Women playing stellar role in rebuilding Rwanda, says post-conflict NGO chief

Women for Women International (WFWI), an NGO that works in post conflict countries  has been operating in Rwanda for the last 17 years empowering women, socially and economically.
Afshan Khan during the interview. (John Mbanda)
Afshan Khan during the interview. (John Mbanda)

Women for Women International (WFWI), an NGO that works in post conflict countries  has been operating in Rwanda for the last 17 years empowering women, socially and economically. The organisation’s president and CEO, Afshan Khan, was recently in the country for the launch of Let’s Talk Coffee initiative. Collins Mwai spoke to her about women empowerment and the orgainsation’s role in Rwanda. 

What is the state of women empowerment in Rwanda?

It is very impressive and a model for other nations. The success has been because there have been policies in place and also because women’s potential and success has been recognised and appointed in key positions. It is a little bit of both and also the ability of women to recognise value.

The holders of these key positions have also been good role models. In parliament there has been strong representation as well as the percentage of women in civil service. There has been a lot of investment in girls’ education.

The cooperatives set up have been very inclusive to see women participation. Rwanda has made a lot of progress in women empowerment and in the region it is probably a shining star.

Areas where Rwanda can do better in terms of women empowerment?

More should be done to reach out to women in rural areas, building a more inclusive society with full participation of women in community projects. With that, their role in society will be recognised and will motivate them to do more from household level and higher.  

There is still a little more to be done specifically with the women at the base of the pyramid. The government has already recognised that and has put in place policies to facilitate that and we will play a part to put those policies into action.

Rwanda can also do better in linking women to business and market opportunities; it is something that needs to be done by investing in public private partnerships. If given the right opportunities, they can make the most of them and have a bigger role in their communities change. 

Your organisation works in post conflict countries, what has been women’s role in reconciliation and rebuilding?

Often, when you come out of the ashes of war, there is a task to rebuild. It is usually an opportunity to build in a better way. What we have seen in Rwanda, the largest part of the population of survivors were women and children. The reliance on women to rebuild and reconcile was a necessity that has helped transform society.

We have seen a great engagement of women at decision making levels in government and in business. We have also seen a higher enrollment rate for girls in school. There is now a mentality that being a girl is an opportunity to bring change. 

After 1994, there was a need to bring everybody on board to rebuild the country without the social barriers that exist elsewhere and women constituting the highest population were up to task. 

Women’s role in reconciliation is great in that they are the makers of peace in many societies because they are often not part of the conflicts themselves and are also vested in their families and children and have the best interest for society.

Their potential to bring peace has often been highly underestimated. Rwanda is one of the few countries I have seen recognise women’s role in governance and rebuilding, the more other countries learn that the higher their chance to have lasting peace.

You were in the country for the launch of Let’s talk Coffee initiative, what’s the initiative about and what are you looking to achieve through it?

Let’s Talk Coffee is a partnership with Bloomberg philanthropies (former New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropy project), sustainable harvests, and Women for Women International. We are working with the government to fulfill their objectives to attain better economic empowerment for women. 

We brought together a series of women cooperatives that we have been working with in Kayonza and Nyanguru, we are looking at the opportunities to link women to local markets and international markets. The idea is to move women up the value chain as part of the economic empowerment. 

It is not just looking at women as coffee farmers, but also how they can be engaged at various levels of the value chain, to increase the economic opportunities. All this is in line with the Vision 2020 and the national goal for long term economic empowerment for women.

Women for Women has been working in Rwanda for the last 17 years, training over 66, 000 women, many of them have learnt new skills, knowing their rights, vocational skills and how to form networks. 

There is now an opportunity to take that to the next level, we have listened to our graduates looking for what next after the trainings and identified that the next step is to link them with formal markets. 

We are also partnering with other organisations to see how women can be a catalyst for change by having a role in the value chain in market systems. 

During your organisations’ time in Rwanda, how has the government fared in participation?

We have enjoyed a lot of support from the government; we have built our programmes and initiatives around the policies the government has set out. We have worked closely with the Ministries of Health, Agriculture and Gender and Family Promotions. We have worked to see women understand the policies and see what the policies mean in their lives. 

We also work with local authorities to identify the most vulnerable members of the community who are our key targets. There has been a lot of public participation from parliament and the civil service.

You seem to have identified agriculture as the agent of women empowerment in Rwanda; do you have any other approaches?

In Rwanda 86 per cent of people involved in agriculture are women. In many countries and particularly in Africa, we have seen a predominance of women in the agriculture sector.

