Pauline Nyiramahirwe was orphaned when she was a toddler. Today, the 24-year-old has no vivid recollection of the incidents that led to her parents’ death. After the death of her parents, Nyiramahirwe was taken in by her brother, but unfortunately she had to drop out of school in P6 as her brother, who was a subsistence farmer, could not raise her school fees.
Losing her parents at such a young age really affected her childhood. Life became hard that even when she started school, she didn’t make it to P7.
“I dropped out of school because my brother could barely take care of us. However, even amidst hardships, I was determined to shape a bright future,” she says.
Nyiramahirwe, a resident of Save sector in Gisagara District, Southern Province, took interest in sewing.
With the help of Duhozanye Association, which supports vulnerable women by equipping them with shelter, food and development opportunities, in 2011, she joined a Technical Vocational Training (TVET) centre to acquire skills in tailoring.
The organisation’s mission is to empower widows and orphans of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi so that they can become self-reliant and achieve sustainable development.
“Getting Duhozanye to help me out was pure luck and so I knew that I had to put my heart and soul into it. I was determined to learn tailoring with the hope that it would transform my life,” she says.
Duhozanye Association partners with Action Aid Rwanda to help vulnerable women in society, especially victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The women are trained and equipped with various income generating skills.
The association was launched in November 1994 in the former Gisagara and Ndora communities, currently Gisagara District.
Starting with about 300 women, the association transformed their lives through different activities.
“We started at zero, living in despair, but as days went by, we rebuilt our lives,” Marie Anne Uwimana, one of the cooperative members, says.
She adds that one of the association’s biggest achievements includes empowering members with skills. She says the association taught them how to sew clothes such as pullovers which they sell on the local market.
Currently, a number of women in the association own small businesses, and over 20 are employed in other companies.
The association has grown to support over 3,000 women under 60 different groups; they carry out several activities including weaving, and farming, among others.
“On a monthly basis, I can sew up to 100 pullovers, each is sold at Rwf 4000 and I get profit of over Rwf 50, 000,” Nyiramahirwe says.
From her savings over the years, Nyiramahirwe bought a cow and looks forward to establishing other projects.
“I look forward to starting other projects. I want to set an example, and perhaps inspire other orphans to never give up,” she notes.
Nyiramahirwe says that Rwandan women should exploit the opportunities given to them by the government and strive to occupy their rightful place in society.
“Women have the full support of the government. We should exploit it,” she says.
Nyiramahirwe says that being orphaned shouldn’t chain anyone to despair, on the contrary, set goals and work hard.
“Some children who lost their families turned to an unhealthy lifestyle and engage in immoral activities such as theft and prostitution. The latter don’t think about how this could endanger their lives, for instance, contracting HIV/AIDS, or getting pregnant at a very young age,” she says.
She advises the vulnerable youth to think about noble solutions to their challenges to transform their lives for the better.
Pascaline Ufitinema, an 18-year-old girl who also sews clothes under Duhozanye Association, explains that sewing has given her employment, and this has empowered her.
“When a woman is unemployed, it affects her life.She might be forced to seek other dangerous ways of getting some money. But when a woman is employed, she is self-reliant and takes control of her life,” she says.
Marie Anne Uwimana was orphaned after her parents were killed in the Genocide. Like Ufitinema and Nyiramahirwe, she too sews clothes for a living.
Uwimana says that even though some women shy away from TVET courses, they create employment opportunities which in turn contribute to the development of the nation.
“Our country was greatly affected by the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Many children were left orphaned, and women widowed. Even though the government has done a great job in reintegrating them into foster homes, they still face many hardships.
“Some orphans feel ‘left out’ or discriminated against. But with hard work and determination on their part, they can turn around their lives and contribute to the welfare of society,” Uwimana says.
Challenges and goals
Duhozanye women say that they have been on a progressive journey but, they still face challenges.
“For instance, we lack adequate financial means to buy modern sewing machines that could help us compete on a broader level,” says Daphrose Mukarutamu, the association’s president.
However, the women look forward to achieving their goals, such as creating more women cooperatives across other districts.
“We cater for all vulnerable women so as to enable them to be self-sufficient. Before, all we did was talk about our traumatising history, now, we work and continue to transform our lives,” Mukarutamu says.
Anselme Rurangwa Majoro, the Director of Women Empowerment and Mobilisation at the National Women Council, says that there are measures in place to keep addressing the challenges vulnerable women face as a result of the country’s dark history.
“Government has put in place measures that support vulnerable female citizens so as to empower them. There are initiatives in place that include giving them access to loans through various cooperatives, and advocacy, among other things.
“Women have the ability to develop themselves.We strive to equip them with training and skills that they can use to achieve sustainable development,” Rurangwa says.