Sunday, May 27, 2012


Women of Ushindi Center!

Jambo! Habari ya leo? For anyone who knows me well, slowing down and relaxing is not in my nature. Since I arrived in the Congo two and a half weeks ago, I have been working long hours at Ushinidi Center followed by Swahili classes at night. Needless to say, I am exhausted but energized by the women’s spirit and resilience. 

Last weekend I traveled to Rwanda for a day to meet with the staff members who run a trauma-healing center. Since then I have been meeting with various colleagues to start a conversation addressing the extreme need for a healing center in Bukavu. It has come to knowledge that such a center does not currently exist in Bukavu, a city which is flooded with internally displaced refugees from the villages in Congo. These women were forced to flee their villages due to war and violence in Congo. Many of these women were raped, while their children were forced to watch, they lost their husbands to the war or were abandoned, and their children often succumbed to various illnesses and malnutrition along the journey. These women that I am working with are survivors in every sense of the word.

This week started off on Monday with a new group of 20 participants.  The first day is always the toughest because I am using screening tools to request information on the women’s stories and symptoms to determine a baseline score before the groups begin. Because of confidentiality I am not allowed to tell their stories, but I can say that the things I hear are far removed from our reality living in the United States. I came home on Monday just as I did when I ran screening assessments on the last group, emotionally exhausted yet inspired and motivated to provide these women with the tools to heal. Contrary to my former beliefs, the women find telling their story and opening up about their past to be therapeutic. I have the feeling that these women have never been in a space to openly discuss what happened to them without social repercussions and embarrassment.

On Tuesday I was able to continue working with a different group of women at the center who are learning to sew for a vocational training program. I have been asked to partner with Victoria to start a sewing collective for women living in the poorest area in Bukavu known as Asants. We have been working hard to develop a product line and figure out all the intricacies of running a co-op sewing collective here in Congo. We have decided to call it MamAfrica and these women will be directly paid for their work. 

MamAfrica is a woman’s cooperative made up of 3 sewing collectives: Centre Ushindi, ABFEK and Action Kivu. The majority of women working at MamAfrica come from rural easterm Congo, where violence and terrorism have forced them to flee their homes.

In addition to vocational training, women at MamAfrica receive classes in financial management, holistic healing, literacy, and maternal/child health. Through the creative art of sewing, MamAfrica provides a safe haven where women come together to collaborate in creating their new community. Each MamAfrica purchase goes directly to the women who made the item.

Buying their product not only helps the Mamas but it supports the next generation of leaders in DRC. In Swahili, the name Mama is the respectful word used to address a Mother. MamaAfrica symbolizes all the Mamas coming together to create unity and self-empowerment through the arts in DRC.

Today was quiet special and I will not soon forget the impact that the women had on me. We started off the day running the groups and in morning and finished with a group exercise known as “step into the circle”. I explained to the women, through my lovely interpreter who has been with me from the beginning, that I was going to make statements such as, “If you are a women, step into the circle”. I first made some statements to show the women that even though we are all different we have many things that bring us together. I asked the women to come up with some phrases for the exercise. It is hard to convey the energy that was present in the room, but these beautiful women who I met 2 weeks ago who barley spoke, were full of courage and compassion for one another. One woman started off by saying, “If you are a strong powerful women, step into the circle”. Every single one of them stepped into the circle and starting cheering and greeting one another. Seeing this transformation in these women was incredible. We continued this exercise for 15 minutes and it truly was astonishing how the women came out of their shells and worked together.

I am proud of all the women I have been blessed to work with. They honestly have touched my heart. I am grateful everyday for this experience and I thankful that these women have chosen to take the difficult steps to move closer to healing.

Much love and gratitude!

Written by Ashley Nemiro 

MamAfria 13" computer case

Monday, May 14, 2012

Back in Bukavu again . . .

Congolese woman looks to the future

Dear Friends of Empower Congo Women!

I have returned to Congo after nine months and have many good things to report! Although you may have read of rebel outbreaks to the north and south, Bukavu remains secure and our projects are going well.

