Where Women’s Independence Lifts Up Entire Communities

Education and vocational training are crucial in allowing women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to become independent and capable of providing for their families. Action Kivu, which supports and raises funds for non-profits in DRC that aid victims in the region’s ongoing conflict, works to provide women and children with both of these.

June 30 marks Independence Day in Congo. However, many remain unaware of its ongoing conflict, in which over 920,000 people had to flee their homes in 2016 alone. Ms. spoke with Rebecca Snavely, Action Kivu’s Executive Director and co-founder, on strategies for raising awareness and Action Kivu’s work for women and children in DRC in honor of the organization’s seventh anniversary this week.

What inspired Action Kivu’s creation?

Cate Haight and I were both reading the book Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn We’d meet for coffee or wine, and couldn’t stop talking about the stories that appeared in the book about women in Congo (DRC).

As we continued to talk, we realized we were discussing doing something long-lasting, something deeper than a one-time donation. We wanted to invest in a local Congolese organization. Cate knew Kevin Sites, who had been in eastern Congo in 2005 reporting on the conflict there for Yahoo’s In the Hot Zone. Kevin introduced us to Amani Matabaro, a man who had been his fixer and translator, and whom Kevin had trusted with his life. Amani and his wife, who was a seamstress, had created a program to teach sewing to women who were survivors of the ongoing violence and to buy them machines to start their new life with the income from their small business. Amani was also sending several kids to school, paying the school fees and the Sewing Workshop costs out of his own pocket from his work as a translator.

Cate and I met Amani online, and shortly after in person in Baltimore, where he was taking a course in health and community responses in emergency situations. We founded Action Kivu as a 501c3 in the U.S. to raise awareness and funds for Amani’s work in Congo, and traveled to eastern Congo in 2011/12 to see the programs in person. I returned this past February, five years after our first visit, and was amazed by the changes in the community that have resulted from our growing impact there.

Photo courtesy of Action Kivu / Rebecca Snavely

You mentioned earlier that the organization helps fund Amani Matabaro’s projects, which include a sewing workshop and providing children with education. What other kinds of projects does Action Kivu run and support?

Growing from the success we witnessed in teaching women a vocational trade, and led by Amani’s vision and his surveys of what the community wants and needs, Action Kivu’s projects now live inside the gates of the Mumosho Community Center, a beautiful collection of buildings that house the teen mother program (a program currently funded by a grant from Jewish World Watch) that gives girls and their babies a safe place to live, learn and thrive.

Action Kivu’s projects have expanded to include Literacy Classes, the entry point to all our programs, in which girls and women denied a traditional education learn numeracy and basic math—critical for reading the sewing tape measure, running their business, keeping their books and changing cash for clients. They also learn to read and write in Swahili and French, allowing them to engage as equal members of society and vote for themselves in elections. The Sewing Workshop continues to be a successful launching point for girls and women to meet the needs of the community and earn a living wage as they start co-ops and celebrate working together. We’ve added additional entrepreneurial courses, including basket making, bread baking and soap making. Our Educational Assistance program continues to reach children in deep poverty, paying for their school fees. There are plans in the works for a Congo Peace School on the property with the funding of a generous donor (more on that on ActionKivu.org soon!).

We also have a shared farm program where over 80 women grow fruits and vegetables on their own plot of land, learning organic farming techniques from our agronomist, a student attending university in Bukavu. With the food they grow, the women can feed their families and reap the benefits of the harvest at the local markets. Community volunteers recently helped us dig three fish ponds, where we’re harvesting tilapia to sell and fight malnutrition. We have an HIV/AIDS education project, where the nurse tests and counsels people around the realities of living with HIV and trains students in prevention and healthcare so that they can become the trainers in their communities. My Goat is Your Goat is our animal husbandry program that follows a pay-it-forward model: each family that receives a goat breeds it with a billy goat, and gives the first-born to another family, creating community and opening pathways for conversation that connects beyond the tribal divisions in the area.

