Women often bear the brunt of war, poverty and disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Whether it be brutal rapes in Darfur and eastern Congo or the toll taken by HIV/AIDS, women often receive little help dealing with the consequences. But the NGO Women for Women says it's working to rebuild lives to help women regain their strength and stature in society.
In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Sudan, ending the long civil war between north and south. But four years later, many have yet to reap the peace dividends, as fighting among militias continues and tensions simmer again between Khartoum and Juba.
Karak Mayik, country director in Sudan for the group Women for Women, says women face many war-related and other obstacles.
"The war destroyed everything. There is lack of infrastructure. No development. No basic needs for human beings, especially women. And also, after the peace agreement, women are facing another war, which is the culture. They can't own land. They can't do some other major activities for themselves," she says.
She says that until the entire country is at peace, it will be difficult to help all those in need.
"If there is a wound in one of your body parts, you cannot feel peaceful and you cannot feel well. So, the war in Darfur is challenging us. The war in Abyei is challenging us. The peace agreement is a challenge to be implemented.
Abyei is a town in South Kurdufan, linking north and south Sudan. It's the site of much of the country's oil production and the cause of much tension. A 2011 referendum may determine whether Abyei belongs to the north or south.
To help deal with poverty and lack of development, Women for Women has obtained land for farming in the town of Rumbek.
"Last year, we got 90 hectares of land from the community leaders. They give it to use forever, 99 years, and we call it CIFI – Commercial Integrated farming Initiative. It is an agro-business for the women. Women are cultivating more than 21 types of vegetables," she says.
Many communities and businesses now depend on produce from the farm. And Mayik says that income from the farm has changed women's lives.
"They benefit from the farm in many ways. First, for themselves. They say we're looking smart now. We've changed our lifestyles. They are sending their kids to the schools, to the hospitals," Mayik says.
In the beginning, men were opposed to women starting their own business, saying it went against the culture. Now that they've seen the benefits, they support it, even to the extent they make sure their wives wake up in time to get to work.
It's not only in countries affected by war that Women for Women has projects. Ngozi Uchenna Eze is the group's country director in Nigeria, working mainly in Enugu and Plateau States.
The people we work with are usually the very socially excluded. I mean the very vulnerable groups, very poor women. The majority of our program participants are illiterates. They don't have access to credit. Sometimes it's difficult for them to get legal justice. We also have the issue of health – lack of health facilities in the rural communities. It impacts a lot on the reproductive health rights of the women," she says.
Eze says illiteracy makes it difficult for women keep business records.
"For instance, we encourage our women to form cooperatives and they have to keep records of their accounts of their sales. So, you know, it's very difficult because they do not have numerical skills," she says.
However, Women for Women education programs open the door to starting a business.
Eze says, "We encourage the illiterate women to come to the banks to open bank accounts. Initially, they said, no, we are scared of coming to town. That is only the wealthy ones that have bank accounts. But I'm happy to say now that they operate bank accounts and they come to the bank to withdraw, to deposit money. And people are wondering where these women are coming from and they say the Women for Women group."
Some of those women going to the bank deposit money earned through their business enterprise in Ekoliokpanku in Enugu State.
"I would say one of the success stories – 640 women used the sponsorship funds to start a mini rice mill and factory in their community. They see it as a way of increasing their income generating capacity," she says.
Earning money enables women to travel to health clinics, enroll their children in school, buy food and pay their debts. Eze says, "It also gives them confidence. Increases their self-esteem. And they now know they are worthwhile human beings and they can also participate in the decision-making processes in their community."
Women for Women has programs in four sub-Saharan African countries, as well as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.