These are the unbelievable true stories of 5 powerful women who overcame adversity
According to the World Bank, conflict drives 80 per cent of all humanitarian need, and two billion people currently live in countries where development is threatened by fragility and violence. Affecting everything from food supplies to economic stability, the impact of conflict on day-to-day life can be monumental.
But for women especially, war brings added pressures; meals still need to be prepared, money still needs to be earned, clothes still need to be washed, but these things are now happening in a war zone, and often without the support of a partner. Add to that the fact that sexual violence is frequently used as a weapon, and life can quickly become extremely challenging.
Women for Women International - a charity which helps women in areas of conflict rebuild their lives - allowed us to share some of the incredible stories of women they’ve worked with over the years. These are the true accounts of ordinary women who battled overwhelming adversity.
Seve - Syria
Seve was woken up by a neighbour in the middle of the night and told to run because ISIS militants were approaching her house. "Our neighbour knocked at the door and asked ‘Why are you not escaping?’ She told us that they are kidnapping girls and killing men, so we decided to run away and not take anything with us.” Somewhere along the way, she was separated from her family.
It sounds horrific, but with one in four Syrian refugee families headed by a woman, Seve’s experience is not uncommon. What is unusual, however, is the way her story ends. Having enrolled with Women for Women International, she is now living in Iraqi Kurdistan, learning skills and working towards coming to terms with her nightmare. Now reunited with her family, she hopes her daughters will have the opportunity to attend university and build careers.
Regina - South Sudan
Over the past few years, the women of South Sudan have not had it easy. Despite the country gaining independence in 2011, civil war erupted once more in 2013, in a conflict that has proven brutal and bloody, and is yet to end. According to the UN, more than two million people have been displaced and tens of thousands killed in the conflict. Right now, violence against women in the country is believed to be occurring at double the global average.
In the midst of all of this there is Regina, who has gone from housewife to community leader. She is using the lessons she has learned to teach those in her area about the importance of water safety and is spearheading initiatives to improve hygiene and prevent disease: “I will continue mobilising other women in the community in utilising the lessons I have learned, and I hope many more of them will be part of the training.” Her input is by no means insignificant - the UN now lists access to clean water as one of the biggest humanitarian challenges facing the country.
Remzije - Kosovo
With girls' education previously not prioritised in Kosovo, many women of Remzije's generation focused their efforts on raising children while their husbands worked to earn money for the family. So when she lost her husband just after the end of the Kosovo War, it's probably not unfair to say that she wasn't best prepared to suddenly be saddled with the responsibility of providing for her five children: "I never thought that I could make it on my own, […] that I would be able to provide for my family myself”.
Yet, today she is the leader of an agricultural cooperative of 78 women in her community of Prugovc, contributing to community and domestic decisions. From producing paprika chutney, pickles and handicrafts, she earns a steady wage and says that she has developed a better relationship with her children, and feels fit to inspire and empower them.
Grace - Rwanda
Grace lives in a country where women hold two thirds of the seats in Parliament, and has benefited from the Women for Women International programme. However, like Remzije, she was left widowed with five young children. Describing herself as one of the poorest women in her village, she felt unable to provide for them and became increasingly isolated.
After enrolling with Women for Women International, Grace found strength in the programme and in the other women in her class: "They taught me how to save, to manage the household ... After I joined, my life got back on track." Having developed these skills, Grace was able to buy some small livestock and has also been able to put her kids through school, hopefully ensuring the security of future generations of her family. She now hopes to open her own shop.
Nankafu - Democratic Republic of Congo
"My husband had chased me away and abandoned me more than 15 years ago, he told me that he cannot live with a woman who loses children," recounts Nankafu, who has lost seven children. This, in a country where one in seven children do not make it to their fifth birthday.
Nankafu chose to learn brick-making, and to date has personally made more than 30,000 bricks. Not only has she earned enough to get by, she’s even been able to start saving. Even better, she was able to take her husband to court, which ruled that she and her children were entitled to keep their house - with her husband having to go and live elsewhere. Clearly a lady of grace and character, she still helps him out from time to time.
Of course, these are just five women. Their predicaments, although highly personal, are by no means uncommon. In fact, studies have shown that women are disproportionately affected by conflict; vulnerable to sexual violence, left to bring up families and too often excluded from peace efforts. Right now, it is estimated that 10 million girls around the world are not in school as a result of conflict. Yet each of these incredible stories serves to show that with the right support, encouragement and a lot of determination, there is light at the end of even the darkest of tunnels.
In the age of #MeToo, women are standing up for their sisters and taking the time to empower each other. But we must look beyond our own borders and make sure we're including all women, whether that's by donating to a charity, volunteering your time, or promoting equality. However, it could be something as simple as sending a message of support to another woman in a far-flung corner of the globe. You can do this on Women For Women International's Message to my Sister page - because it's only through sheer luck of the draw that their situations aren't ours.