Research. This year I am accompanied by Ashley Nemiro, a doctoral candidate in psychology from North Carolina State University.  Together we're studying the positive effects of trauma therapy on women war survivors in eastern Congo.  We began our research last week by enlisting and interviewing 24 women; all have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and all are eager to learn how to manage them.

We will be comparing the effectiveness of EFT (energy psychology) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) in reducing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms; additionally, all the women will receive group therapy. We are training four Congolese caregivers, as well, who will continue the work after we leave.  Our research is being financed by ACEP, the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology.

Ushindi Center. Our women's center is going strong, gearing up to send new products to the USA. After graduating 30 women last July and encouraging self reliance by gifting each with a sewing machine and fabric, the center has embarked on a program of self-reliance.  Ushindi’s staff, headed by Administrator Chantal Kikuni, retained 10 graduates and has recruited 10 new young women to help them build the business of selling hand sewn items abroad.  
Ushindi Center staff (L to R) Verdiane, Denyse, Chantal

Since September, the women at Ushindi Center have sewn 150 aprons and sent them to the USA for sale. We are delighted to report that all are sold and that Ushindi aprons are spread across the US! Many thanks for supporting our efforts!

Right now, we are busy designing items for our new line.  By partnering with two other women’s sewing collectives, we will be able to produce a large number of high quality items. Stay tuned to upcoming blogs to check out our gorgeous tablecloths, napkins, purses, and headbands, all made by Congolese women with colorful African fabric!
Young woman sewing a purse from Ushindi's new line

Mumosho. As many of you know, Rotary International is the source of an upcoming grant to furnish a large vocational school in Mumosho, a war-torn area one hour south of Bukavu. Over the last six months, a number of wonderful women friends contributed their time and fund raising efforts to provide a building to house this project. I cannot thank you all enough for your support!

I am happy to tell you that I visited Mumosho on Saturday, where we looked at available buildings to house the vocational center. Nothing to report yet, but the Rotary Club of Bukavu is on board, ready to finance the project, so the vocational school is fast on its way to becoming reality!

The vocational school is part of a larger project, the Mumosho Peace School, which will house primary and secondary schools, a safe house for young women, and workshop space for community education classes, such as conservation, sanitation  and peaceful negotiation.  Empower Congo Women is working on this project in conjunction with ABFEK, a local charity run by Amani Matabaro, and Action Kivu, a grassroots non-profit based in Los Angeles.
Amani in front of the market we built last summer - 2011

We also visited the Mumosho Peace Market that Amani and Empower Congo Women built last year with the help of several international Rotary clubs. It was early when we arrived, so the vendors were just setting up, but we had the good fortune to meet one of the women farmers who was trained at the Demonstration Farm established by Amani and financed by Rotary Club of Montecito. Look at the pride as she holds up the biggest cabbage I've ever seen!

With love and appreciation,

Mama Vicki

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 - A Year of Optimism and Continued Growth

Local residents walk to Mumosho Peace Market, a project completed in July by Empower Congo Women.

Empower Congo Women initiated and completed several successful projects this year, all of which empowered women and girls while rebuilding community in eastern DRC. Still a small grassroots organization, ECW relies on your donations to continue to do good work for the beleaguered people of Congo.

Ushindi Center's First Graduation Ceremony

Young woman graduate with her new sewing machine.

 This past July, 20 women war survivors and 10 at-risk young women graduated from Ushindi Center’s vocational training program. All had completed the graduation requirements for sewing certification, and most received a graduation kit consisting of a sewing machine, fabric and notions to start them on the road to self-reliance. Women with other vocational skills were given the equivalent in cash to start their own business.

The Graduation Ceremony was attended by Rotary Club of Bukavu members, friends of graduates, and local dignitaries, including police-woman Colonel Honorine, head of Women’s Protection Unit in Bukavu.

UC Administrator Chantal Kikuni and I hand out graduation certificates.   
Congratulatory speeches were made, and each woman received a Certificate of Completion for her achievement. A delicious buffet was served and people danced to Bashi music.

