As we look back on the July 4th weekend and to all Independence Day represents, I find myself looking towards places where there is still so much work to be done in terms of freedom, equality, and hope. As a successful American business woman, I have begun to devote a large amount of time to helping promote economic viability for women in developing countries, among them the war-torn country of Rwanda, where women make up 70 percent of the population.
Rwanda is a country of over 11 million. Most people still live in mud huts and small villages scattered across that African nation. After the genocide in 1994, the country is still healing its deep wounds. 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and jobs are scarce, with agriculture being the predominant source of income. These challenges are particularly hard for the women of Rwanda, since the horror of war left hundreds of thousands raped and over 250,000 infected with AIDS. It also meant thousands and thousands of women were left as widows, unmarried, and suddenly head of their households. To make their plight even more dire, those women and their children are the ones most affected by the poverty of life.
This is where the work of Women for Women International (“WfW”) is making a difference, and why I am so passionate about being involved. It’s about providing hope and opportunity. And we are. The work of Women for Women International includes direct financial aid, rights awareness classes, job-skills training and emotional support. The 18-month program (recently increased from one year) was developed for Rwanda’s special challenges and demands, and includes practical vocational training that helps women earn an income and support themselves. Women can learn to make an income off the land – even if they are illiterate – with organic farming techniques geared toward commercial production. We can teach women to work even if they can’t read or write. I saw that first hand when I visited our programs there.
Consider the story of a woman I’ve come to know as my adopted “sister”. She lost her husband during the war, leaving her a widow with three young children. Nevertheless, she adopted another three children who had been orphaned, which she raised on her own. She was able to support her family because of the work of WfW, which taught her how to take care of her land, plant rice, and sell her produce. Now she’s able to generate an income to educate her children, and provide them with the hope and opportunity she never had. Her story is truly one of resilience. She walked over 100 miles from a refugee camp to return to this piece of land, which has now transformed her life, and certainly those of her children. I call her my “Superstar,” and meeting her and seeing her pride and dignity was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Her story isn’t unusual though, and that is why I see so much opportunity.
If Africa is going to survive and prosper, it will entail three important factors, information technology, agriculture production that is drought resistant and women.
The Bloomberg Foundation has decided to devote a large amount of resources to the development of women in Africa and, indeed, has invested in Women for Women. Much of the Foundation’s other focus is on so called “Green Energy” which is truly the best hope for Africa. There is the baobab tree that can hold up to 32,000 gallons of water and survive a drought. Imagine the chance this would provide for people to develop their crops! They need more sustainable technology, too. Driving home one evening from visiting women in the WfW program outside of Kigali, I was struck by the sheer darkness along the roads. Then I saw what I thought were fireflies. The fireflies turned out to be lights from cell phones. Technology is another key component in Africa’s long-term development.
Yet, in some ways, Rwanda is surprisingly “ahead of the curve.” In 2008 it became the first country in the world that women held a majority of parliamentary seats – 56 percent. As a result they were able to pass laws on domestic violence and dissolve another law, which provided that women could not make any legal decision without the written consent of a male relative. Undeniably, this is progress, but as we look back on the July 4th weekend here in the United States, let each of us look inward, too – inward to see how each of us can make a difference, and why investing in a woman’s future is a way for her to have her economic independence, maintain her own voice and contribute to the well being of her family and her society.
About the author:
Until 2009, Jewelle Bickford was a global investment banking partner at The Rothschilds and currently is a Senior Strategist for GenSpring, a multi-family office for high net worth people. She is a member of the Board of Women for Women International.