Although the Rwandan genocide was twenty years ago, it still affects everyday life. When the Interahamwe militia swept through every town and village in 1994, they deliberately killed doctors, nurses and teachers. They destroyed everything in their path including schools and hospitals; they even killed the animals in Rwanda’s single safari park.
When the bloodshed stopped, the new government did not even have desks or telephones or paper clips. The nation found itself at Year Zero. Millions of children were unable to go to school for years because 85% of teachers had either been killed or had fled. Consequently many people never learned to read and write; thousands of orphans had no adults from whom to learn life skills like hygiene and nutrition. When you bear in mind that even before the genocide Rwanda was one of the world’s poorest countries, the scale of the challenge to rebuild the nation seems even more enormous.
The Aspire programme in the capital Kigali has been supported by Network for Africa since it began in 2009. As soon as we met her, we knew that Aspire’s founder, Peace Ruzage, was an agent of change, and a remarkable woman who deserved our help in making her vision a reality. Her aim was to provide vocational training and life skills for the poor and vulnerable women in her district. Peace brought them together, demonstrating that learning and working together in cooperatives could be fun and profitable. Her compound soon became a place of sanctuary for women who have had tough lives, but who are determined their daughters will have choices they never did. The women have blossomed as they’ve seen what can be accomplished by supporting each other, finding friendship, and knowing they’ll never again have to struggle to bring up their children alone.
I get by with a little help from my friends
Margaret is a 38-year old widow, and a mother of six. She lacked the self-confidence even to approach the Aspire project compound in Kigali. However, she saw a couple of local women making the most of the opportunities available to them at Aspire, and she finally built up the courage to put herself forward to be selected to join. At Aspire Margaret learned how to cook and be a hairdresser; about savings and loans, and about her rights. She took out a loan, rented a shop and started a business selling her own crafts and baked goods, as well as groceries and fresh food. “It was like a dream, being in Aspire. After understanding how I can save money, I have changed my family’s health with medical insurance.”
Other women at Aspire were denied education because their families were too poor, or they only educated their sons. Esther was fourteen when she started working in other people’s homes for £2 or $3 a month. She had a ‘traditional’ marriage (not legally recognised) but she left with her son when her partner became violent. “Coming to Aspire has helped me psychologically. I no longer feel isolated. I’ve been equipped with the ability to work out my personal problems. While I am trained, my little boy attends Aspire’s child care facility where he is fed taught educational games.”
Jeanne is a 45-year-old raising her five children alone. “I was hawking in the streets, which is illegal in Kigali. It was dangerous, too. After arriving at Aspire my life has changed completely. I’ve learned different skills like weaving, making necklaces, tie-dye and crafts to sell in the market. With the money I’ve earned I’ve paid the school fees and bought medical insurance. I’m building a small house, too.”
When 38-year-old Adrie started to learn new skills at Aspire, her husband was inspired to be more ambitious. “With the money I’ve saved from making crafts my husband and I have opened a small shop that sells groceries, and we work together there. We hope to make the shop bigger in the future. The profit we make goes to feed our three children. It’s not much, but at least we eat every day now. And they also go to school. My dream is that one day I can go back to school, too.”
Adrie is not the only Aspire graduate to find her husband’s attitude to her has changed for the better as she has acquired skills and started to contribute to the family budget. Thauciane says, “Since I have been earning money, my husband has been seeking my opinion before he makes decisions. He never did this before. My children are proud of me, too. I used my earnings to buy us mattresses to sleep on. Before we only had grass mats.”
The art of conversation
To achieve real and long-lasting social change, Peace’s team at Aspire understood they must involve the male partners of those women who are not single mothers or widows. Men were initially suspicious that Aspire was “giving their women ideas,” but once they were included in training sessions about health, hygiene, nutrition and being a positive male role model, many of them have become supportive.
Couples all over the world, in every society, know what it means to have trouble communicating. But in a traditional society like Rwanda, men often make decisions without involving their women, or even talking to them in the course of daily life. Aspire has demonstrated to men the benefits of talking things over with their female partners, and as a result there is less tension at home for many of the families involved.
Significantly, women have been able to discuss what they have learned at Aspire about family planning. By the end of their year-long course, the women who had previously not used contraception were all practicing family planning. Having babies every year is exhausting; caring for large families is even harder when you are desperately poor and have no means of making money. Network for Africa is especially proud that, thanks to Peace and her Aspire team, women now have the confidence and agency to make choices about the size of their families. Happier, healthier mothers will raise happier, healthier children. And with such simple but important steps the women of Aspire can rebuild their country.
Written by Rebecca Tinsley, founder of Network for Africa