Genocide. HIV. War. Poverty. Rape. This is an incredible list of threats to a young girl. Many of us would struggle to survive only one of these, but on a recent trip to Rwanda I met many young women who have survived all of them - and thrived.
After Solange’s parents died, the only way she could survive was to cross the border illegally from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Solange was taking a “short cut” – an illegal route – to buy and sell goods. Every young girl and woman who crosses the border in this way is vulnerable – they are pressured for sex by corrupt law enforcement officials and are made to pay an incredible price with their bodies or with their scarce cash in order to pass. It was a life of incredible challenge – the authorities beat them and confiscated their things.
“I was lucky, because I was little and they didn’t demand sex from me.” Others were not so lucky. Many ended up with HIV or with children they never planned for and were too young to have. Solange was a participant in a Firelight-funded program in Gisenyi, Rwanda. With funds provided by Firelight and support from two local community organizations, Solange received a microloan, which she has already paid back, by selling clothes legitimately in a local women-run clothes market. Solange also received training in financial literacy and business development. Solange now earns enough money to provide for herself and to invest in her own future.
“Now I feed myself without begging. Now I have value in the community.”
Valentine’s life was deeply challenged by the death of her mother when she was a teenager. Her father had two wives and on the death of Valentine’s mother, he evicted Valentine from her home and claimed her mother’s property. As the eldest child, she was left deeply vulnerable, and responsible for the care of her siblings. She felt that her only option was to get married – even though she was still very young. Now caring for an extended family, Valentine found solace through ADEPE, Firelight’s partner in Gisenyi. ADEPE awarded Valentine with a microloan and helped her open a bank account. She received training in running a small business and in financial management. With this new knowledge and her microloan, Valentine started a small business selling meat in the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo. Soon she had paid back her microloan and ADEPE had worked with a local bank to secure her a larger loan, which she also paid back. She now owns a small store and is able to feed her family, pay for their health insurance and thrive. Valentine’s wellbeing is critical – to her and to everyone around her. She is thriving, but more than that, her sense of achievement and strength are priceless.
When Justine was younger, her life and her livelihood depended on something very precarious. Without income and stability, Justine was also taking a “short cut” – an illegal route – across the border between Rwanda and the Congo to buy and sell goods. Justine and her friends were connected with Commission Chrétienne de Lutte Contre le SIDA (CCLS) - another Firelight-funded community organization in Rwanda – who advised them to join together as a co-operative. The young women received a microloan from CCLS and financial training from ADEPE and it changed their lives. Justine and her friends have established a thriving clothes market in Gisenyi. They are no longer isolated and no longer powerless – they have income, collective capacity, and stability.
Stories of resilience
We hear about it all the time and we know it to be true - when you empower a girl, you empower her family, her community and the world around her. Today, these young women are thriving.
The young women in Gisenyi have suffered so much but their stories are ones of empowerment, strength, and hope. They may face challenges and experience setbacks, but their confidence, capabilities, agency, growing asset base, and social capital will be the resources that will help them to sustain the momentum of change.
Building community organizations to empower young women in Rwanda
From 2006 – 2014, Firelight Foundation was part of the Grassroots Girls Initiative, which was a partnership of six funders that believe grassroots organizations are uniquely qualified to deliver solutions for the most underserved girls in the communities where they work. Our focus was on deeply marginalized and vulnerable girls in parts of Rwanda and Malawi. Firelight funded three local community organizations across the two countries to become micrograntors to community-based organizations and microlenders to young, vulnerable women. The organizations mentored the young women, giving them financial literacy, business acumen, and building up strong social support. Together, these three local community organizations created transformational change for more than 4,000 girls.
Firelight Grantee - Action pour le Developpement du Peuple (ADEPE)
Over the past three years, with the support of our incredible partners, Firelight has supported Action pour le Developpement du Peuple (ADEPE), a community-based organization in Gisenyi, Rwanda to implement quality girls’ empowerment programs. ADEPE identified and recruited girls from their communities who had been made vulnerable by the Rwandan genocide, HIV, AIDS, and poverty, and were ready to start out on a transformative path. ADEPE supported 120 adolescent girls over the course of three years in Rwanda. The girls were given financial education, a space for support and learning among their peers, and access to capital. ADEPE also created linkages with nurses from the local clinics who facilitated sessions with the girls on sexual reproductive health.
The results were exciting.
The girls not only increased their profits, some four times over, but they gained remarkable power in various spheres. On average, 80% of girls report that they have:
- greater self-awareness, greater self-efficacy, positive orientation, voice and leadership
- agency and drive, based on clear goals and a sound strategy
- growing incomes - on average they now earn $25/week
- power to meet their own basic material needs and support to younger siblings, and other girls - houses, better clothes, health insurance, and food
- greater bargaining power within intimate partner relationships, within their families, and in their communities
- power over their income and assets
- the capacity to make smart decisions about how to use that money: expanding their asset base, buying a goat or a cow, or building up savings at the bank
- gained the financial resilience to overcome potential shocks
- collective voice and leadership to affect change when something is affecting them as a group.
Read more about the program here.
Community Organizations Transforming Lives
Transforming the lives of poor and marginalized girls doesn't happen by chance. It requires thoughtful investment in community organizations that can provide a holistic program of support. This is the Firelight model – community-led, long-term, flexible support for long-term social change. See More About The Firelight Funding Model Here.
Today, Firelight continues its work with young women and girls in Rwanda. We do this by supporting local community-based organizations that are empowering young women. We are also now taking our work one step further by supporting Action pour le Developpement du Peuple (ADEPE) to become a grantmaker on their own right.
For us, the success of these young women coupled with the success of the community organization that supports them to effect long-term sustainable change – this is the ultimate in impact. This is the power of Firelight.
Learn more about Firelight’s work empowering community organizations to empower young women here.