Please contribute here so that Ushindi Center can continue to empower women through vocational skills training, trauma healing and leadership development. 

Mumosho Peace Market
Mumosho Peace Market prior to completion

Working in conjunction with ABFEK and Action Kivu, both community-based charities in eastern DRC, Empower Congo Women raised funds from five International Rotary Clubs (Montecito, Santa Maria, Wakefield,  Ottawa, Korea) and Falling Whistles, and LA-based NGO, to sponsor construction of a large, pavilion-style market in Mumosho. 
Market construction was overseen by Project Manager, Amani Matabaro, who finished the project on time and on budget, an unusual feat in any country! He was given timely advice by Mark Magid, Montecito Rotary's International Service Chair, who traveled to DRC to contribute his expertise as a building contractor.
Amani, Roger, Pamphil and Mark at construction site

 The market measures 80’ by 30’ and houses 100 vendors, including butchers whose stalls and knives are kept at a distance. A latrine project was later completed to maintain healthy sanitation in the area, the majority of funds being donated by actress Robin Wright.

Mumosho’s strategic location on the Ruzizi River border of DRC and Rwanda makes it an ideal place to rebuild peaceful trade relations between the two countries. It is estimated that over 30,000 people will benefit from the market being in the area.

Chief Didier Kagizi cuts the ribbon to open the market.
Construction of the market in July has already brought economic improvement to the area. Women vendors are benefiting in particular, because, with the completion of adjacent storage buildings, they no longer have to carry back-breaking loads to and from market. Buyers as well as sellers benefit, because protection from the torrential rain allows the market to stay open all year long.

Rotary Grants

Rotary International issued two grants this year to benefit projects initiated by Empower Congo Women in eastern DRC. Rotary Club of Montecito sponsored both grants, and Rotary Club of Bukavu was the Host Partner who oversaw the funding process.

Ushindi Center was recipient of a grant that furnished it with sewing equipment, funded its sewing teachers and trainers for a year, sent Ushindi children to school, and paid training costs for the women to become certified trauma healers.

A groupment of villages in Mumosho received the second grant, which established a Demonstration Farm for sustainable agriculture practices and improved animal husbandry by purchasing goats and other small animals, animal feed, inoculations, seeds, and farm equipment. This grant also provided a women’s collective with sewing equipment and paid exit exam fees for girls and orphans who would otherwise be unable to begin secondary school in the fall.

Ushindi Center Exports Products for Sale in USA

Ushindi women assemble patchwork aprons.

The first shipment of aprons made by women and girls at the Ushindi vocational center was received in Santa Barbara, USA in October. The aprons are made of a patchwork of beautiful African fabrics, all hand sewn, lined and fully washable. A second shipment was received in December, just in time for Christmas gifts, this batch featuring child-sized aprons and matching child/parent sets. 

Aprons made from gorgeous fabric like this will be posted for sale on the ECW website in mid-January, so check our website often so you don't miss out! Also, get ready for our clothing line, which will premier this spring.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ushindi Center's First Graduation

Last Saturday on July 2nd, thirty women and girls graduated from Ushindi Center's vocational program in Bukavu, DRC. Twenty of the women were survivors of sexual violence; they had received training in sewing and soap making and education in legal rights and family planning, and they had their medical care and children's school fees paid for a two year period. Ten younger women graduated after a one year course in sewing and dressmaking.

Each graduate received a "Business Kit" to enable her to become self-sufficient. The kit consists of a treadle sewing machine with stand, fabric, scissors, thread and oil to keep the machine working well.

Because the training program was a joint project of Rotary Clubs of Montecito and Bukavu, RCOB President (2011-2010) Eilisee Mudwanga was on hand to congratulate the graduates.

The Rotaract Club of Ventura and Santa Barbara Boys and Girls Club were responsible for donating many of the Business Kits. Thanks you guys for all your hard work-- you've given hope to a lot of people!