Surrounding all of our projects is the teaching that women and girls are inherently equal, no matter where they are in the process of learning or working. This education and understanding has infected not only the girls and women in our education and entrepreneurial programs, but the entire community, who are beginning to understand gender equality and importance of education for all.

How have these programs—which are now pretty numerous and wide-reaching—developed since their inception, and what impact have they had on the communities they serve?

When Cate and I first visited Mumosho in December 2011 / January 2012, the women being trained in the Sewing Workshop worked in a small dark shack, one window and the door allowing for daylight to guide the seamstresses’ scissors. We asked what they planned to do with their new skills and the sewing machine that is part of their graduation kit that Action Kivu supplies. We asked what they hoped for, and we were met with blank stares. Amani paused in his translation. “They do not understand the concept of hope for tomorrow,” he explained. “They are struggling to find food for their family today.”

When I visited this past February of 2017, five years later, the response of the current students is startlingly different. I sat with several of them in the front room of the Mumosho Community Center, a beautiful place of peace, protected by a gate and guards, and the neighbors who have formed a sort of community watch group, ensuring the safety of the women and children who gather daily at the Center. It is here that Action Kivu now houses all its programs. The Baking Program, which has an electric mixer and wood-fired oven, is housed along the edge of the Demonstration Farm, next to the Literacy Program in a building which also serves as a space for community meetings, health and HIV/AIDS education and other training programs.

Girls who had learned about the Sewing Workshop from the previous graduates were confident about their future. “I plan to start a co-op with two of my friends,” one said. “I want to teach others to sew, and start my own workshop and business in a busier town,” stated another. They didn’t hesitate in their hope, having seen the success of previous graduates: Girls and women now providing for their families, sending their kids to school, paying the medical costs for their babies. The presence of the projects and the growing impact of one life changed affecting the next is creating a ripple effect in the community. Girls are rethinking their future, knowing they do not need a potentially dangerous marriage, but are able to support themselves and will marry for love and respect. It’s amazing.

How have your initial goals for the organization changed since it was founded seven years ago? What is the future of Action Kivu?

Seven years ago, we wanted to support projects that would create sustainable change and lasting impact in the lives of women and children. We had a glimpse into the spirit and soul of Amani Matabaro as a visionary, compassionate leader. We had no idea about the impressive skillset he brings to this world, his deep respect for women and their equality as the only path to peace and a more just world, and his love for children and determination to further their education. His community building skills that work in alignment with his problem solving mind and his encompassing nonviolent vision for a better world have shown us that real change is not only possible, it is happening in a place that has been titled “the worst place in the world to be a woman.”

Our goals have expanded to include growing our capacity in the U.S. to raise the necessary awareness and funding for our current projects, and eventually implementing these pilot projects in neighboring communities, finding the “Amani” in each place. We’ve learned to look for the helper, the community leader who listens deeply, who is the wise, trusted neighbor people ask for advice, and who works to communicate peace and equality in their home and world. Through their community-based trust and leadership we look to eventually replicate similar projects all around eastern Congo.

Action Kivu’s website provides helpful resources for readers to learn more about the conflict in DRC. Additionally, The L.A. Times recently published an article on the incredible violence in the region and the attacks, carried out by both government forces and militia groups, that have destroyed entire villages. What are a few of the dangers that women face specifically, and what can organizations like Action Kivu do to help the women and children affected by this violence?

The article you reference reports on unspeakable violence against children and women, and the trauma extends to the innocent men who are also survivors of or witnesses to brutal attacks, unable to save their families from such violence. It is unspeakable, but if we do not speak about it, and against it, it will never change. Local organizations like Action Kivu provide several avenues through which change can occur, mainly through providing the space to be vocal. The meeting spaces and classes embolden girls and women to embrace their power to speak out and cry out for justice against such violence, to learn that rape is not their fault, to come together and speak about their experiences. To call out for leaders to act, and to learn to be the leaders they are looking for. The educational gatherings for men provide opportunities for change, for men to see women as their equals and allies in creating a peaceful world for them and their children to thrive.

