In 1993, Zainab Salbi founded Women for Women International. The non-profit group helps women worldwide whose lives have been shattered by war or domestic violence to make a fresh start.
Zainab Salbi grew up in Iraq, where her father was the private pilot for former dictator Saddam Hussein. Even within this privileged circle, the young Salbi began learning the horrors of warfare in 1980, when Iraq launched what would be its bloody, 8-year war with neighboring Iran. She left Iraq at the age of 21, just before the country's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, because her mother had arranged her marriage to a man in the United States.
Unfortunately, her husband turned out to be abusive.
"I got into a marital relationship in America to a man that did everything my mother told me not to accept," Salbi recalls. "He violated me in so many different ways: physically, emotionally, everything. So I left him after three months and I got divorced."
Launched during Bosnian civil war
Sensitized to the violence women can be subjected to, she was appalled by what she saw happening during the Bosnian civil war that began in 1992. Salbi says the horrors of concentration camps and the premeditated rape of women and girls by soldiers galvanized her resolve to help women victimized by war. With the help of the Unitarian Church and the money she had saved for her honeymoon with her second husband, she flew to Croatia and launched Women for Women International.
"I remember September, 1993," says Salbi. "I spent it in a bus distributing money to 33 women in refugee camps in Croatia."
The Women for Women campaign soon moved from Croatia to war-ravaged Bosnia, then expanded to nearby Kosovo and to the strife-torn African nations of Rwanda, Nigeria, Congo and Sudan. It now serves women in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well.
"As of September 2009," Salbi says, "we have helped 243,000 women, distributed more than $80 million and we are now working with about 62,000 women on a monthly basis."
Women for Women International offers more than crisis counseling. Salbi says it has developed special programs to help women in crisis to regain their sense of self-worth by moving from poverty and despair to financial independence and personal pride.
Teaching marketable skills
"We teach them skills," Salbi explains, "such as brick-making in Congo or organic farming on a commercial level in Rwanda and in Sudan, or jewelry-making in Afghanistan. Or outsourcing with companies with women in Bosnia, where 400 women are employed by a high-end designer to produce mittens and gloves and all sorts of things."
Salbi says these small but sustainable enterprises are making a huge difference in women's lives in conflict zones around the globe. "In countries like Sudan," she notes, "where the per capita income in southern Sudan is $80 a year, our women are earning $190 a year. In countries like Rwanda, where their per capita income is $450 a year, our women are earning up to $200 a month."
Salbi adds that through basic education and health training, Women for Women International is also helping to empower previously marginalized women to take control – and better care – of their lives. "For example, 15 percent of the women we have helped in Rwanda are running for local elections; 95 percent are having their babies in hospitals as opposed to in their own homes, a practice which increased maternal mortality."
Zainab Salbi has written two books about her experiences: One is a memoir, written with Laurie Becklund, titled Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. The second book is a collection of narratives about some of the women Salbi's group has helped, called The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope. The central theme in both books, Salbi says, is that you should regard your life as a mission not just to believe in moral principles but to act on them – what Salbi calls "living your truth."
"I just turned 40. And if I die today, I will die a content woman because I am privileged to have been provided the opportunity to live my truth. It is time for each one of us to live our truths fully and to do something about it and not to die in our silence and not to die miserably and regretting on our death bed, 'Ah, (in the) next life I will do this.'"
Zainab Salbi sees Women for Women International as part of an emerging global women's movement, which she believes is helping to change social attitudes about women and offering them greater protection from violence – in war zones as well as the home. She is hopeful the movement can achieve even broader goals: the full inclusion of women in political decision-making everywhere, and more equitable access to their countries' social services and economic resources. She is convinced that to build democracies and economies that are more sustainable, peaceful and just, the rights of women must be secured, a mission to which Zainab Salbi has dedicated her life.
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