In December 2023, Sara Bowcutt, Women for Women International - UK's Managing Director, went on a donor trip with our partner Allen & Overy to show them the amazing impact our Stronger Women, Stronger Nations programme can have on the lives of women survivors of war. We asked her to reflect on the trip and share three of her favourite highlights.
The highlights of my trip to Rwanda
In December I was lucky enough to return to beautiful Rwanda - the “land of a thousand hills”.
During this trip, I spent a week visiting Women for Women International’s programmes and meeting so many women currently going through our Strong Women Stronger Nations programme or graduates of it. It was an incredible week. When I got back the team asked me what my top 3 highlights of the trip were – here they are.
1. Seeing the potential journey our training can take women on
My week in Rwanda took me on my own journey seeing the full spectrum of change that can happen from the early days on our programme, to a few months after graduation to 10 years after. I was privileged to meet women at every stage of this journey and it blew me away. I sat in on a class of women who are just four months into the programme, still nervous, not so confident to speak in front of the class, still working through trauma and sadness and just starting to open up to other women.
I also loved meeting a women’s group that graduated five months ago and have set up a leather workshop making beautiful shoes and bags (yes I did buy a pair of leather sandals!) who have seen that by working together they have built savings and have the beginnings of a successful business. The energy in that workshop was so fun and upbeat. They told us they’re still learning and are considering how to price their products in the best way to make profit, encourage sales and not undersell themselves.
And finally I also met a number of groups who graduated a few years ago and are now running super successful businesses together, dreaming about and planning for expansion. One women’s cooperative group we met that was set up after they graduated are harvesting and selling coffee beans. They’re successfully running their business but won’t stop here. They told me that they have even bigger dreams. First to save enough to buy and run their own washing station so they can process the coffee beans themselves to increase profit. And secondly, they dream of one day exporting their coffee internationally.
2. The Power of Sisterhood
When I have the chance to speak about our work I will often talk about the power of sisterhood. This trip was so special because I got to really see this in action. Many of the women I met told me how important meeting their “sisters” on our programme was to them. One group in particular (a co-operative growing strawberries and using them to produce and sell jam, juice and wine) talked about how running their business together has made it more successful – they’ve even been on TV together.
The leader of their group told me 'we used to be poor, and now we’re rich together'
Yes, she meant financially rich - but also emotionally and spiritually rich because of the relationships she has forged with other women. As I left the room another woman told me very passionately that finding a sisterhood in her Women for Women International classroom changed her life.
It was a fierce reminder of the power sisterhood has to strengthen, support and encourage and its ability to help create long lasting, successful businesses.
3. Women taking on leadership roles
As a female leader myself I know how challenging this can be and how important it is to have female voices included in decision making. It was wonderful to meet so many other female leaders on our trip – and learn a thing or two from them about leadership.
Firstly, the many co-operative groups we met all had strong, confident leaders who stood up in front of our group and presented their work, told us proudly how they’d used skills learnt on our programme to develop their ideas, business plans and dreams, asked us questions and generally owned the room! One woman really stood out though - after her Village Savings and Loans Association group (VSLA) had shown us how they use a new digital app to track their savings, she pulled me aside to tell me that after she graduated she was so changed and confident in herself that she started doing more in the local community, suggesting changes and improvements to things and that now she is the leader of her village.
I got actual chills! She reminded me that from small steps and a bit of confidence major change can, and does, come.
In remembrance of the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda. We reflect on how women have rebuilt their lives with the help and support of each other, finding friendships and community. In the aftermath of conflict, they have found hope.
Since 1997, Women for Women International - Rwanda has reached more than 79,973 women.
Amid violence and poverty following the Rwandan Genocide, Grace dares to build a better life. She is pursuing a large-scale business venture in a small Rwandan community, an innovative project to make footballs that captured the heart of FIFA’s President. Her idea has provided opportunities for the women in her savings group and demonstrates the power of resilience. Grace dares to overcome adversity and create positive change in her community.