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Celebrating 30 years of Sisterhood - Sara Bowcutt's V&A speech

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Celebrating 30 years of sisterhood

This month, we celebrated our 30th anniversary with a special evening at the V&A Museum. In her speech, our Managing Director, Sara Bowcutt, reflected on the power of sisterhood to transform and rebuild lives after war.

Thank you all so much for coming and being here to celebrate 30 years of Women for Women International and our impact on women affected by conflict. It's incredible to see you all.

We are here to celebrate, and we will, but how can I possibly stand here and talk about the impact on women in conflict before acknowledging how much violence and insecurity women in conflict zones are facing today?

As I stand here, proud of everything that we have achieved in the last 30 years, I cannot ignore the fact that, once again, the news is full of stories of war, of suffering, because I know it is women who often bear the brunt of those wars. For the last two years, I feel like every time I speak about our work, I have to address a new, emerging or continued conflict and how women are affected.

And today is no different. Our news feeds, social media, and our conversations with friends and family are all full of the horrors happening in Israel and Palestine right now. It has been a heartbreaking and tragic few weeks. And not that long ago, it was Ukraine filling our newsfeeds. But the hard truth is these are only two of the conflicts taking place in the world today.

Photo of internally displaced people in Sudan.
Over 5.8 million people are internally displaced in Sudan. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Part of our role at Women for Women International is to make sure that the world doesn’t forget that at least 27 other conflicts are taking place in the world. In Sudan – where just 6 months ago, another conflict erupted and is still ongoing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that holds a very special place in my heart, 6.9 million people have been displaced by escalating violence, but they very rarely get news time.

In Syria, for more than a decade, conflict has been raging, and again, we rarely hear about it. In Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in Iraq, where I should be flying to on Sunday, but because of the security situation, I can’t go, and in so many other countries around the world, women are facing the same horrors in all of these conflicts. And I know for many of you, this means more than just news and numbers.

But while we have to acknowledge that more countries in the world are experiencing some form of violent conflict than at any other time in the last 30 years, we have never and will never lose hope.

Because women are the hope – they can be our pathway to a more peaceful world, and our work over the last 30 years has shown that to be true.

Our Managing Director Sara Bowcutt with Women for Women International Ambassador, Waad al Kateab.
Our Managing Director Sara Bowcutt (right) with Women for Women International Ambassador, Waad al Kateab (left). Photo credit: Bronac McNeill.

Three decades ago, one woman, Zainab Salbi, turned a moment of outrage into a movement. Now, the organisation that she founded has supported over half a million women survivors of war in more than 17 conflict-affected countries to rebuild their lives, support their families and strengthen their communities.

As part of our global sisterhood, you have all been part of that journey which has created a powerful ripple effect of change for women.

I cannot tell you how grateful we are for that support.

Many of you know Women for Women International started because of the war in Bosnia, where an estimated 50,000 women were subjected to rape as a weapon of war, and thousands more were traumatised by the death of loved ones and the destruction of their homes. Women survivors told us that they felt invisible and that the world had forgotten them.

These women were the inspiration behind the founding of Women for Women International when we created a sister-to-sister connection between isolated women in Bosnia and individual sponsor sisters around the world. A letter exchange provided solidarity and emotional support, while financial aid helped meet women’s basic needs and put them on the path to rebuilding their lives.

For those of you who know us well – I’m sure that sounds very familiar - not just because we hear the same things from women today but because it is absolutely still our approach.

We’re still inspired by the power of connection because we have seen that sisterhood, coupled with a combination of social and economic empowerment, has an incredible, long-lasting impact on women, their families and their communities.

Today, our 12-month training programme and complementary new programmes, like our Change Agent and Men’s Engagement programmes, continue to create a ripple effect of change in countries affected by conflict and for thousands upon thousands of women who continue to face the horrors of war.

Women in a classroom in our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations programme.
Women taking part in our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo credit: Alison Wright.

Every day, hundreds of women come to our training centres, each with their own story of violence, loss, trauma, but also of survival against the greatest odds.

Thirty years after we were founded, Women for Women International remains as committed as ever to investing in the power and potential of each and every one of those women. And when you support us, that is what you’re investing in too.

We have seen the impact that our approach has had over the last 30 years. Women earn more and save more, their understanding of their rights improves exponentially and they stand up and make decisions in their homes and their communities in a way that, before our programme, they wouldn’t even have considered. They connect to incredible support systems that break down the isolation caused by war, and every time I’ve spoken to any woman who has been through our programme, she has told me that that’s the most important thing for her.

One thing I believe in very strongly is the power of sisterhood and community, the power of sisterhood and community not only to support, protect, nurture and encourage women but also its ability to connect us all to our humanity in the most difficult of times.

That is what our programme does for women, and it's what this community and thousands of others like you have done over the last 30 years.

I hope you’re ready for the challenges that come next and that you’ll continue to stand with us and all women affected by conflict. Thank you.

Learn more

On Wednesday, 1st November, we welcomed over 150 guests to celebrate 30 years of global sisterhood and the power of inspirational women at the V&A Museum. Following an evening reception, our guests were treated to an exclusive private view of the highly anticipated Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition.


Our programmes

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Participants in our year-long programme work to strengthen themselves across four critical areas of social and economic empowerment.