Feature:Rwandan women are an inspiration to the world, says ActionAid’s Joanna Kerr

During the International Women’s Day celebrations on 8th March 2011, 35 Friesian cows were distributed among four women associations in Nyanza District, Southern Province.
Joanna Kerr Chief Executive of ActionAid (C) holding a gift that she was given by women from Nyanza District. The New Times / D. Umutesi.
Joanna Kerr Chief Executive of ActionAid (C) holding a gift that she was given by women from Nyanza District. The New Times / D. Umutesi.

During the International Women’s Day celebrations on 8th March 2011, 35 Friesian cows were distributed among four women associations in Nyanza District, Southern Province.

One of the beneficiary associations was ‘Mpore dukunde inzuki’ literally translated as ‘let’s love bees’ comprising of 48 members. The members are victims of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and each take care of at least three to nine children from their broken marriages.

The cows were a donation from Action Aid to support them in poverty eradication by gaining economic independence hence meeting their financial needs.

In an interview with The New Times, Marie Grace Mukashema, President of the ‘Mpore dukunde inzuki’ Cooperative, she explains how the donation has improved the livelihood of  their families.

“One thing for sure is that the malnutrition challenge has been dealt with in our communities. My cow produces at least six litres of milk daily, which we share with the neighbours and sell the surplus. We are all thrilled about this benefit and our financial status has improved,” Mukashema expresses.

The mother of four says that she is willing to share her ten-year horrific experience of domestic abuse if it will make a positive change in society.

“I’m ready to talk to the victims of Gender Based Violence who are afraid to speak out. I always report any incident of domestic abuse in my home area to the local authorities and I advise other victims to do the same because I do not want any woman to experience what I have gone through. In fact it was after I publically spoke out that I felt some relief,” she explains.

She also said that speaking out on experiences regardless of how awful the ordeal was is the best treatment for trauma.

Lycie Kabazayire, a National Women Representative in Nyanza District, complimented these women cooperatives,  especially concerning exercising their rights.

“These women are working hard to make ends meet and are embarking on family programming methods in the strategy to eradicate poverty,” Kabazayire discloses.

Joanna Kerr, the Chief Executive of ActionAid on a three-day visit in the country to foresee projects in the country that are supported by ActionAid, visited Nyanza women Cooperatives and Marie Grace Mukashema’s home. She was amazed by the women’s determination to improve their lives.

“These women are an inspiration to Nyanza, Rwanda, Africa and the World. They should know that even though they think the World does not care, people like me will always visit and remember them. We want to know how much more progress they have made. We want to see as the years go by if they are still on this path. They have braved the storm and faced all odds in the worst form of oppression and violence,” Kerr explains.

Kerr finds the strength of these women considering how they stood up against abuse and the cultures of their society encouraging.

“They survived the Genocide; got together, supported one another and now they are bringing a change to their communities through their collective support in women’s rights and Gender Based Violence (GBV). They are also economically empowered and truly inspiring,” she said.

 “This is my first time in Rwanda. I have lived in Africa for a long time and currently live in South Africa. I think there is a misconception that Rwanda is still struggling and going through very difficult times with tons of instability.  But I have seen for myself, that is not the case. The second you arrive here you feel a sense of overwhelming peace and fast forward development,” Kerr acknowledges.

 Further, what excites her most is seeing the number of women taking on leadership roles particularly in the community.

“I was more than delighted to meet community women leaders today who a couple of years ago thought their lives were over because of the violence, the injustices and poverty that consumed their lives. Now, to hear them talk about their rights, how empowered they are and how hopeful they are and not just for themselves but for their families, communities and country too, is simply humbling,” Kerr stated.

 “I have visited many countries but the determination and strength of knowing there is more work ahead joined with the collective vision that Rwandans have for the future of their country is very inspiring.”

She said that the role of ActionAid is to strengthen local organizations. It is not their role to do the work themselves. For it to be sustainable, she urged communities to take on the agenda for human rights that includes both the economic and social aspects.

“Our job is to continue building capacity, confidence and the resource base of these community based organizations so that they can expand their reach, scale up and even support other people facing social exclusion, like we have seen here,” she emphasizes.

Joanna Kerr has been advocating for women’s rights for 22 years. Being the Chief Executive of a global organization and a woman, she explains how she has been able to reach such great heights.

“My parents always told me that I could do anything. It’s the best message a parent can give their child. It gives you the determination to work hard and focus on your education. I have been focused since I was eighteen. I knew that I was going to fight for the rights of poor women around the world. So I knew the right education and the work experience I needed,” Kerr narrates.

She confesses that as a woman, she has faced all sorts of challenges along the way but she never lets them stop her from achieving her goals.

Kerr said: “I have brought a lot of humor to my work. I like having fun and open conversations with people. As an activist, I have tried to challenge power but I do it in a way that does not offend people and that has opened doors for me. People usually say that I am difficult but when we meet, it all changes. If you are trying to do something that is really challenging, ‘honey is better that vinegar’.”

She adds, “None of us can do it on our own. We need support from our families, partners, friends and mentors. It’s all about ambition and the amount of risk you’re willing to take.”

ActionAid is a non-partisan international development anti-poverty agency that works in 45 countries around the world with the sole aim of preventing poverty and fighting injustice.


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