Category Archives: Women’s Issues

Creative Women’s Empowerment in Rwanda


Tuesday began with another return visit: this time to the Ineza Woman’s Sewing Cooperative in the Ramera district of Kigali. Ineza was founded in 2006 by WE-ACTx, who helped group of women with ten sewing machines to create an income generation project for their community.  They were initially supported by WE-ACTx, who helped connect them with the Latin School in Chicago and eventually Ineza dolls were sold at (of all places) the swanky Barney’s store in Chicago’s Gold Coast for $50.00 to $100.00 a piece.


Now a thriving women’s craft cooperative, Ineza sews a variety of items out of beautiful African textiles, including handbags, clothing, laptop cases, wallets, etc. They have now grown to the point where they are financially independent of WE-ACTx and maintains their own bank account. Their gorgeous merchandise has also become available via the internet through Manos de Madres, so as soon as you finish reading this post you should check them out and buy their products.

After lunch, the youth members of our delegation joined the young people of the WE-ACTx youth program for the afternoon while the rest of us volunteered at another WE-ACTx  income generation project – a new women’s jewelery cooperative in Nyaconga (below).

The women of Nyaconga make lovely glass beaded bracelets as well as recycled paper necklaces and earrings. Right now their work space and showroom is located in a large drab space that does little to show off their beautiful work.  So with the help of our new artist friend William (who designed the mural painted last Friday at the WE-ACTx children’s library) we were mobilized to paint the walls of the space in colorful shades of light purple, pink, green and yellow (below).

I have to say we’re getting pretty good at painting – and it’s been enormously satisfying to help support these economic empowerment efforts in this way.  Four of us will return to the showroom on Thursday to finish assembling the showcase and arrange the large amounts of jewelry inside.

Our teenagers reported that they had an amazing, joyful afternoon with the WE-ACTx young people. I’m going to try to coax one or more of them to write guest posts about their experiences. Stay tuned…

From Joy to Sorrow and Back Again

Thte first part of our day was spent at the WE-ACTx Nyaconga center outside Kigali. Among other things, this site is used for a new peer youth program called “Peer Parenting” in which older children work with the younger children of the area – almost all of the orphans and either infected or affected by HIV-AIDS.

Mary Fabri told me that before WE-ACTx started working with the kids of Nyaconga, the children were obviously listless and outwardly depressed. This description certainly did not square with our experience of them yesterday. We spent the better part of the morning with them playing organized group games led by two youth teens – amazingly charismatic and talented team leader “peer parents.” One of the games seemed to be a Rwandan version of “Duck, Duck Goose.” Another bore a striking resemblance to the Israeli folk dance “”Yesh Lanu Tayesh.”

By the end, we were fairly exhausted (the adults anyways) but thoroughly enjoying each others’ company. (See pic above).  I’ll never again underestimate the power of silly fun to bond people t0gether instantaneously. More importantly,  I think it was an important testimony to the power of medicine (in this case, life-saving ARVs) along with community/leadership development to realize a more holistic vision of healing.

Another unexpected treat of the visit: we got to see a lovely mosaic at the center created by girls who participated in a WE-ACTx exchange project that brought teenagers from Rwanda to Chicago and girls from Chicago Freedom School to Rwanda. This mosaic (see detail above) was one of their joint projects. Note the Chicago skyline on the bottom left corner!

After lunch we made a return visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (above), which serves as Rwanda’s national genocide museum and memorial. Like my last visit, I found it to be one of the most powerful museums of its kind. It doesn’t have the technical bells and whistles of more contemporary museums, but simply tells the story with straightforward simplicity, punctuated by video testimonies of survivors. I’ve always been moved and impressed that it contains one entire floor dedicated to other genocides throughout human history – a necessary statement that no one’s pain is disconnected from another.

The Centre is also the site of a mass grave of 250,000 who were slain during the genocide which, of course, makes it much more that a simple museum – it is truly sacred ground. It was the first real connection to the genocide for our group on the trip – needless to say, an enormously difficult – if important – part of our visit.

But as is often the case in Rwanda, we went from joy to sorrow, and back to joy again.  After the Centre visit, we decided to swing by the art studio of William, the young man who directed the mural project at the WE-ACTx offices yesterday. He had told us if we had time, he’d love to show us his work.

While we expected a modest one-man art studio, we were delighted, upon arrival, to discover that William was part of the Ivuka Arts Center – a collective of seventeen artists that provides a home for work and sponsors art and dance workshop for Rwandan youth in the community.

While we were at Ivuka, we had the opportunity to see several of the artists in action and viewed much of their work.  Coming here directly from the genocide center, I was particularly struck that none of the art directly evoked the pain of Rwanda’s recent history. Rather, there was an obvious pride and joy in Rwandan identity and culture. Given the high quality of the art, were particularly amazed to learn that these artists are largely self taught.  Clearly, this is much more than an artists collective. Quite by chance, we happened upon another inspiring Rwandan community development project!

From the Ivuka website:

Since its inception in 2007, Ivuka has become the face of Rwandan art to both the national and international communities alike. In the last 2 years Ivuka has become the most sought-after fine arts destination for expatriates and diplomats in Rwanda. Yet despite this incredible success, Ivuka Arts Founder and Director Collin Sekajugo still envisions the studio primarily as a place where art is used to change lives.

Through Ivuka’s mentoring program, artists who formerly struggled to make a living are honing their skills, finding platforms for exposure, and gaining name recognition. Children who formerly begged on the streets are finding hope and educational opportunities through RwaMakondera, Ivuka’s traditional dance troupe.

In a very real sense, Ivuka has become more than “The Rebirth of Contemporary Rwandan Art”.  It has become the start of a bright new life for each person it touches.

