A story about how a Rwandan woman was empowered to become a community leader and source of inspiration for her peers
Women like Laurence Mukamurangwa lie at the heart of development in their communities. From being a victim of the genocide, she has become a community leader and agent of change.
Laurence was one among the many thousands of women who suffered rape and other gender-based atrocities during the genocide in Rwanda. This left her not only infected with HIV and deeply traumatized, but widowed, disinherited and destitute with nothing to call her own.
“It was as if we were nothing,” she says. “It was as if were living in darkness. We had no food, no clothes and no shelter. When you have nothing to live on, you are nothing.”
Laurence tells a lively story, explaining how it all began with a few other women when they first approached Rwanda Women’s Network in 1995:
“At first we were seven ladies, with only a bench to sit on. We approached RWN, who counseled us, and advised us on how to live and live positively. We were urged to look for others as affected as ourselves to come join us. Gradually we reached 10 in the group, then 20, then 40 members. [But it was not easy. Due to deep trauma] I would cause fights with my colleagues during our meetings. I could not see how I could sit and talk with those who violated us so much. I hated everything, and everybody.”
The group of victims and survivors of the genocide, including wives of perpetrators, would eventually reach more than 500 members. But, like Laurence, most were bitter in their displacement. Real solutions had to be found to give the women back their lives.
According to Mary Balikungeri, RWN Founder and Executive Director, “the whole issue was how the women were going to live together without interpersonal conflicts that would divide them rather than keep them together. The good thing was that the government had laid a process that allowed us to engage the people and create women spaces,” that included adopting a holistic approach as an empowering strategy.
The approach, implemented through the RWN Polyclinic of Hope program, included offering medical services, but also psychosocial support. This included education on, among others, human and legal rights. Socio-economic empowerment was recognized as a crucial complimentary activity, as being able to earn an income enhanced the women’s effectiveness in addressing their needs and domestic concerns. Essentially, the holistic approach to addressing their needs, and especially their health management, equipped the women to lead positive and productive lives.
By the year 2000, Laurent was a different person. She says that she was no longer a vulnerable person. Today, she is a peer counselor and community mobilizer, and was elected by her community to become Inyangamugayo – which means a person of integrity – and is now a respected community leader and legal counselor.
Central to the RWN holistic approach is the concept of volunteerism, emphasizing solidarity for beneficiaries to look out for one another. Volunteerism and solidarity-building is a key RWN strategy to ensure the beneficiaries’ positive health and social wellbeing individually and collectively.
“In those early days,” says Laurent, “we started seeing many of us falling sick. A suggestion came up that we form peer groups as a way to give us strength and look after one another. Through this we learnt peer counseling, and about our human and legal rights. This personally empowered me to go to court and win my disinherited land back.”
The RWN aspect of volunteerism and solidarity-building, led by women such as Laurent, is implemented through the home-based care networks, community paralegals and other care-givers has proved to be empowering in most aspects of the women’s lives.
In empowering the women the PoH program has been replicated in four centers around Rwanda, and currently caters for over 11,000 beneficiaries.
The accomplishments and success of the holistic model of service provision has attracted international attention. Due to its demonstrated impact, plans have been underway to replicate it in post-conflict countries in the Great Lakes Region. The replication has already started in Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where the women have identified with Laurent and her Rwanda colleagues.
This has amplified the impact of women’s empowerment where they take charge of their lives towards community leadership, and especially in meeting the needs of individual women, their families and communities.
Rwanda Women's Network (RWN) is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Ethiopia Office.
For more on IIE , ACE or RWN please follow the links below.