Entrepreneurship People

Inside Two Of Kigali’s Women-Empowering NGO’s

Before I arrived in Rwanda, I had read that up to a great extent the country owes its revival to women, who had to restart their lives for the sake of their community and the future generations.

Indeed, Rwandan women are hard-working, persistent, and brave.

I met with the representatives of two non-profit social enterprises in Kigali, Paper Crown Institute and The Women’s Bakery, and we talked about their contribution to the trajectory of women’s empowerment in Rwanda.

Here’s what they say..

Paper Crown Institute

In 2014, Katie Carlson, a gender specialist, founded Paper Crown after piloting a gender and leadership workshop at the Gashora Girls Academy in Kigali.

“Training adult women against discrimination and gender-based violence is great, but you don’t get the same knock-on effect as when you engage the youth” Katie explains. Taking into consideration the context of Rwanda, Paper Crown fosters critical thinking among adolescent girls and helps them understand their value and improve their integrity.  

The 12-week-long Queen Gambit programme, which takes place in schools and communities, doesn’t merely acknowledge gender inequality — it transforms power dynamics by addressing gender-related issues, supporting self-development, and laying community projects in which every participant has to take a role and contribute something different to the team.

Katie explains how it works in practice.

“We don’t follow a strict curriculum. The workshop takes a life on its own. It’s an organic discussion based on thinking. We sit together in a circle and ask the girls questions.

We aren’t there to teach them but to give them some of the tools and language to name the things they are facing. It’s not about memorizing information but internalizing it and living up to it.”

She continues: “Girls tell us: ‘We thought it’s normal when boys harass us on the street, even though it makes us uncomfortable.’ They don’t realise that it’s their right to not put up with such behaviour.”

Paper Crown has also incorporated chess training, which is proven to boost critical thinking, pattern recognition, and problem-solving, as well as students’ learning performance.

On critical thinking, Katie comments: “We want our participants to reflect on their environment and interactions with people; to ask themselves if they are inclusive and if they use language that perpetuates any negative or harmful stereotypes.”

We offer a holistic approach, which isn’t just about becoming a manager or a leader, but about emotional intelligence, and about recognizing your biases and the impact they may have on your team.”   

Being an activist social enterprise with a feminist ethos, Paper Crown emphasises on the diversity and inclusivity of feminism.

In a feminist community, everybody’s voice and opinion count, and there’s mutual respect. Therefore, Paper Crown also sensitises men and boys to gender issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and positive masculinity.

“Gender is the social expectations. Girls have a box and men have a box, and when traits and behaviours cross-over — for example if financial independence and money management go into the girl’s box — people will come up with all sort of ways to keep the status quo.”

Gender inequality is a social issue, profoundly related to development. Paper Crown identified a solid base in Rwanda to establish itself, as there are constant conversations about Rwanda building itself and there’s a sense of growth, which goes hand in hand with gender equality.  

  • (photo credit: Paper Crown)

The Women’s Bakery

During their time as Peace Corps volunteers, Julie Greene and Markey Culver were missing the delight of a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Considering the available means in their respective villages and the lack of electricity and running water, they baked their first bread in a Dutch oven.

But bread tastes better when shared, so they invited the women of the villages and their co-workers to sample their goods. Shortly after, and as they realized that bread could be a powerful income-generating activity for women, as well as a nutritious product for communities, Julie and Markey started selling it.

In 2015, Julie Greene and Meg North registered The Women’s Bakery as a social enterprise with headquarters in Kigali, and two satellite bakeries in the northern province of Gicumbi and in Kagina. With a homey indoors and outdoors space, sheltered from the city’s hustle and bustle, the Kigali bakery is also a café, ideal for meetings, work, and relaxation.

Hilary Hilsabeck, Deputy Director of Operations and Rachel Carroll, Associate Director of Programs explain the action of The Women’s Bakery: “We are a vocational school for baking accredited by the Workforce Development Authority in Rwanda. Our training lasts about three months or 175 hours, and our mantra is strong women baking bread to empower women.”

The profile of women who enroll in the programme are unemployed single mothers, between 36 and 45 years old, with low education. “Our model is unique because, upon completion of the training, the women have immediate access to stable employment and sustainable income. We take on the financial risk of running a business [the bakery], but the women operate and manage it with the skills they have learned” Rachel says.

Indeed, the women have access to a formal employee’s package, which also benefits their dependents and makes sure that their physical and mental health is looked after. With the salary they earn, they can pay for their children’s school fees and secure nutritional meals for them. Hilary confirms: “We keep an active tab on how the children are doing, we do home visits, and understand their living conditions and home situation.”

When Hilary and Rachel are asked about the involvement of men, if any, in the work they do, they agree on the following: “We cannot reach women’s empowerment without involving men. It’s important for us to include their husbands, the local community, our customers, and male partners.

But our core mission is women-centric in a sense that we see an opportunity to create space for women to be empowered and to see themselves as confident and valued in the marketplace and their families. We want them to have a voice in the way they run their lives.”

Maria Iotova is a freelance writer, editor, and communications strategist for the non-profit, hospitality & travel sectors. Driven by curiosity, emotional awareness, and an unfading sense of adventure, since 2009 she has worked with international teams in England, Greece, Ghana, South Korea, Mauritius, and Rwanda.

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