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Jul 16, 2009

Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, is solving the world’s social ills one woman at a time.

By Matthew Schaeffer and Bárbara Arrendondo

For most 23 year olds, finishing school, starting a family and holding down a job is enough to occupy more hours than there are in a day. After dealing with the drama of their own lives, it’s hard to find the time—or inclination—to even begin addressing other people’s problems or tackling bigger issues, like social injustice and oppression.

But even at that tender age, Zainab Salbi, the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, felt that helping the women of the world was more than a part-time endeavor. For her, it was a matter of personal responsibility.

Reading the Newsweek reports in the early ’90s of the ongoing conflict between the Bosnians and Serbs, Salbi was horrified by stories of rape camps, where women were selected through a sort of lottery of the damned to become sexual slaves for male soldiers. After calling different aid organization to see what she could do, it quickly became clear she was on her own.

“I called other women’s groups, and I said, ‘How can I help?’” she recalls. “At that time, people were saying, ‘Well, come after a few months. We don’t know what to do yet.’ And I’m like, ‘But there are rape camps and concentration camps. We can’t wait for a few months. This is happening right now.’”

The urgent need to aid these women spurred Salbi into action. After quickly securing support from the Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., the newly wedded Salbi and her husband flew to Bosnia to lend a hand wherever they could.

“My former husband and I co-founded the organization from zero, nada, nothing,” says Salbi. “We had not one penny, but we had a passion and a commitment, saying, ‘We can’t see injustice in front of us and do nothing about it.’ That’s what really triggered us starting Women for Women International.”

Sixteen years later, Salbi estimates that the organization has directly impacted some 200,000 women, worked with over 1 million individuals, including the families and children of the women the organization sponsors, and distributed some $79 million in eight countries.

At its core, Women for Women is focused on empowering the very people who have suffered the most. Their approach to change is to rebuild war-torn societies one woman at a time.

“You can’t talk about the stability of the whole society without having the stability of women,” Salbi explains. “In the midst of wars and in the aftermath of war, you cannot build a country without having strong women. We always say at Women for Women International, ‘Strong women lead to strong nations.’”

To help rebuild these societies, Women for Women relies on the generosity of those who are more fortunate.

The organization’s primary source of funding is through $27-per-month sponsorships. But more than money is involved. The key to the success of the program is the relationships that are built between the sponsors and recipients, which start with an exchange of letters.

“Let’s say a woman in the U.S. is sponsoring a woman in Iraq, or a woman in Cameroon is sponsoring a woman in Bosnia…An exchange of letters is how we personalize our connection,” Salbi says. “The letters are to tell her who you are as an individual—as a Maria or Joan or Fatima or Hadeejah—as opposed to the country you come from. And she can tell you who she is also. You personalize each other and look at the similarities and not just the differences.”

Of course, the money is important, too. Some is given directly to the women in need to buy food, clothing and other necessities. But it is also used to help build the foundation for a better life.

Women for Women has developed “opportunity centers”—basically safe havens for women in the midst of war, where they are organized in groups of 20 to go through an intensive training program focused on women’s rights issues, along with economics, politics and health.

This year-long program also teaches the tangible skills needed to get a job. The organization customizes this training to fit the demands of local markets, thus ensuring the women they work with will have bankable abilities.

“We actually do market assessments, and we try to understand the local economy and what they’re spending their money on. Then we tailor vocational skills to meet local market needs,” says Salbi. “That includes anything from commercial farming to candle making to soap production to jewelry making to tile production, brick production—whatever it is that helps women get jobs with a good income—not petty cash.”

But establishing these women as productive, successful members of their communities is not the final step. The broader vision of Women for Women is to continue building on the organization’s various relationships around the world to created even broader networks across borders. It is only then that these women will be able to fulfill their true potential.

“The whole format of Women for Women International is access to knowledge plus access to economic resources. That is what can lead to lasting change…That’s how we’re trying to change—to look at these women beyond micro-solutions. It is how we connect them to macro-solutions.”

Salbi knows that true success for Women for Women will mean they are no longer needed. “The day we run out of business would be a good day. This is a group that works with women survivors of war, so the day that there are no wars would be a very good day. But it’s also a group that works with very marginalized women, and the day in which we witness equality and justice for everyone would also be a very good day.”


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