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People enduring extreme poverty in conflict zones are portrayed in the news and imprinted on our minds in such a state of despair that it can seem hopeless. Earlier this year I started managing operations at Women for Women International, an organization that tries to get to the hope left in these places and people—specifically women—who have lost everything and are trying to rebuild.

In a tiny room, rough wooden tables and traditional paper ledgers are lit by the sun streaming through the door. The simplest of tools provide a wealth of knowledge and confidence to the women. Photo by Michelle Guillermin.

We work in conflict-affected areas like Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Nigeria, Rwanda and, where I had the chance to go last summer, the Democratic Republic of Congo. On my way there I braced myself to meet a group of our program participants who’d been through a violence and suffering that was beyond my imagination. I knew they’d been chosen to enter our year-long program because of the degree of hardship they’d endured and the disadvantage they faced. I knew they were now about to graduate after working with our local staff day after day, in small class sizes of 25 women each, where they learned marketable skills like farming, bee keeping, and tailoring; rights like land ownership and decision making; and advocacy skills so they could negotiate for what they need from local governments and within their own homes. But I was not prepared for how fueled by that opportunity they would be.

The end of the program is a time for celebration, with clothes and jewelry carefully chosen for a final gathering. Children of all ages are brought to witness the new-found confidence and self-sufficiency of their mothers and sisters. Photo by Michelle Guillermin.

I heard them before I saw them—happy chattering and laughing—a chorus of strong community and stronger friendships. As I turned the corner into a sun-soaked courtyard in Mumusho, the women faced me with beaming smiles and started belting out songs of welcome, swaying in brilliantly colored clothes that kicked up the the rosy African dirt into gentle swirls. I was instantly captivated by these powerful women, so in charge of the moment.

They led me into their wooden hall where they had spent the past year, learning marketable skills and advocacy techniques. There they described how they had started their own businesses and were saving and investing money for the first time in their lives, and how they were doing it as a community—a sisterhood of women who found strength in rebuilding from the same severe past.

They invited me to one of their “VSLA” meetings—that stands for “Village Savings and Loan Association.” A woman who looked barely 20 years old had been elected leader of the group. She put up flip charts that spoke about balances, loans, and earnings. With the confidence of an MBA and the presentation of a corporate executive, she proudly delivered a track record of collective success.   

A metal box with multiple locks was brought in and placed solemnly on the ground. Different women, each with different keys, unlocked and opened the box together. Inside was a stack of worn bills wrapped in muslin. Another cloth was lain beside the box and each woman carefully placed her savings book onto the cloth. The young leader opened them all, drawing her finger down the lines of figures and counting out bills into individual stacks.

Women express their joy and appreciation through lyrics and songs developed on the spot, unique to the story they are telling. Photo by Michelle Guillermin.

Suddenly an urgent chatter rose up and spread to the benches lining the walls. There was an inconsistency in the count! The women crowded in closer as the leader retraced the books’ lines and doled out the bills once again. As the tally met evenly with the books, a collective sigh issued forth from the room. Each woman took her portion and described how this money would be used to buy a chicken, or rent a sewing machine, or pay their child’s school tuition. Their straight backs and proud voices showed how much it meant to them to be taking care of themselves and their families after years of not knowing where to turn. They now turned to themselves and each other.

Women enter the program with little to no earning capacity. Through a small stipend and new economic skills, they learn to manage their money through savings, investment and borrowing. Photo by Michelle Guillermin.

Then, walking in from the searing heat, strode a woman in a puffy gold coat and wrap-around sunglasses—a get up more typical of the village men. She bowed her legs, put her hands on her hips and sauntered around the room with an attitude of arrogance and scorn. I realized the women were demonstrating for me their role play training, where women dress up as village leaders and the men they have to negotiate with in their homes. Two women stood up and approached this “village leader” and vigorously demanded that they be heard. The leader responded with a flash of anger and a loud argument broke out. As the negotiation soured, both parties retreated to separate corners of the room. Everyone clapped and laughed, acknowledging that this was not the way to get things done.

The two women approached the village leader again, but this time with quiet airs of authority. The leader initially pushed back, but then began to listen and nod as the women made their case, deliberate and steady. Finally, the leader was persuaded and nodded his consent as cheers roared up from the crowd and the women looked at each other as if to say, “of course he agreed.  We knew exactly how to make this happen” And here I sat in this huddle of women, in this hut in the fields of Mumusho, in the middle of “nowhere,” but right in the center of a change I know we need to see in this world.

About
Michelle Guillermin
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Michelle Guillermin is a photographer, writer, and senior Diplomatic Courier correspondent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.