We spend a wonderful few hours at Ivuka, which also included significant art purchases and extended playing with Rwandan children who had been attending a workshop. Below is a picture  of our friend William (white shirt, fifth from right) and Emanuel (black shirt, left), who is a central leader of Ivuka and its programs.

Sometimes, the most remarkable experiences on your journey are the ones that aren’t on the itinerary…

Back in Kigali with WE-ACTx

Our first full day in Rwanda was spent at the offices of our good friends at WE-ACTx in Kigali. I’ve written extensively about this amazing organization and it’s been wonderful to see the growth and success that they’ve accomplished in the past four years since we’ve been here.

The overall AIDS rate in Rwanda is currently at 3% – with lower numbers in rural areas and higher levels in urban centers.  Generally the emphasis is shifting from direct treatment to maintenance (health workers making  sure folks are taking their meds) and AIDS education and awareness, trauma treatment, and an expanded youth program.  WE-ACT-x has grown to the point now that former youth participants are no working as counselors and a new youth yoga program is meeting with great success. (Among the things we brought over with us from Chicago: 30+ yoga mats…)

We spent the day at the WE-ACTx office volunteering: sorting meds (that’s out teenage contingent above showing off their handiwork) and helping to paint a colorful mural in a new youth library (next down) Also engaged in some very interesting conversations with workers and locals about the complex realities of Rwanda post-genocide. More on that later.

Today, more quality time with WE-ACTx and a return visit to the Kigali genocide museum. Stay tuned.

Hotel Workers Speak Out Against “Un Troussage De Domestique”

Having been involved in the Hyatt boycott here in Chicago, I’m familiar with the hotel chain’s increasingly abysmal record on worker safety. Now I’m learning that the issue of sexual assault against hotel workers in general has long been a serious problem, long predating the current unpleasantness with Dominique Strauss-Kahn:

On June 2, hotel workers held speak-outs on sexual harassment and assault by customers in eight cities. The events were organized by UNITE HERE, the hotel union.

“These customers think they can use us for anything they want, because we don’t have the power that they have or the money that they have,” said Yazmin Vazquez, a Chicago room attendant.

Hotel workers face injuries from the physical stress of their work, including the awkward lifting of heavy mattresses hundreds of times a day. But the hidden hazard of hotel work, housekeepers say, is customers’ assaults on their dignity and physical integrity.

Workers report that male customers expose themselves, attempt to buy sexual services, grab and grope them and, in some cases, attempt to rape them…

The management response has been “deafening silence,” (said Annemarie Strassel of UNITE HERE), adding that she’s aware of only one hotel in which a staff meeting was called around the issue.

(h/t: Susan Klonsky)

Ta’anit Tzedek Sponsors “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza”

The next fast day sponsored by Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza will take place on Thursday, August 19. To mark the occasion, we will host “A Conversation About Women, Health, Children and Human Rights in Gaza,” a conference call with Dr. Mona El-Farra, Director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance.

Dr. El-Farra is a physician by training and a human rights and women’s rights activist by practice in the Gaza Strip. She was born in Khan Younis, Gaza, and has dedicated herself to developing community-based programs that seek to improve health quality and link health services with cultural and recreational services throughout the Gaza Strip.

Our conference call will take place on Thursday, August 19, at 12:00 pm (EST).

Call info:

Access Number: 1.800.920.7487

Participant Code: 92247763#

There will be a question and answer period during the call.

Rohina Malik Unveils Our Common Humanity

Last night JRC was honored to host a performance of the one-woman show “Unveiled,” by Rohina Malik. Breathtaking.

Rohina is a playwright, actress and solo artist of South Asian heritage who was born in London and emigrated to Chicago when she was 15.  She is an impressive and important contemporary artist – and her identity as an American Muslim woman clearly plays an important role in her art.

“Unveiled” is constructed around five monologues by five Muslim women. During the course of the play, each of them greets the audience in turn, “welcoming” us with tea.  Each woman tells the story of their lives, explains their Muslim culture and shares the experience of living as a Muslim woman in the post 9/11 world.

For her appearance at JRC last night, Rohina performed three monologues: “Maryam,” a Pakistani-American who has a dress making shop on Chicago’s Devon Avenue; “Shabana,” a young rapper of South Asian descent who was born and raised in London; and “Layla,” a Chicago restaurant owner from the Middle East who lost a brother to the fall of the twin towers.

It’s difficult to convey the cumulative effect these women had upon the audience. Rohina’s performances cut to the heart of painful and complicated political issues – but even more profound was the immediately empathy Rohina was able to conjure for us through these remarkable women. In a relatively short amount of time, she was able to bring us through an entire gamut of emotions – and in the end, the common humanity we shared with these women was palpable to everyone in the room.

Following the play we had an equally powerful post-performance discussion facilitated by the play’s director, Ann Filmer. Nearly 250 people were in attendance – including many members of the Chicagoland Muslim community – and it was truly a tribute to Rohina’s art that so many members of this large and diverse group were inspired to share deeply personal comments about their own lives and struggles.

If you live in the Chicago area, you should know that “Unveiled” will be starting a run at the Victory Gardens Theater on March 24. Highly, highly recommended.

What We Need To Do For Haiti

In the wake of the terrifyingly tragic earthquake in Haiti, it has been gratifying to see private citizens give so generously to relief efforts. At the same time however, we shouldn’t forget that our own country’s policies can have a considerable impact on Haiti’s recovery. Check out what constitutional lawyer/human rights activist/Katrina survivor Bill Quigley has to say in his piece, “Ten Things the US Can and Should Do for Haiti.”

Item #3, for example:

Give Haiti grants as help, not loans. Haiti does not need any more debt. Make sure that the relief given helps Haiti rebuild its public sector so the country can provide its own citizens with basic public services.