On April 6, 1994 an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on its descent into Kigali, Rwanda, killing all on board. The following day, the mounting ethnic tensions in the country exploded, and genocidal killings began with soldiers, police, and militia using Rwandans’ national identity cards to systematically identify their ethnicity and kill them. Bloodshed continued for 100-days, claiming the lives of somewhere between five hundred thousand and one million Rwandans, about twenty percent of the country’s total population. This would later come to be known as the Rwandan Genocide. Sadly, when the genocide ended in mid-July, the after-effects left the country in a much more crippling and dire situation.
“All it took was somebody caring about them. Just having someone care changed these women and empowered them to be self-sufficient.”
Pervasive war rape caused a spike in HIV infection, including babies born of rape to newly infected mothers, causing many households to be headed by orphaned children or widows. The destruction of infrastructure and a severe depopulation of the country practically destroyed the economy. The long-term effects of war rape in Rwanda for the victims include social isolation (the social stigma attached to rape meant some husbands left wives who were victims of war rape, or that the victims were rendered unsuitable for marriage), unwanted pregnancies and babies, and sexually transmitted diseases.
It seemed like nothing could be done for these women, and no systems were in place to help them out of their dire situations. That is, until, the creation of an organization called Same Sky, whose mission was to create jobs for women struggling to lift themselves out of extreme poverty and empower them to live long, self-sustaining lives.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that popular media attention was given to the genocide. Through books, documentaries and the multiple Academy Award-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, the global society was finally made aware of what had occurred in Rwanda and how little was done to prevent it. Although the genocide was now on the radar, one issue was still left by the wayside: HIV-infected women who were victims of war rape could not find work to support themselves or their families. They made up a large portion of the Rwandan population, but were stigmatized because of their disease and gender.
Award-winning theatrical, film and television producer Francine LeFrak met these women and felt a need to shed light on the “full” story of the Rwandan genocide. LeFrak spent eight years working on a film titled “100 Days of Darkness,” intended to reveal the devastating impact of the genocide. (Unfortunately, it did not come to fruition.) Still, she was compelled to bring attention to the process of women reclaiming peace and rebuilding their lives. It would just have to be another way.
LeFrak became an adviser with Grameen America, an organization dedicated to helping women get out of poverty, and worked closely with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus. She was able to experience firsthand the major impact that his micro-loan model had on the women of Jackson Heights, Queens. “All it took was somebody caring about them,” said LeFrak. “Just having someone care changed these women and empowered them to be self-sufficient.” This experience moved her to pursue a different route in helping the women of Rwanda. She realized the power of investing in people to help them become self-sustaining. She just needed to find a way to act upon this. Encouraged by friend Willa Shalit, who produced baskets and jewelry in Rwanda, and inspired by the jewelry beadwork of AIDS activist Mary Fisher, LeFrak quickly set about expanding on Fisher’s design. She grew this prototype into a wide range of custom colors and collections, taking over production and expanding the project on her own. With the groundwork laid, Same Sky was born. The elegantly simple idea: the same blue sky over us is also over them, a constant source of great beauty in a conflicted world.
The organization specifically sought out women affected by the genocide and HIV in order to provide the training and education they needed to make signature jewelry pieces and, in addition, to manage their finances in a sustainable way. “These women had nothing to live for. They were sitting around just waiting to die,” said LeFrak. “Then they found they have something to live for: themselves. Now they can provide for themselves and their families. They can afford school uniforms for their children and mattresses for them to sleep on. They can solve problems, open bank accounts, whatever they need to take care of themselves.”
“It’s not just about making a piece of jewelry. When Spesiosa creates a piece, it makes her feel important. Seeing a woman a world away wear her jewelry and feel good about herself not only connects them, but empowers the both of them.”
Whereas before these women were seen as social pariahs in their communities, LeFrak points out that they now have a different place in society. In addition to allowing them to make 15 to 20 times the average wages for Sub-Saharan workers, the program has changed the relationships the women have with their communities. Now they are respected and, in some cases, have even taken on leadership roles in their towns. During my interview, LeFrak repeatedly mentioned that the women continue to empower each other just by working together and creating artisanal pieces that are, in effect, so much more than just jewelry. “It’s not just about making a piece of jewelry. When Spesiosa creates a piece, it makes her feel important. Seeing a woman a world away wear her jewelry and feel good about herself not only connects them, but empowers the both of them. It’s very cool.”
“We need to ask ourselves, how do we consume? We need to launch a conscientious consumer movement and begin shopping with our empathy.”
LeFrak calls on all of us to create a “soulful economy movement.” We’ve seen many other movements take shape in recent history (the organic foods and Fair Trade movements, among others), but LeFrak feels that real change will be driven by consumers and philanthropists. “We need to ask ourselves, how do we consume? We need to take responsibility and think more authentically as consumers. We need to launch a conscientious consumer movement and begin shopping with our empathy.”
Not only have LeFrak and Same Sky helped empower these women artisans, they have helped to dramatically reduce the number of new cases of women and children with HIV. “These women can afford the help and care that they need and babies are no longer being born with the virus,” said LeFrak. “Most importantly, our impact is minor compared to the impact they have had on me. Getting to share their stories and seeing the bond created between women worlds away has just completely changed my life.”
When asked what the future holds for her and the Same Sky organization, LeFrak simply says, “There [is] not much need to look further than our very own home and the millions of people living below the poverty line in the United States.” For the past year and a half, LeFrak has been working on ways to employ as many women as possible who are exiting the American prison system. There is no doubt that injustice and inequality run rampant in many parts of the world, but it is reassuring that someone like LeFrak and the Same Sky organization are able to help others both globally and locally. In this light, Same Sky has fulfilled its vision and is poised to grow its impact on women everywhere. “Same Sky was founded with a vision to provide a second chance to all women under the same sky. Talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t — and we aim to change that.”