the Clinton Foundation erected twenty houses. The RWN consulted with all the stake holders, from social workers to the women themselves, to select from the most vulnerable amongst them to live at the Village. These houses (see photos for details) are built for six but often house seven or eight – there is no shortage of street children or orphans. Alongside each house is a kitchen garden for which the women receive seeds and are taught the techniques of how to cultivate the various fruits and vegetables. The abundance of potatoes, cabbage, avocados, carrots, and onions plays an integral part in providing nutritional support and access to food.

The RWN established The Village of Hope in an undeveloped outer district of Kigali and many women who depend on it relocated or built small houses to live within walking distance. However, Rwanda’s new reputation as one of the hopes of Africa due to its good governance and safe atmosphere has created a land premium in Kigali as both ex patriots and foreigners build new houses. The Village now finds the bush that separated them from the main road into the city strewn with hundreds of US style mansions (costing approximately $150,000 US). Many of the women dependent on the Village are approached daily to sell their lots but must weigh the consequences of relocating further away. The RWN’s advocacy, networking, and educational awareness programs provide the knowledge base needed when it comes to vital issues such as property rights.

The success of the Rwanda Women’s Network can be directly linked to empowering the individual through programs that address basic human rights. Their Village of Hope is much like the famed roads of Rwanda. They have a plethora of programs that like the highways, which branch out to all corners of the country, cover key sectors for creating a just life – income generation, education and health. All major roads in Rwanda lead back to Kigali and all the work of the RWN comes back to empowerment and unity. There is no Hutu or Tutsi mentality. The mantra is “We are all Rwandans”. Women whose husbands were murdered have come together with women whose husbands did the murdering in the name of development for their children’s future. The approach and work of the RWN has won it accolades in the form of two prestigious international awards. Its success looks to continue forward as the process of scaling up and going nationwide has already begun. After a full day at the village I understand why it was recommended as a “must-see” by ranking government and UNDP officials. Moreover, after interviewing some of the women and teenagers who benefit from its services, I have seen why Perniah and Winnie have dropped anchor in a landlocked Village of Hope.