Rwanda Women's Network - the Ladder Propelling Women to Greater Heights

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(OPINION - By Donah Mbabazi)
It is a story of hope and perseverance for Chantal Uwanyirigira and her colleagues. However, the bigger story is not about the success they have achieved, but how they started out. It is a story of how they were given a shoulder to lean on and see far beyond their dream.
It is a similar story for Eugenie Mukabaziga, a gender-based violence survivor who was rescued from a life of abuse by her spouse.
"I had given up on myself and life because of the abuse I was facing from my husband. Rwanda Women's Network not only provided psycho-social support for me but reached out to my husband. Together; we were taken into a reflection process that helped us to understand Gender Based Violence and its consequences on our family. We are now working towards making our home more peaceful," Mukabaziga narrates.
These are some of the many testimonies from beneficiaries of Rwanda Women's Network- an organisation that empowers women to be change-makers through gender equality.
Marceline Mukamana, the executive secretary of Remera sector, Gatsibo District, is another beneficiary.
She says that the network helped her to realise that as a woman, she could contribute to decisions affecting her life and the community.
"As a result, I was inspired to apply for my current position, coordinating sector operations and initiatives that reach more than 6,000 people," she says. Christine Kayitesi applauds the services provided at the health centres run by the network.
"20 years later, I still find my way back to the RWN Health Centre in Kagugu for my healthcare and antiretroviral therapy. HIV/AIDS testing was not easily accessible after the Genocide due to the large number of people who needed testing and availability of equipment. The organisation, however, not only provided testing, but counselling and peer support as well. I will always be grateful to Rwanda Women Network because through the organisation, I got the courage to live my life without fear and shame," Kayitesi says.
Rwanda Women's Network is no ordinary organisation; it spearheads a holistic women empowerment programme. It empowers women to be change-makers and go-getters with the goal of self-transformation.
Although, the focus goes beyond economic empowerment, the organisation puts special emphasis on gender equality through a unique strategy that includes men who serve as gender champions.
According to Mary Balikungeri, the network's director and founder, the beneficiaries are taken through a journey of learning and transformation. She notes that issues tackled are based on matters that arise from households and this is done with a goal of designing messages that resonate with society.
With that, efforts are enhanced with the network's target being improving the socio-economic welfare of women in Rwanda.
The network uses a holistic approach to address women issues through different approaches. Balikungeri says their focus is households because the family unit is the foundation of society.
"Family is important for us; we want to engage families socially, economically, and politically. Things can only change when families understand where this country has come from, where it's going and where its vision really is," she notes.
"We can advocate best when we do it that way, it gives women an opportunity to come forward and speak up about their challenges. We also create a knowledge hub for people to think innovatively and be able to feel that they are part and parcel of the changes that are taking place in the country," Balikungeri says.
Programmes offered by the organisation include socio-economic empowerment, health care and support, education and awareness, governance and accountability, GBV prevention, networking and advocacy.
It goes beyond the dynamics
For two decades, Balikungeri and the team have been working towards ensuring that Rwandan women find their place in society.
Through seamless effort, the journey began way back in 1995, it's been now over 20 years down the road and the milestones are nothing, but a delight.
"For me the journey began with what happened during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, it's in that struggle of wanting to be part of this history that this whole idea of creating a women's organisation eventually came up.Getting to where we are today in 20 years for me is a dream come true," Balikungeri says.
Built on social economic empowerment, the Kigali-based organisation has given a platform for women all over the country to access medical services, with the focus areas being gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, mental and reproductive health.
Their education and awareness programme builds women's capacity to claim their rights through increasing their access to information on different issues, including human and legal rights, as well as formal, informal and vocational training.
On socio-economic empowerment still, the women are equipped with skills on financial learning, book keeping and marketing.
Another very vital aspect is the fight against gender-based violence where focus is put on prevention and response. Women are trained through the safe spaces, looking at the issues of GBV from an individual change, family and eventually, community perspective. 22 safe spaces for women are run countrywide.
The governance programme focuses on issues of leadership; its curriculum focuses on organisational development, for instance, how to use the effect of positive power, and the impact of using it negatively.
Part and parcel of this unique setting is how the network takes policies from the parliament level, simplifies them and takes them to the communities to help them understand.
"We have developed a strategy of using dramatization where communities sensationalise the laws, and often times when we do that, we invite local authorities so that they feel what the community is saying," Balikungeri says.
It is through this platform mainly that the founder of the organisation calls onto beneficiaries to use the platform and become change-makers.
"We need to have people who yearn for a positively changing society, and to shape the future direction. Men too are becoming strong partners, they are so proud because they have understood what gender equality means to society, they know it is real transformation," the director says.
Balikungeri applauds government for creating a conducive environment that has enabled them to make a change.
"We are celebrating because we have had a lot of opportunities from this government over the last 20 years, and its impact is clear, for us it's visible because we have been able to transform women's lives, some have turned out to be independent and economically sound," she points out.
"No matter how long the journey, or how difficult the challenges, our determination continues to be women's empowerment that leads to positive transformation in homes, communities and the nation," she says.
Employees' thoughts on the organisation
Rwanda Women's Network has not only impacted beneficiaries but employees as well. Being a part of this network has helped me discover a passion for social justice and women's empowerment. This is why I would want to see continued excellence and this initiative being a platform of empowerment for all.
Annette Mukiga, Director of Programmes
The network has increased women's understanding of the laws that protect their rights, for instance those on GBV, and marital rape, among others. There has been society transformation in terms of thinking; this goes along with women and their households. Also, trainings on management have put women in a position to access funds.
Peter Turyahikayo, Board member
Through empowerment, women have managed to gain the confidence to tackle their issues. The organisation is more of a platform for the women to come together and find solutions to their problems. Counselling services have indeed made a difference, and it has really made an impact.
Betty Muteteri, Field Supervisor
The mobilisation done by community members, especially women, to engage with local leaders in preparation and implementation of public or government plans and programmes, helps them to engage and contribute to improvement of service delivery and community development based on citizens' priorities. And this influences change of poor policies.

Emmaus Sibomana, Project Coordinator


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