Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, introduces herself as an Iraqi. “15 years ago, I came to US. When I told people I came from Iraq and they stepped back from me. Now they say, ‘I’m sorry’.”
War, she tells us, is about fear. When growing up, her family had conversations about whether they should sleep in the same room so that a bomb would kill them all, or whether they should sleep in separate rooms, so that some family members would survive. These are the sorts of frontline discussions women have during war, about keeping life going. In Bosnia, Salbi tells us, she heard music from a music school during the siege. The school was staffed by women, who were keeping the music school going as an act of resistance.
She tells us about a woman in southern Sudan, whose experience of war is the experience of walking, walking almost constantly for 18 years. When Salbi asked her about peace, she said, “Peace means that I have toenails.” Peace, Salbi tells us, is about how my life will improve.
Salbi was in Iraq shortly after the US invasion. A friend observed, “The first thing you ask someone who’s woken from a coma after thirty years isn’t what kind of democracy they want – It’s what they want to eat.” She points out that 80% of the world’s refugees are women. The people who keep life going in those refugee camps and during war are women. “It’s amazing that we don’t have these people at the negotiating table.”
Women are bellweathers for societies – violence against women preceded war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We should see the hundreds of thousands of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo being raped as a clear sign that things are very dangerous.
But progress also starts with women. We can remind people that 500,000 women got raped in 100 days in Rwanda. “But it’s the unfair way to start the discussion,” she says, since now 49.9% of the parliament in Rwanda is women, and every ministry has a gender budget.
In communities like Iraq, insurents prey on widows. They go to those widows with sacks of rice and say, “Give us one son, we’ll give you the rice sack,” so you can save your other seven children. We need to compete in the street with rice sacks, by helping people eat.
Fourteen years ago, she started Women for Women International, which asks women in wealthy countries to sponsor women in desperate situations. It costs $27 a month, and the women are encourage to communicate with one another. “It’s a form of public diplomacy. We can try to humanize America.” And it works sometime – she tells us about an Iraqi woman spraying rose water on a letter before sending it to her American sponsor. She asked why the woman was using rose water, usually reserved for sacred rituals. “She’s saving my life,” the woman said. And Women for Women has now supported 120,000 women around th world.
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