The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi left the displacement of over 2,000,000 and more left the country 70 percent female. Over ⅓ of households are headed by women. And 80 percent of these are run by impoverished widows.
Women are raising children that are the result of brutal crimes. Many have sexually transmitted diseases – in fact over ¼ million children have been orphaned by AIDS alone.
Despite the extreme poverty many Rwandans find room in their hearts to adopt as many as six orphaned children, treating every child like their own, a mantra of the country and its President, Paul Kagame.
But the real story isn’t the suffering …
It’s the Rwandan women’s ability to triumph over every obstacle. Because of Rwandan women’s courage and willingness to speak, for the first time in history, rape is being prosecuted as a war crime.
Previously, in post-genocide Rwanda, rape had been considered a third degree crime. What’s more, majority of the parliament seats are dominated by women after the 2008 parliamentary elections, giving women a voice and a platform in which to use it.
How does one survive a genocide that took the lives of a quarter million of your neighbors and friends? How does one piece a life back together and then thrive?
Violette Mutegwamaso knows how because she did just that with the support of her sponsor, Liz Hammer.
A Life Torn Apart
In 1994, armed militias started fomenting a civil war in Rwanda. Soon the country disintegrated into chaos as Hutu and Tutsi clashed on the streets and in homes across the country.
As the chaos closed in, Mutegwamaso was alone with her children. Her husband was working three hours away in Kigali where he could earn a better living than in their small village of Gahini. Mutegwamaso instantly knew they were in grave danger.
Carrying her two children in her arms, she fled to a nearby church where she thought she and her family would be safe. Instead of finding sanctuary, Mutegwamaso and her family walked into a nightmare.
“There was shooting going on, and people were falling on others and dying everywhere,” Mutegwamaso said.
The church was under attack by a machete-wielding militia. To survive, Mutegwamaso was forced to lie down in the aisle and smear blood on herself and her children. Pretending to be dead, they hid among the corpses.
Afraid to move, to cry, to even breathe, they lay there for an entire week until the Rwandan army came to liberate the area. Mutegwamaso estimated that there were 700 people in that church - only 20 survived.
In the chaos and violence, her husband was brutally murdered. She was left to raise their five year old son, Eric, and four year old girl, Angelique.
As so many other women in Rwanda did, Mutegwamaso took in an orphan who lost his family during the war.
With little support, she tried to rebuild her life. She farmed other people’s land and barely earned enough to feed herself and children. She didn’t have enough money leftover to pay for school or buy essentials like medicine and clothing for her family.
The path to healing and prosperity
In 2004, Mutegwamaso learned about Women for Women International’s programs. She enrolled and was matched with a sponsor in the United States - a woman named Liz Hammer, a Boston mother of two.
Liz pledged to provide $27 month for one year to support her trainings, a portion of which also helped her pay for food, school fees and clothing.
As the year progressed, Mutegwamaso flourished. She learned marketable job skills and honed her innate leadership abilities. Despite having only a high school education, Mutegwamaso has become a local businesswoman and a leader in her community.
Using money that Liz sent, Mutegwamaso expanded her fledgling operation of harvesting sorghum, a local grain, into a full-fledged business of making sorghum-based drinks.
Each season, Mutegwamaso harvests fifteen one-kilogram sacks of sorghum. Sometimes the demand for her special home brew is so great, she buys more sorghum from other local farmers.
She says it takes about three days to make a single batch of sorghum drink, which is enough to make 150 to 180 liters. At 30 cents a liter, Mutegwamaso manages to make a profit of about $50 for each batch.
Mutegwamaso business savvy does not stop there. She also has a considerable bean harvest, half of which feeds her family and the other half she sells to make a profit. If the price is high, she sells the beans to her neighbors.
If the price is low, she sells it wholesale to stores or nearby restaurants in bulk.
From her bean harvest alone, she makes nearly $1800. The average income in Rwanda is estimated to be $260, according to the World Bank.