We realised that a link to the international market where Rwanda has a competitive edge is a new opportunity, coffee was one area and another one is honey. For honey we have been working with farmers in Nyanguru and we are looking at how to create opportunities in the value chain. We also have a group from Kigali that is into mushroom production.

What the partnership brings is worldwide expertise in coffee to link women in Rwanda with a wider network of producers and consumers of coffee. This is really a unique opportunity to link what has been happening in Rwanda to the international market. 

That is why the partnership with sustainable harvests is crucial as they have a network for coffee suppliers all over the world. Bloomberg philanthropies helps broker the partnership because they realised that Women for Women was working in several sectors. 

We are looking for ways on how to link women in cooperatives to the value chain on a basis of fair trade, where they understand the value chain, price and points they can be engaged in.  We are working with Bloomberg philanthropies in the agriculture sector and have had a series of demonstrations to inform women on the opportunities in agri-business. 

We do not only focus on agriculture, we have seen that there are many areas where women can make a difference in the economy. We are seeing more and more growth in the role of women in the service sector, we have a partnership with Gahaya links, and they hire women graduates to work in the production line of what they are producing.

Rwanda has a long standing reputation in handicrafts in the international market. The partnership has now linked with international markets and we want to see women have a role in it too.

We think that women’s role in the service sector is a good area to push for empowerment in the various sectors under the service industry whether in hospitality, food production, hairdressing, tailoring or ICT and technology. There are opportunities also in mobile phone service like vendors and distributors as technology reaches rural areas. 

What models do you employ to run these programmes and initiatives that other change agents can learn from?

We have very distinct models. One of them is to work with the government through the ministry of Gender and Family Promotions whom we have had a long standing relationship with. 

We are working with the Workforce Development Authority (WDA) to try and get formal accreditation for the trainings we hold for women so that they have a formal certificate that can be recognised by employers. 

Thirdly we are approaching players in the private sector to identify areas women can participate in throughout the value chain. 

Cooperatives in Rwanda are also a key area that change agents should work with because we have realised that networks that are Rwandan based provide opportunities for women as they own them. 

Your target beneficiaries seem to be women who rank low in society economically and in terms of skills. What skills do you engage them in?

We have women who have succeeded, women who started out having smaller enterprises which have since grown. We work with women, who are at the base of the pyramid, women who are not connected to markets. 

We engage them in training in health and well being because for them to participate in the economy they have to care for themselves. 

Others are building networks because when they work in isolation, their chances of tapping into some opportunities are limited. One of the first things we have done is to ensure that they are formally banked with a cooperative to encourage saving culture and access to credit. 

The third thing we engage them in is knowing their rights. Often women do not know where to access certain services, what are their rights regarding land ownership or business ownership?

We also train them to identify opportunities in whatever set ups they may be in.

We give them basic training to have a sort of foundation for more trainings to get on with higher learning and training. 

Women for women international  has been in Rwanda for the last 17 years , what achievements have been made so far and what’s the journey been like?

We are now working in six districts. It has been progressive; we began in Kigali and spread out. It has been about meeting women at community level, where they are and engaging them there. We see that as important because what we have seen in the other countries we operate in is that services are available in the capital but not in the rural areas. 

Our real success story is being able to meet women in their zones and engaging them there. One of the key metrics we have as an organisation is not only measuring what women earn but also what difference we make, what transformations happen in their lives, attitude change.

Is there a model through which organisations can metric to evaluate their projects, success and impacts?

We metric and measure every single participant who goes through our programme. We have also had impact evaluations supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

They set out to measure the community impact of the various programmes we have been carrying out. From it we learnt that for every woman you work to change, you not only have an impact on her immediate family but other women. They have formed associations with other women, employed other women or trained them.

Cooperatives have been mentioned to be good change agents for women empowerment, however, there are instances where they grow to be bigger than the women who founded them and cease to serve them. How can this be handled?

We have maintained relevance because of our focus at community level.

It is important that they grow but they should mentor other cooperatives at community level to look out for the interests of the women at the bottom of the pyramid. It is also important to link the private sector initiatives with some of the smaller and local cooperatives for them to have an impact on the needy population.

What do you make of the women led initiatives like Girls in ICT or Tech Women that are trying to encourage more women participation in male dominated sectors?

In my view, the girl effect going on through such initiatives is effective as it is really important to connect women and girls to other girls to motivate them and act as role models. These networks will enable the younger ones take interest and see the opportunities available for them.  Mentoring plays a huge role to younger women - a chance to see the possibilities and opportunities available. 


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