For Rwandan Women, a Grassroots Approach to Change

by Jessica Lott

In early 2010, while researching another project, I became interested a small, U.S./Rwanda–based organization Global Grassroots, which I then interviewed and followed for much of the next two years. The organization partners with some the world’s most vulnerable women—genocide widows, HIV-positive women, and those living in severely impoverished areas of post-conflict Africa—to build self-sustaining nonprofits dedicated to the safety, education, and advancement of women and girls. Through the program, Rwandan women have launched social justice projects that are entirely community-designed and run, and after an initial training period and small start-up grant from Global Grassroots, also self-funding. They are reinventing the traditional approach to international aid, as well as demonstrating how dedicated local women are healing their own communities, overturning the post-genocide legacy of fear, conflict, and suspicion.

The program is called the Academy for Conscious Change, and it offers participant groups an ongoing partnership with Global Grassroots.[1] Successful applicants are teams of women (sometimes men) who apply with a general idea for a community-focused project, such as education or access to clean water. In the initial two-and-a-half week training session, team leaders refine their idea through discussions about social justice work and compassionate action. They are also equipped with the hard skills necessary to launching a nonprofit—creating a mission and vision statement, as well as drawing up an operational plan, budget, a set of fundraising strategies, and a code of conduct. Leaders re-teach these development strategies to their teams as they work offsite for the next three to six months. The element of re-teaching is very important in the program—classroom educators are former students, and the founder herself, Gretchen Wallace, is re-circulating her U.S.-earned MBA, her background in international project finance and social entrepreneurship, as well as years of participant feedback on the curriculum.

Global Grassroots began its work in 2004, in a country very receptive to the changing role of women in its future. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda left the country almost 70% female, and women were considered less to blame than men, largely victims instead of perpetrators. President Kagame, looking to foster ties with Western nations, recognized the benefit in politically empowering women in the new government. Consequently, the revised 2003 Constitution stipulates that the Rwandan Parliament be comprised of at least 30% women. Currently 51% of Parliament members are female (to put this in perspective, only 17% of the U.S. Congress is composed of women). The country’s Vision 2020 development plan supports a continuous updating of gender laws, parity in higher education, and affirmative action policies to promote women’s educational and social advancement.[2]

But it takes time and effort for this type of policy to become part of the cultural fabric, particularly in rural areas where poverty remains an enormous impediment to social progress. Applications to Global Grassroots’s program, three times the number they’re able to accept, reveal a raw intimacy with suffering, and the deeply entrenched inequities women and girls still face in the country. Rwandan women’s lives are often gruelingly difficult, and gender violence is widespread, even in schools. Nearly thirty-five percent of the country’s women are illiterate (in rural areas the illiteracy rate jumps to 60% or higher). Unable to read, these women are prevented from exercising the rights, particularly property rights, guaranteed them under the 1999 Inheritance and Marital Property Law and reinforced by the new Constitution.[3]  Illiterate women are unable to vote or open bank accounts—they’re vulnerable to scams by people in their community who offer to “read” legal documents for them.

In response, many of Global Grassroots’s Rwandan teams have developed projects focused on literacy training. There is a team dedicated to the construction of school bathrooms to replace unisex latrines, where girls are liable to be victims of sexual assault and harassment; due to a lack of sanitary products, they are often unable or too ashamed to attend school during menstruation—chronic absences that contribute to high dropout rates. Several projects have the goal of safe access to clean water, AIDS prevention education, reducing domestic violence, and teaching former sex workers marketable skills, such as tailoring, so that they can re-integrate themselves into the community.

These are ambitious projects, conceptualized by women who have themselves been victimized. So in addition to social venture skills, healing and self-empowerment are key aspects of the Global Grassroots curriculum. The program begins not with the project, but with the often-neglected “me” for Rwandan women: “What do I love?” “What am I good at?” and also, “What am I most afraid of?”