Everyone danced and we had great time,

including Courtlin Stoker and Mark Magid, Rotary friends from Santa Barbara, U.S.A.

Many thanks go to my translator, Roger Buhendwa, who arranged the party and media coverage, and to Chantal Kikuni, Ushindi Center Administrator.  You are the best!

A big commitment, lots learned the hard way, but in the end, Ushindi Center rocks!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Shocking Finding: One woman raped nearly every minute in DRC

The New York Times
May 11, 2011

Congo Study Sets Estimate for Rapes Much Higher

A new study in The American Journal of Public Health, expected to be published Thursday online, estimates that nearly two million women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with women victimized at a rate of nearly one every minute.
The study, one of the first comprehensive looks at the prevalence of rape in Congo, indicates that the problem is much bigger and more pervasive than previously thought. Women have reported alarming levels of sexual abuse in the capital and in provinces far from Congo’s war-torn east, a sign that the problem extends beyond the nation’s primary conflict zone.
“Not only is sexual violence more generalized,” the study said, “but our findings suggest that future policies and programs should focus on abuse within families.”
For the past 15 years, Congo has been racked by myriad rebel groups that terrorize civilians, particularly in the east, often to exploit the country’s mineral riches or to flaunt their abusive power. United Nations officials have called Congo the epicenter of rape as a weapon of war, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited rape victims in eastern Congo in 2009 in an effort to draw more attention to one of Africa’s most intractable and disturbing conflicts.
Still, comprehensive statistics have been hard to come by. Many areas of Congo are inaccessible — cut off by thick forests and warring groups — and many victims have been too frightened to speak out. The central government is also weak, which has exacerbated the violence and made it difficult to collect information.
The conclusions in the new study, by three public health researchers — Amber Peterman of the International Food Policy Research Institute, Tia Palermo of Stony Brook University and Caryn Bredenkamp of the World Bank — are based on extrapolations from a household survey done in 2007 of 3,436 Congolese women nationwide.
The researchers found that around 12 percent were raped at least once in their lifetime and 3 percent were raped in the one-year period before the survey. Around 22 percent had been forced by their partners to have sex or perform sexual acts against their will, the study showed, implying that sexual abuse often happened at home. The women, ages 15 to 49, were interviewed in a demographic and health survey partly financed by the American government.
The study’s authors then used current population estimates, which put Congo’s population at around 70 million, to extrapolate that as many as 1.8 million Congolese women had been raped, with up to 433,785 raped in the one-year period, which would mean almost a rape a minute.
Congo has been the subject of sweeping studies before, including some by the International Rescue Committee, a private aid organization, which has estimated that Congo’s civil war has claimed more lives than any other conflict since World War II. Some scientists have criticized those studies as being too reliant on projections and not grounded enough in hard facts.
Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which has sent doctors to Congo to treat rape victims, said that there were “some limitations in the methodology, such as the sampling methods and the sample sizes” of the new rape study. But he argued that “the important message remains: that rape and sexual slavery have become amazingly commonplace in this region of the D.R.C., and have defined this conflict as a war against women.”
The study’s authors believe the rape problem may be worse than their study suggests. The findings are based on survey results from females of reproductive age, but many reports and witness accounts have shown that armed men often gang-rape young girls — some even toddlers — and women in their 70s and older, in addition to a growing number of men and boys. Also, many rape victims never report being assaulted because of the shame and stigma. In Congo, countless women have been abandoned by their husbands after being raped.
“There are two big surprises in the study,” said Anthony Gambino, mission director for Congo of the United States Agency for International Development in 2001-4. “First, the magnitude of the problem — rates of rape that are much higher than seen elsewhere. And, second, that these alarming, shockingly high rape statistics are found in western Congo as well as northern and eastern Congo.”
Scientists and aid workers have struggled to pinpoint exactly why so many women are raped in Congo. Mr. Gambino says it may be related to nearly 40 years of “steady economic and political decline,” which has meant that the government’s presence has essentially disappeared from many areas of Congo.