Afghan and Rwandan Women Entrepreneurs Seek Peace through Business

Afghan and Rwandan Women Entrepreneurs Seek Peace through Business

by Dr. Terry Neese

July 21, 2011

Rwandan women now boast the highest percentage of women in government of any country in the world. In fact, since the 1994 genocide of nearly 800,000 Rwandans, the majority of the country’s population is composed of women. These women are the breadwinners, the business owners and the government officials responsible for rebuilding the nation.

“PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS” was formed in 2007 to promote international peace and facilitate local economic stability for women who have suffered oppression and marginalization, and whose homelands have been devastated by war, genocide and poverty. “PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS” grew out of the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women (IEEW), which is now celebrating five years of empowering women globally. The institute holds to the fundamental belief that, “When you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

This summer, the organization is continuing its tradition of providing business education, empowerment and sisterhood to Rwandan, Afghan and American women business entrepreneurs through a unique training program both in the women’s home countries and the U.S.

In the “PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS” program, 30 women from Afghanistan and Rwanda first complete eight weeks of business education in their own countries. The women’s trades are far-ranging: they own businesses in TV production, cell phone distribution, dressmaking, and even in mushroom farming. The top 15 students from each country then come to the U.S. to take part in the Leadership Development phase of the program. Business owners from around the United States volunteer their time, talent and homes to mentor the Afghan and Rwandan entrepreneurs. While here, the Afghan and Rwandan women receive intense business training at Northwood University’s campus just outside of Dallas.

The women entrepreneurs then spend one week living and working throughout the U.S. with American business owners who practice their same trade. During this mentorship week, the U.S. business owners share their professional knowledge. More importantly, they impart the essential tools for success that they have experienced in their own lives: career-family balance, political activism and perseverance through tough economic times. In turn, many mentors have reported receiving so much more from the Afghan and Rwandan women than they were able to give. The uplifting, although sometimes horrifying, stories of courage, determination and triumph give the mentors new insight and a renewed appreciation for being an American woman. In the end, participants learn that we all struggle to do the best for work and family, no matter the country where we live.

The U.S. phase of the program wraps up with the International Women’s Economic Summit at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in late July. There, the women will showcase their experiences and network with members of the U.S. Congress, the Afghan and Rwandan Ambassadors to the Unites States, prominent business owners, CEOs and think-tank professionals from around the globe. This phase of the program acknowledges that women who do not have a keen understanding of the politics that govern their lives are in danger of allowing those politics to control their lives.

In previous years, the program graduated two Afghan women who returned home to Afghanistan to run for parliament. It is rare for a woman to own a business in Afghanistan; until recently, it was lethal. Under the Taliban regime women and girls risked severe punishment for basic tasks like working or attending school. Although the country still has a long way to go in upholding women’s rights, each small step forward is a step towards peace and the Afghan woman’s eventual equality. As Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton reported in her June 23, 2011 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Under the Taliban, only 900,000 boys and no girls were enrolled in schools. By 2010, 7.1 million students were enrolled, and nearly 40 percent of them girls. Afghan women have used more than 100,000 microfinance loans.”

Afghanistan is taking small steps towards peace and stability. The Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women is helping them to achieve those goals, one woman at a time.

“PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS” has graduated over 200 women to date and 85 percent of its graduates are still leading thriving businesses today. The tremendous success of the program aligns with my philosophy that democracy has a better chance of flourishing when a country is economically sound and that economically stable societies have a much greater capacity for peace. The best way I know to enrich an economy is to empower its women.