Celebrating empowerment in action on International Women's Day
empower: to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights
Today in honor of International Women’s Day, we celebrate Julienne Bamurange—director of Young Women Destination, one of Firelight’s community-based organization partners in Rwanda—and her journey of self-empowerment. She, with Firelight’s support, is now empowering dozens of other young girls to take charge of their own destinies. Here in her own words (translated from the original French), Julienne proudly shares her story with Firelight.
My name is Julienne Bamurange – I am 36 years old, the founder of Young Women Destination, and the mother of two young girls: Amanda, who is 10 years old, and Amélie, who is seven and a half. I live in a small town in the Gisenyi region of western Rwanda, and I am grateful to be sharing my story with you on this International Women’s Day.
About seven years ago, my husband suddenly packed his bags and left our family to live with another woman. My little Amélie was only three months old at the time, and Amanda was less than three years old. For years, I lived alone with my two daughters, struggling to make ends meet.
I was deeply unhappy. My small salary as a librarian could not pay for our family’s daily expenses, rent, food, and school fees. The neighbors gossiped about us, and my former husband’s family offered neither emotional nor financial support. I still remember times when my girls were sick, and the three of us would cry together, unable to imagine how our lives could ever get better.
Exhausted, angry, and desperate, I knew I had to make a change. I sought refuge in night classes at the local university in travel and tourism management. With no ability to pay for my school fees, I audited the classes in secret. I hoped to meet new people and make new connections.
In 2014, I finally went to the university superintendent to tell him about my problem paying for classes. Fortunately, he allowed me to enroll in classes, take my exams, and write my thesis. On January 20, 2015, I defended my thesis, and two days later, I graduated. The joy in my heart on that day – I will never forget it.
During these difficult years of my life, I was also asking myself some difficult questions. How can young women properly take care of children when they have no support system and no source of income? How can we start dialogues about reproductive health with our children before they become pregnant themselves? Are there spaces where girls and women can meet together to receive practical, vocational trainings that will help them achieve their dreams? Are there organizations in the community supporting these women to build brighter futures?
In 2014, the idea of founding Young Women Destination came to me. If a space where young women could come together for emotional support, friendship, and economic empowerment did not already exist, I would create it.
After I graduated, I took what little salary I had, purchased handicraft materials and tools, and brought girls together at the house where I lived. Initially, girls, especially unmarried young mothers who had dropped out of school, were hesitant about joining us. They needed encouragement, from me and from each other, to know they were valued and that they could build a better future for themselves and their children.
I remember the day that Tomaida Banda, Firelight Program Officer, came to visit us, accompanied by ADEPE (Association pour le développement du peuple), the community grantmaker that supports YWD. Tomaida gave us hope, strength, and encouraged us to continue our initiative. I could not be more grateful for the financial and capacity building support Firelight has invested in our project, which has allowed us to work with 68 girls this year alone and to effectively manage our program and funds.
With a $10,000 grant from Firelight in 2017, I have already seen incredibly dramatic progress in the current cohort of girls. After receiving trainings in reproductive health, financial savings, and starting businesses, girls have taken their lives into their own hands. Two girls are now on antiretroviral treatment after receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV. Seventeen girls received pigs or sheep as part of income-generating cooperatives, and seventeen girls were provided with start-up capital by a women’s microfinance group in order to launch small business cooperatives. Fifteen girls were trained as hairdressers and nineteen girls were provided with materials to make and sell handicrafts. Some girls who dropped out of school have returned. Now girls in our program get married when they are ready, and their children’s fathers are involved in the household. All 68 girls, and 12 of their parents, meet on a weekly basis to discuss savings and using small rotary credits.
The future holds promise for YWD. I hope one day to build a center where women can gather for both informal and formal classes in literacy and numeracy and where they can build strategies to advocate for their rights and the rights of their children. I hope to communicate our work to the world, through exhibitions of our girls’ handicrafts, meeting with other women’s empowerment organizations, or hosting community events for local resource mobilization. And I want to make sure our progress is sustained – through recurrent follow-ups to the girls’ homes, collaboration with local authorities and businesses, and relationships and knowledge-sharing with the other CBOs in our cluster. Funding is key challenge for us, but we are becoming more and more well known in our region. We have come so far already, and we will continue working hard to support the women and girls in our community. I have worked hard, but I could not do it without the support of ADEPE and Firelight.
How is Firelight supporting more leaders like Julienne?
With the support of the Nike Foundation and individual donors, Firelight has been supporting six community-based organizations in Gisenyi, Rwanda – a region scarred by the impact of genocide, HIV, acute poverty, and nearby conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo – to provide local economic enterprise opportunities to young women. Our partners operate on the principle that economically empowered young women can care for themselves and for their children.
Firelight’s role has been to strengthen local grantmaker ADEPE so they in turn can strengthen and better support girl-centered programing of smaller CBOs, which can run effective, replicable and potentially scalable enterprise and empowerment programs for vulnerable young women. These partner organizations take a holistic approach to not only address economic empowerment, vocational training, financial and business management, and start-up loans but also sexual and reproductive health, social support, counseling, and return to formal schooling. Some of our partner organizations provide seed funding for women to start their own businesses, while others - such as YWD - train women to make mats using recycled materials. The mats are sold to hotels and the profits are reinvested into continued tailoring courses and eventual businesses for the women.
We are also excited that the future for this community includes a sustainable, social network of young women who now have the resources and opportunities to overcome a range of gender-based economic and social challenges together.
Today, International Women’s Day, is a moment to pause for reflection: to see who we are, where we are, and why we do this work. Julienne says she always likes to remind herself “to educate a girl is to educate a nation.” We are proud to be part of her philosophy that when you help a girl believe in the power of her own ability to combat any obstacle that she faces and give her the skills to do so, she pays that forward – forever altering her own future and the future of her children.