THE BLOG

Investing in Sisterhood - Rwanda's Women Lead the Way 20 Years on From the Genocide

07/04/2014 13:06 BST | Updated 06/06/2014 10:59 BST

In 1994 in the space of 100 days up to one million people were killed in Rwanda, in a calculated act, fueled and perpetrated by Hutu extremists in the then ruling government. It was one of Africa's defining moments, and one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the late 20th century, causing a shock wave across the world that still echoes today.

I remember hearing about those events for the first time on the radio. News reports were fragmented and NGOs were thrown into chaos, desperately trying to respond to the needs on the ground. I remember fellow aid workers coming back from the field traumatised and recounting horrors that were unimaginable. Daily the death toll rose, but it took time for the full horror to emerge and that a staggering 20 percent of Rwanda's population had been wiped out.

Twenty years on, the genocide continues to dominate Rwandan and regional politics, as well as the Rwandan people's psyche: the country was brought to its knees, the entire socio-economic and political fabric was destroyed, with women and children in particular left to bear the burden of a devastated society.

In our work with post genocide communities across Rwanda ActionAid hears daily how women from both sides suffered violence and rape for either being a Tutsi during the genocide, or as an act of revenge for being Hutu when the genocide ended. As is so often the case during conflict, women's bodies become the battlefield on which wars are fought.

So it's with both awe and respect that I see women leading the way in peacebuilding in Rwanda. Bringing their fragmented communities back together again through cooperatives, joint initiatives and open discussion. Through sisterhood.

Esperance Nyirahabiyambere, who was 17 when the genocide killed 29 members of her family, founded the Tuzamuragaseke Cooperative in Gitesi in 2007. A mixed group, the cooperative brings women together from both sides of the conflict. Many are genocide widows or have been left by their husbands. Some are single mothers, while others have husbands in prison for crimes during the genocide. But Esperance's message is clear:

"As women we have common problems. We need an income to provide for our families, we need security and we need others in a similar situation to share our burdens and raise our voices on the issues that affect us, from children to land rights."

It is this spirit of forgiveness and collaboration that ActionAid has invested in for almost 20 years in Rwanda, with women leading the way. More than 30,000 women have benefited from ActionAid programmes since 1997. Cooperatives and income generating projects have not only helped provide the basic needs for women and their children, including education, clothing, decent shelter, nutritional food and healthcare, but have also paved the way for empowerment and inclusion in both community and government decisions that affect them.

Rwanda's achievements are spread nationwide. Without doubt Rwanda has seen remarkable success in the last few years, with poverty reduced and strong economic growth to match. With the help of UK aid there has been impressive progress in the provision of basic services such as healthcare, education and agriculture, as well as significant development in infrastructure.

It is important to recognise what has been achieved in the wake of such tragedy, but we also need to look at what still needs to be done.

One out of two Rwandans still live below the poverty line and poverty was an underlying factor behind the 1994 genocide. Many of Rwanda's young people do not distinguish between previous societal differences based on Tutsi, Hutu and Twa groupings, but for this perception to remain a reality, the world must reinvigorate its commitment to those young people and their families who live in the direst poverty. Rwanda's future depends on it.

Help women and girls escape poverty and violence - donate to ActionAid's She Can appeal by the 25 June and the UK government will double your money www.actionaid.org.uk/SheCan

All UK-based individual donations to ActionAid's She Can Appeal until 25 June will be matched pound-for-pound by the UK government up to a ceiling of £5 million. This means that donations will go twice as far and ActionAid can help more young women to live free from injustice and harm, so that they can fulfil their potential, and work themselves and their communities out of poverty.