This is not to negate how terrifying it is to be in fear of such attacks, and to feel helpless. Writing this in my relatively peaceful home of Los Angeles, I cannot speak properly to what it is to live in this fear and environment. I can only quote what the girls and women said to me when I was there this year—almost every single girl I asked about what Congo needs right now answered  “Peace.” Iragi, a Sewing Workshop student in this year’s Class of 2017, dug deeper into that need. “If girls and women are given the chance, given an education, we can change the future of Congo,” Iragi says. “We have to start within ourselves. If there is no love in ourselves and our families, the government, the leaders, will not love, as they are just people, raised up in our homes, our families.”

Photo courtesy of Action Kivu / Rebecca Snavely

What are the positive impacts of vocational training on women’s lives?

Through vocational training, literacy education, and equality seminars, we have seen girls and women realize their own strength. They speak up more easily than they once did, knowing their rights and feeling supported. Our work is far from ending the widespread horror of domestic violence, but it is beginning to reduce its power of secrecy. Women come to our community leaders asking for advice, whether it is when their husbands refuse to be tested for HIV or about a cheating husband, one whose infidelity was discovered after a woman learned to read in our Literacy Program and discovered that he had texted his mistress on his wife’s mobile phone. Several women have reported that men respect them more now that the women are contributing to the family income. Our work is for men to understand respect of women as equals regardless of what they bring to the table, but the vocational training is providing the means for the women to stand, and live, on their own if needed.

What are the factors that keep girls out of school? How does education benefit the lives of young girls?

In eastern Congo, it costs anywhere from $8 to $16 USD to send your child to school each month, to purchase or make a uniform and buy copy books and supplies. For families who often have five or more children and who, if they are lucky, earn $30 working hard labor hauling bricks or on someone else’s farm, they are unable to afford school. Often, due to the view of girls’ worth in the world being tied to marriage, parents choose to educate their sons, if they can afford to do that.

We’re working to change that through a community-based education in equality, both in theory and statistics—the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development [OECD] reports that “without a great leap forward towards achieving greater equality between women and men and increased empowerment of women and girls, none of the MDGs will be achieved…Investing in women and girls has a powerful impact. It will make the world a better place for all—both women and men”—as well as the practical results of the community seeing women who graduate from our Sewing Workshop as the earner of income for their household. (See Ernata’s story, and hear from the women who speak about their newfound economic freedom in the video from our 2015 Sewing Workshop Graduation.) We view education as not only a means to a better life and to ending the cycle of poverty, but as an end in itself—the girl who is given the chance to go to school finds confidence in speaking her mind and gains critical thinking skills to move forward into the world as a leader.

What has been your favorite aspect of running Action Kivu?

I have so many favorite aspects of running Action Kivu! How can I choose? I love connecting with women across the globe, and when I get to sit across from them in the Mumosho Community Center, they allow me a glimpse into their world through their stories. Or when they tease me for my limited speech in Swahili and Mashi, but that teasing makes me feel like a sister they are rebuking (do your language exercises, Rebecca!) I am encouraged and energized when I receive updates from our staff in Mumosho and Bukavu, and I am honored to share their stories from International Women’s Day.

What can people do to support Action Kivu and the women and children in DRC?

Please join our Action Kivu family and the movement for equality and peace that is happening in Congo! Engage with us on Facebook and Instagram (@actionkivu). Make a donation today to invest in the girls and women: We’re currently raising $13,000 to graduate our Sewing Workshop Class of 2017. Read more of their stories on our blog and donate here! And please share with your friends, family, and colleagues the stories of the girls and women of Action Kivu. I was just speaking to Amani this morning, and with regards to how Action Kivu is providing paths towards peace in Congo, to protect the women and children there, he said, “Peace is as necessary as water and food in this area. Action Kivu’s work allows people around the world to hear the stories and voices of the women and girls here, and to make their voices heard! Speak to your representatives in the government, ask them what they’re doing to help Congo restore peace. Share the stories of the women and girls here. Let the world know what is happening.” When you read about their hopes and dreams, you realize, to paraphrase Madeleine L’engle, “that which connects us is far greater than that which separates.” Let’s connect for a more beautiful, loving, and just world.

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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