In war-torn areas, millions of women are frequently left to rebuild their lives without the basic necessities for survival or a viable means to earn an income. Women for Women International (WWI), a Washington DC-based organization, makes a difference to the lives of such women by providing financial and emotional support, specialized training and education. WWI is also the first women's organization to be awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of US $1.5 million. In an interview, Zainab Salbi, Founder, CEO and the driving force behind WWI, talks about the success of its strategy: getting American and European women to sponsor women in strife-torn areas.
Q: In 1993, you were a young Iraqi woman in exile in the US when you conceived the idea for WWI. What led you to undertake WWI? What was its mission and what did you hope to achieve?
A: I had once read a story in 'TIME' magazine about rape camps in Bosnia during the war. Women were given a number and when it was called out, they had to go to another room where they were gang-raped. This deeply disturbed me and I knew I had to do something to help. I had grown up witnessing all kinds of injustice in Iraq, but had never been able to do anything about it. However, I knew I had no excuse now that I was in the US.
So I came up with the concept of matching women in the US and Europe with women in Bosnia and Croatia. The idea was that women would be asked to send a sponsored sister a sum of US $25 [now US $27] every month along with a personal letter of support and friendship. The money would help meet the basic needs, while these women were helped to rebuild their lives by providing job skills training and education. I knew that for a woman who has lost everything, it would make a big difference to get an encouraging letter from a caring stranger.
Q: Where and how does WWI work? What makes the organization different from other NGOs working in the same area?
A: WWI first started work in Bosnia and then moved on to countries such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, Congo, Nigeria, Colombia, Kosovo, Iraq and Sudan. Till date, we have served 70,000 women and distributed over US $28 million in direct aid and loans. All our programmes have evolved from the needs of the women we serve.
When we first started doing this kind of work we asked women what they needed and they unanimously asked for monetary help. We believe women know what's best for them and their families; and by giving them money, we gave them the power to make decisions affecting their families. However, our cash support is only for a year so that they don't become dependent on the aid. Later, women asked us to provide them with job training, which was followed by requests for rights-awareness training. Most of our programmes evolve this way. Women voice a need and we respond.
Q: What do you plan to do with the prize money?
A: After conducting interviews with thousands of women in our current programme, 'graduates', and members of our overseas staff and asking them to identify what we are doing right and what people feel needs to be improved, we will create a five-year plan which will help strengthen the services we provide. We plan to invest the prize money directly into our programme so that we are able to address the economic needs of many more women.
Q: There has been a call for establishing a new UN agency to focus on women's issues. Do you think this will help? Or do NGOs prove to be more effective?
A: I believe we need to ensure that greater help is given to women survivors of war. That need should be addressed in multi-faceted ways, through government agencies as well as through NGOs. Both can make a difference on different levels and both are needed.
Q: Your second book, 'The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope', published by National Geographic, was released recently. Tell us about it.
A: Whenever wars are discussed one tends to focus on weapons, soldiers, tanks, and so on. In short, we see it through a male perspective. We never seem to talk about how such a situation affects the lives of ordinary people. My book features the lives of women from six countries. Their stories reveal courage, strength and beauty. Whenever we talk about women in war, we refer to them as victims. The book portrays them as heroines who keep the society together. We can no longer discuss war, or peace, without incorporating women's voices. Strong women lead to strong nations.
Q: After helping women for more than a decade now, what motivates you to go on in the face of such unrelenting need? Do you ever get discouraged?
A: Women are my main motivation. Their resilience and courage even in the midst of struggle and strife constantly amazes me. Every time I meet one of them it's a humbling experience. I remember once I met Beatrice in Rwanda, who had lost seven children in a church massacre. When she finally mustered the courage to leave the church, she was raped. Despite all this, she managed to survive. When I met her a few years later, she told me she had adopted five children and was sending them to school. I am full of admiration for her. She is making a real contribution in Rwanda where there are more than half a million orphans. If women like her can keep going, why can't I?
Q: What are WWI's longer-term goals?
A: Our goal is to see that every woman sponsors another woman in need. We believe this is the way to bring about a change in the world. There are many women who need help in countries where we work, and also in the ones where we haven't even started yet.