a few minutes with… zainab salbi,

co-founder and president of women for women international - part 1
January 21, 2011  |   column: WHAT'S NEW

how did your personal experiences motivate you to start women for women international (wfwi)?

growing up in a war-torn country under the totalitarian regime of saddam hussein, i was able to see firsthand how fear, violence and repression specifically affect women. during those years the consequences of speaking up made it impossible to act but once i got to america and i was watching another injustice–the violence against women during the war in bosnia–i felt not only that i could do something, but that i had to do something. also, my mother, a remarkably strong, independent and capable woman, raised me to believe that i,too, was strong and capable and knowing this gave me the confidence and the guts to launch wfwi.

what were some of your goals for the program when you first started the organization and how have they evolved since the beginning?

when we first launched wfwi there were only two components to the program: financial sponsorship that went directly to the women enrolled and letters the sponsors were asked to write to the women. at the time, the women who were enrolled in the program were receiving indefinite financial support. then, a woman in the bosnia program pointed out that it would be more fair and beneficial if we could help, say, three women for one year as opposed to one woman for three years. that was a turning point for us and now sponsorships are one year.

we’ve also added educational and vocational components to the program that didn’t exist when we first began. our office in bosnia was next door to the office of a psychologist who was meeting with many of the women applying to our program. we noticed that when the women left the psychologists office, they were talkative and often even happy but when they came to see us they would cry and make themselves appear to be helpless and desperate. we realized they felt that they could only get aid if they fully embraced the role of victim. that’s when we knew we had to make our program about more than just financial assistance.

we knew we needed to empower women and educate them about their rights in terms of politics, voting, social issues, access to healthcare and about their economic value within their families. we wanted to help them see they had the ability and strength to support themselves financially. once they understood these things they then wanted to learn the skills that would allow them to work, build businesses and become self-sufficient. this is how the vocational component came about. there’s such a big difference between where we started with just offering financial assistance to where we are.

can you explain the importance of the letters the sponsors write to the women?

the letters are extremely important. ninety-five percent of the women we work with have never in their lives received a letter. i know personally, from growing up in iraq, that just the idea of a letter from abroad is incredibly exciting. it’s huge deal for the women to know that there’s someone, somewhere, who cares about them. i just came from congo and it’s such a terrible world. you lose your faith in humanity when everything–your home, your loved ones, your possessions, your dignity–has been destroyed by war. getting these letters restores that faith. i’ve seen women carrying the letters around in sacks that contain their most important belongings. one woman in congo recently said to me, “i get hope from these letters. when i receive them it makes me feel like everything is going to be okay.”

how many women were part of the original program and how many do you serve today?

in september of 1993 we started the program with 33 women in bosnia. today we help 77,000 women in eight countries with a total of $93 million dollars in aid being granted. now with opportunities for the women like hand in hand that allow them to meet their own long-term needs.

check back tomorrow for the second part of our chat with zainab


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