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Empowering Women, After the Genocide: New Article on

April 21, 2012
I’m thrilled to be a new contributor to Livia Firth’s In addition to being Oscar award-winner Colin Firth’s wife, she created the Green Carpet Challenge, just- launched the worldwide Eco Age boutique, as well as a new jewelry collection, and she’s a documentary filmmaker to boot. I had the pleasure of interviewing Livia for my “Heroines for the Planet” series back in February right after the Oscars.Here’s my first article for Eco Age on the women building Rwanda back up 18 years after the genocide swept their country.

Between April and June 1994, an estimated 1,000,000 Rwandans — men, women and children — were killed in the space of 100 days as part of a civil genocide. As is common in these types of massacres, women in particular endured unimaginable violence. The UN Commission on Human Rights estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 females (women and girls) were brutally raped.

Time doesn’t heal every kind of wound. Eighteen years later, the brutality that swept through Rwanda still affects its people. An estimated 70 percent of female survivors who were raped during the conflict were infected with HIV, and between 2,000 and 5,000 unwanted pregnancies resulted from the mass rapes. Emotionally traumatized, Rwandan women became heads of households, widows, and caretakers of orphans, living in both poverty and despair. Sixty-two percent of households headed by women fall below the poverty line.

When survival preoccupies the mind, there’s no room to dream or heal.

But the tides are changing for Rwandan women. Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, has been an outspoken advocate of empowering women as part of the country’s reconciliation efforts. At the Clinton Global Initiative this past Fall, I listened to President Kagame speak on a panel titled “Engaging Boys and Men as Allies for Long-Term Change,” where he called on countries to scale up efforts to empower women. The President practices what he preaches.

Under his leadership, women now represent an estimated 56 percent of the Parliament and one-third of the cabinet. It’s an indication that, with the right support in place, Rwandan women hold a unique position to be a vital part of Rwanda’s recovery.

Designs of the center, scheduled to open in 2013, Kayonza, Rwanda.

One such project toward that end is that of the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda. Scheduled to open on International Women’s Day in March 2013, the facility will be a permanent space for women, thereby advancing progress toward gender equality and social inclusion for Rwandan women.

The concept for the Center was conceived by Women for Women International, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO, to serve as a dedicated center for vocational and life-skill training, micro-lending, counselling and other services intent on helping to educate and prepare Rwandan women for economic independence. Sharon Davis Design, a New York architecture firm and key player in the project, was asked to develop design strategies in order to implement the vision and support WfWI’s mission to serve women and girls in Rwanda.

The 12-month program at the Women’s Opportunity Center will be a haven for building solidarity among Rwandan women, allowing them to draw upon the skills gained through WfWI’s training and use those skills within their communities.

“Our life skills training program is the initial empowerment tool and the WOC. facilitates its sustainability,” said Karen Sherman, WfWI’s Executive Director of Global Programming.

For the center, the design team sought to create an inviting atmosphere that would foster both participation in programming and discussion about the students’ past traumas. Samuel Keller of Sharon Davis Design elaborated on the Center’s design:

“We spread out single-story buildings across the site, which allowed for a campus that was simultaneously accessible and unintimidating. Since almost all the structures are completely open-air, attention was given to ensure adequate shading and day lighting while encouraging cross-ventilation for climatic comfort. Our design team reconsidered and re-imagined mostly local materials including masonry (brick and stone), light tube steel section, corrugated roof sheeting, etc. Along with consulting engineers, we developed strategies for rainwater harvesting, composting human and animal waste, and generating fuel (composting toilets, biogas) and various other sustainable technologies.”

The design of the center was cleverly used to both teach and to solve the region’s pressing environmental concerns. Since water scarcity remains a paramount issue, roofs were designed in the shape of big leaves that collect rainwater.  To help decrease the amount of over-harvesting of timber for fuel, a demonstration farm within the Center will produce food and animal waste for methane-based biogas.

The design team’s hard work and sacrifice isn’t lost on WfWI.

“Our experience with Sharon Davis and her team of architects have been nothing less than phenomenal,” said Sherman. “Her pro bono support and architectural expertise has been invaluable to the construction of the Kosovo and Rwanda Women’s Opportunity Centers. The designs of the WOCs not only break new ground in terms of the space and the visibility it offers women, but also as models of environmental sustainability.”

Women for Women International required the general contracting company responsible for the principal construction of site to employ at least 20 percent women in their own labor force for the project. Additionally, all ceramic paving tiles used for walkways and gathering spaces will be produced and provided by women from Women for Women International’s program in nearby Congo.

The project manager, Bruce Engel of Sharon Davis Design, now lives in Rwanda in order to better understand and interface with the local population that the Women’s Opportunity Center is meant to serve.

“The goal of the project from the get-go was for Rwandan women to be involved in the Center’s creation,” said Keller. “With that in mind, Sharon Davis Design helped WfWI establish a brickmaking co-op near our site in Kayonza to produce masonry units for both the Women’s Opportunity Center and other future building projects in the area. This co-op is intended to continue on well beyond construction of the Women’s Opportunity Center, offering an on-going cooperative business and income opportunity operated largely by women.”

With each brick that’s laid and woman who takes steps toward financial independence through this project, the old wounds heal. Time will never erase those 100 days, but empowered Rwandan women will ensure their country is reborn so it never happens again.

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