With the money she earns from selling the beans and the drinks, Mutegwamaso has been able to hire local laborers, often other women, to work the fields and help her manage her business. She is keenly aware in returning her wealth to her community.
“It was only through this program that I realized I could start my own business,” Mutegwamaso said recently.
“My business allows me to pay school fees for my children, to send them to school, the Gahini Shining Star Secondary School,” she said.
Having begun but never graduated from high school, Mutegwamaso is determined to see that her children are educated.
Before joining Women for Women International, Mutegwamaso would have never imagined she could own and operate a thriving business.
Now, she has a savings account in a bank and has the trust of local lenders to provide her with more capital to use to grow her business and support her community.
In an move not typical for a woman in Rwanda, Mutegwamaso applied for, and was awarded, a bank loan of $370 to bring water to her business and to her community from a water pipe that runs through her community.
Although the pipe ran directly through the community, there was no accessible tap. A scarcity of potable water in her village meant that women would have to walk for hours to reach a water tap.
As it is, only 20% of villages in Rwanda have access to running water. In Rwanda, women spend hours of their day walking to get water and then carrying the heavy jugs back to their homes.
Mutegwamaso successfully lobbied her local government for permission to get access to this pipe into her home. She is planning to put a tap in her home, and will charge about 10 cents for each container of water.
The money she earns from the sale will allow her to make her monthly payments on her loan at no additional cost to her.
Building a community of peace
Mutegwamaso has now graduated from Women for Women International but the lessons she learned are still a part of her.
In fact, she has become the president of a local women’s crafts cooperative that is made up of graduates of her rights awareness training group. Mutegwamaso says she counts on these women as her closest friends and business partners.
Together these graduates make and sell traditional Rwandan peace baskets, pottery, crochet and other artisan crafts that they then sell to local store owners.
The peace baskets are by far the most popular item because the baskets serve many functions in Rwandese culture, including being presented as wedding gifts to a bride and groom.
They have also become symbols of peace, especially as women sit side by side to weave “peace baskets” from sisal fibers using traditional techniques and designs.
Mutegwamaso says she is moved that the cooperative brings together all members of the village, including those victimized by the genocide and others who have confessed to genocide crimes or have family members in prison.
The peace basket cooperative has fostered reconciliation—something unheard of a dozen years ago.
Working together to make the peace baskets, Mutegwamaso said, has made her and her fellow cooperative members think about Rwandan unity.
“This would never have been considered before,” she said. Since joining Women for Women International, her life has changed drastically. Where once she felt she was losing control, she now has a firm grasp and can see a viable future for herself and her children.
“This program has changed my life. My mind has been opened,” she said.
Her sponsor Hammer, who exchanged letters with Mutegwamaso during the year-long sponsorship program at Women for Women International, recently said:
The connection to Violette has had such a profound impact on my life…I felt this deep connection with Violette from the beginning because she was so open about what she experienced in the genocide but not in a way that made you feel sorry for her but from a position of strength….
Her husband was killed. She and her children were on brink of death and fought for their lives. She was able to save her family and rise above the carnage.
She has been able to forgive the individual who killed her husband. I can’t imagine how she can do that. Somehow she is able to get past that and forgive.
I told her that you’ve got to be bigger person than I am because I can’t imagine having my husband senselessly killed and getting past that….
I am just amazed by all that she has accomplished and thrilled for her and her children and feel like she was able to rise above the circumstances that life dealt her….
I think about her all the time, in fact on a daily basis. I just had my second girl, and between her and my two year old toddler, it just seems like a lot.
I sometimes feel overwhelmed and there is too much to handle. But then I think of Violette, and women like her.
What I have to go through is so little to handle in comparison to her. She has provided me with tremendous perspective that you can’t get from just reading an article or watching a news story…
Just to know a woman with this kind of the strength of Violette, has given me a perspective that I would not otherwise gain.
Women for Women International