Perhaps one of government’s biggest achievements in the last fifteen years or so has been the empowering of its women.
Currently the Rwandan parliament has the biggest number of women in parliament world wide.
Linda Trau is an American woman who has been in Rwanda three times and runs several projects that help empower African business women.
Bryan Kimenyi of The New Times caught up with her to know about her work and what she’s doing in her quest to empower women.
Qn: Who is Linda Trau?
Ans: I’m an American entrepreneur and designer from New York; I deal in fashion designs and jewellery. I work with a lifestyle firm called Athropologie that has been in life style business for over 30 years. I’ve worked with them for 16 years.
Qn: When did you come to Rwanda?
Ans: I came to Rwanda a few years back because I’d heard a lot about Rwanda’s progress after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. What motivated me most was the fact that when I got here, I realized Rwandans, especially women, had moved on with their lives. That’s when I decided to do some work with Rwandan women.
Qn: What exactly do you do in Rwanda?
Ans: When I got here, I met two ladies, Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndungutse of Gahaya links who had already organized a number of women under their support project.
The success of this business is also emphasized by the hard work of Janet and Joy who work tirelessly to design, innovate and train the women.
These are women who do not compromise when it comes to quality. It is the reason they are still in business.
In the actual sense, I buy commodities from these women and export them (items) to different stores around the United States of America and Europe. The money from these sales gets back to the communities here in creating more vocational centres for women.
Qn: How many women do you employ so far?
Ans: Apart from Gahaya Links which I started with, there are other partners like Indego Africa and Inkenzi Knit Union. Several hundred women work in these institutions and I hope to get thousands of women getting skills by next year.
Qn: Are you happy with the progress so far?
Ans: There are many reasons to think that we are making good progress. When I first came to Rwanda, there weren’t even a quarter of the women that I’m working with today. To add on that, these women have gained skills that enabled them to teach other women in Rwanda.
Qn: Do you only buy commodities from these women?
Ans: Besides the business I do with them and enrolling them into vocational institutions, we also help them learn other skills.
Most of them now attend computer (IT) lessons in their free time. They also asked us to give them English language lessons and they are getting them.
Lastly, those with kids are also given school fees for their children such that we don’t only educate the parents but also their children.
Qn: Any inspiring stories from these women?
Ans: There are many things that amaze me here. Most of the women here joined without even enough to feed their children but they can easily manage to feed an entire family now.
Orphans are now able to pay school fees and buy all the necessities for their siblings.
The last time I was here, one of them with HIV told me that I might not find her when I return.
I was very surprised at her good health condition when I returned. All this shows you how far they’ve come. The stories are very many.
Qn: What motivates you in your day to day interaction with Rwandese women?
Ans: Their hope and will to make it in life makes me have a belief that everything is possible to them. I remember the situation I met most of them and then I look at how far they’ve made it and it inspires me to continue working with them.
They’ve changed their lives with the opportunity they got; now most of them are responsible for their families and children unlike before.
Eventually my daughter and I plan to create an NGO that will make our work with Rwandese women easier. We are still preparing the ground for that.
Qn: What is your view about the government’s efforts to empower women?
Ans: From what I have seen in the few years I’ve been coming to Rwanda, the Rwandan Government is doing more than any country I know in promoting women rights and making sure that they have a say in decision making in their societies. Other countries should borrow a leaf from what is being done here.
Qn: Apart from women, do you also do any activities with men groups?
Ans: (laughs)…I knew you would ask that question. Actually we don’t. As you know, women have been marginalized in most societies around the world and in Rwanda; they are the ones who were affected most by the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.
Most of the women here are widows, orphans and single parents.
However when you look at it, the men also profit because these women have both male and female children who go to school because of our projects, therefore the male children who benefit do so because of the work women are doing.
Qn: The world commemorates Women’s Day very soon, what message do you have for the women out there?
Ans: I want Rwandese women to always be there for each other, love each other’s families, keep together and believe in the future because sometimes dreams come true.