In Rwanda after the genocide, there was no national infrastructure for dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout from participating in, being a victim of, or bearing witness to massive horror on an incomprehensible scale—beginning on the morning of April 7, 1994, and continuing for the next three months, in a country roughly the size of Maryland, 800,000 people were hunted and slaughtered by their neighbors and co-workers in a well-organized, locally implemented effort structured like a workday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The majority of victims were hacked to death at arm’s length with machetes and many were tortured, often in front of family, before dying. Half a million women and girls were raped. [4] The psychological and emotional fallout—the post-traumatic stress, anxiety, night terrors, obsessive behaviors, and depression, would stretch over the next two decades and beyond. One of the greatest paradoxes of human suffering is that pain almost always outlives its event. In the survivor’s mind, 1994 and yesterday happen within seconds of each other.

In Rwanda, after the genocide, the notion of trauma was stigmatized, for fear of its echo of blame and possible reprisal. Even now, the subject is often framed in the rhetoric of forgiveness and the dawning of a new national unity free of ethnic divisiveness, not Tutsi or Hutu—all Rwandans are Rwandan. Although the Western model of psychotherapy has emerged as the dominant treatment, especially by foreign NGOs, it hasn’t been wholly embraced—its focus on the individual as opposed to the collective runs counter to Rwandan culture.[5] Global Grassroots favors mind/body connection techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and forms of yogic breathing that are easy to re-teach, can be practiced in groups, and have proven to reduce stress and aid in the proper functioning of the nervous system disrupted by trauma. The organization also makes use of the support group model, as women, together in teams, are sharing their experiences while getting their community-focused projects up and running.

The nature of the work these women are doing is itself an essential part of what the organization has identified as a means of healing not only individuals, but entire communities. One of the genocide’s most lasting and widespread consequences was to destroy the concept of neighbor, especially in agricultural communities where everyone knows, and by extension, depends on each other. It tore apart familial, professional, and community ties, and caused a seismic shift in demographics: the mass murder was followed by the mass exodus of two million Hutu refugees into Congo, then their return, imprisonment, and in 2005, their release and re-absorption back into their communities. The result is a largely unspoken resentment and distrust that runs like an electrical current through many interactions. What the Global Grassroots program is attempting to create is a new relationship, not just between individuals, but between the individual and a community that once failed to protect her, that continues to fail.

Once a team’s nonprofit business model is completed, and evaluated for impact and sustainability, the organization awards it a grant, usually around $5,000, to cover all startup costs. Over the next year, the Global Grassroots staff assists the teams in attaining local permits and fundraising in a country where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line.

One of the most successful teams in Global Grassroots’s history, “Hard Workers,” located on the outskirts of Kigali, is now in its fifth year. The team’s goal was to stop the sexual exploitation of the disabled—women who are genocide victims, missing limbs, or HIV-positive. Unable to collect their own water (a daily four-hour round-trip walk carrying ten-gallon jerry cans), they were bartering sex for water delivery with men who owned bicycles. The team also wanted to remedy the high incidence of water-born illnesses from drinking from the contaminated river.[6]

Hard Workers received a start-up grant of $2,600 from Global Grassroots, which they used to construct a tank that collects water draining off the roof of a local church during the rainy season, and during the dry season, holds the weekly delivery of drinking water bought from the city. As part of their financial sustainability model, Hard Workers sells the water to those who can afford it, and with the proceeds pays the school fees for local children orphaned by AIDS and the genocide. The money is also used to buy health insurance for women and their families. The community’s disabled women, as well as the elderly, the orphan-headed households, and anyone else in need, now receive their water for free.

The team has radically altered the demographics of illness in Gahanga. Global Grassroots recently provided the project with a second grant, allowing Hard Workers to build two additional sites, with a third site currently under construction. The project currently supplies safe drinking water to more than 4,000 people, with another 2,000 people estimated to benefit once the additional site is finished. The team’s leader, Seraphine Hacimana, has a first-grade education. She ran the project while raising eight children. [7]

The effectiveness of Global Grassroots’s program can be attributed to a formidable combination of self-empowerment and smart business-skill training, its focus on inner transformation, its on-the-ground flexibility, its emphasis on re-teaching. But in a deeper sense, the organization’s success is due to the change it’s affecting in its participants, who consistently report a dramatically greater sense of confidence and power in their home lives and communities, and, in many cases, an enormous shift in how they perceive their surroundings and their capacity to impact them.[8] Graduating teams face a staggering amount of obstacles in launching and maintaining their social justice ventures, but they are also powered by a fierce commitment—our common human need to be of use, to see our ideas come to fruition not just in service for ourselves, or our families, but for the good of an entire community.

