A post by David Russell, Director of Survivors Fund (SURF).

I am currently on a visit to Rwanda, where we are recording interviews with our partners and their members for a short film that we will be producing to mark the 15th Anniversary of SURF later this year.

It is an opportunity to hear directly from the survivors that we support, to learn of their situation today as well as the challenges that they continue to face.

On one such visit, we met Maria, a genocide widow in membership of AVEGA Agahozo from Kamonyi in the Southern Province of Rwanda.

When I first met Maria three years ago, she was living with her 5 children in a two room shack, only 15 feet square. It was a wet day, and water was streaming through the roof. One of Maria’s daughters, Esperance, had been bedridden for years as a result of the trauma that she endured during the genocide, which also had resulted in her infection with HIV. She was lying on the one bed in the shack, holding an umbrella to keep dry. To say that their condition was dire, would be an understatement.

Maria’s house had been destroyed in the genocide in which her husband had been killed. The house in which she was living had been rebuilt by some of the perpetrators, but it was only one-third of the size of the original, and much more poorly constructed.

Maria had received an award of FRW 150,000 (£150) in compensation by a gacaca court for her destroyed property, but only FRW 50,000 (£50) of that sum had been enforced by the court. This was not even enough to buy new iron sheets to plug the leaks in the roof.

Thankfully, through the generosity of one of SURF’s donors, we were able to build a new house for Maria – with three bedrooms, as well as a kitchen and toilet. It was incredible to see and hear how the life of Maria had changed for the better. Her children are now attending school, and through farming her small plot, she is able to grow enough food for the family and even have surplus to sell locally.

However, she has greater aspirations still. She hopes to become a businesswoman! With the support of AVEGA, Maria will be part of the first survivor’s livelihood development group in Kamonyi, and along with other widows living locally, will receive four months training in a curriculum that SURF has specifically developed for widows, many of which are illiterate due to not having the opportunity to have completed their education.

At the end of the training, the groups of widows will have developed a business plan which will be assessed by our microfinance partner, Urwego Opportunity Bank, and all being well will then be funded for a loan.

This is the core component of our new Widowed Survivors Empowerment Project (WSEP) funded by UKAid from the Department for International Development (DFID), which will extend the programmes of AVEGA to the Southern and Northern Provinces of Rwanda.

Though it may be difficult to believe, Maria is one of the few fortunate widows in the Southern Province. She has at least received some support to date. Many others have received no support at all, in particular those that are vulnerable, living with HIV or the elderly.

The challenge ahead is for AVEGA to transform the situation of thousands of widows such as Maria over the next three years through the support of SURF and funding from DFID.

We look forward to reporting on her progress and other widows participating in WSEP in future.

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