What does community mean for us in our advancing digital age? We are currently adapting, psychologically and emotionally, to a new definition of accessibility, and closeness, and social responsibility. But the same technology that is offering communication, publicity, countless ads, and exciting access to information, is also providing the means to really see and understand what’s happening in a global, communal context, and to share resources—to take part in these community-based projects that are helping to move the world in a more equitable and peaceful direction. This is the promise the Internet holds out to us—something truly great, to change the way we understand the concept of neighbor, our inherent responsibility to each other.

To find out more about Global Grassroots’s projects and how you can become involved, please visit: globalgrassroots.org


[1] Although the length of the partnership is indefinite, determined by the individual needs of each project, it begins with an eighteen-month social venture program. Since 2004, Global Grassroots has graduated 300 women and men from this program, who have launched twenty-one social ventures, with an estimated yearly impact on more than 15,000 women and girls. Six new projects are currently in development.

[2] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in National Parliaments as of June 30, 2012,” http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm (accessed August 5, 2012).

[3] CIA World Factbook, “Rwanda,” www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rw.html, (accessed August 5, 2012). See also Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Knopf, 2009), 211–12.

[4] A series of books by the French journalist Jean Hatzfeld offers one of the most comprehensive and moving collections of accounts of the genocide by both the survivors and perpetrators: Life Laid Bare (New York: Other Press, 2000), Machete Season (New York: FSG, 2005), and The Antelope’s Strategy (New York: FSG, 2007).

[5] In 2010, Global Grassroots conducted a comprehensive countrywide study into trauma healing resources currently available to Rwandans along with their relative rate of success, interviewing governmental organizations as well as local and international NGOs operating in Rwanda, and drawing from the extensive evaluations from the women who go through their own program. The healing process is largely confined to the two-week national mourning period in April, when the genocide moves to the forefront of the national consciousness. Memorial events are scheduled, films and documentary footage shown, and genocide-inspired songs played nonstop on the radio. Trauma workers are positioned throughout the crowd to help, and remove, people who become hysterical, often sedating them. There is no follow-up treatment. But there is a growing understanding of what post-traumatic stress is, symptoms that were once attributed to poisoning. According to the organization’s report, in 2000, six years after the genocide, 8,000 Rwandans sought treatment from professionals for mental health issues; by 2009, that number was up to 34,500.

[6] Rwanda’s hilly terrain has posed a great challenge to the installation of public water systems, and women are rarely consulted on how to solve this problem, even though they are the most knowledgeable about the best placement for water access points.

[7] This is just one of many projects which have succeeded in the organization’s history. Team “Let Us Build Ourselves,” which had the goal of providing literacy training for women, overshot, to its surprise, all of its own benchmarks for achievement in its first year. Trying for 60% of its initial class of thirty to be able to read and understand civil marriage laws (essential to exercising their property rights), a year later, 90% were able to. With the goal of having 70% of its illiterate class able to read the newspaper, 97% of the women now can, and 70% have opened bank accounts (up from 3% of the starting class), and with an additional course in basic accounting, can now manage their own finances. Its graduates have become avid ambassadors for women’s education, enrolling their own daughters in the new class, and speaking at community meetings. This team, which often makes home visits to talk to families about the importance of their daughters’ education, is the brainchild of a group of Rwandan men.

[8] An in-depth, fifty-page independent assessment study, “Global Grassroots Program in Rwanda: Impact Evaluation,” was conducted by Julia Oakley from Columbia University in August 2011. After graduating “ninety-four percent of women respondents to the Global Grassroots follow-up survey indicate that they give their point of view and opinion at community meetings; 76 percent of female respondents say they have an equal role with their partner in decision-making, and 100 percent of respondents say they think they should. Both women team leaders and beneficiaries of Global Grassroots-funded programs share feeling an increased sense of confidence because of their participation.”

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For Rwandan Women, a Grassroots Approach to Change