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Women in Danger

Mary V. Balikungeri

“What I find of most satisfaction is when I see victims becoming advocates for change.”

Mary V. Balikungeri (51) is from Rwanda. She is now a naturalized Swiss and is the founder of the Rwanda Women Community Development Network, or the Rwanda Woman Network- RWN which provides assistance to war-traumatized people and people infected by HIV/Aids, to rehabilitate them in the community. Mary says: “I have been concerned with the plight of people, especially women affected by war and conflict for some time now, because growing up as a refugee in unstable conditions brought out clearly the suffering of ordinary people affected by the upheavals of wars and instability”.
She has been involved in this work since 1995. “I have been involved in the post conflict reconstruction of Rwanda. I started during the relief period with Church World Service- Rwanda (an international NGO) as a program coordinator. Our program was to last only two years and evolve into a national organization whose mandate was to identify and support orphans,” she says. Hence the birth of Rwanda Women Network, in 1997, “to promote and improve the socio-economic welfare of women in Rwanda through enhancing their effort to meet their basic needs.”
Mary states that one of the major RWN contributions to Rwanda was the establishment of the Polyclinic of Hope project; a center for women victims of rape and other violent crimes. It is provided with all the necessary equipment/services (sanitary centre, trauma service, counseling, grouping of beneficiaries around the centre.)
She adds: “With the widespread effects of the genocide of 1994, it is imperative that the Polyclinic of Hope approach be replicated extensively. This process started in 2002 when the Village of Hope centre was built in the middle of the village of Hope-Kagugu, a site of 20 houses constructed in 2000 for 20 families to integrate them in the community they have settled in.”
The methods Mary has been using to achieve her objectives are advocacy, networking, mobilization, sensitization, training, counseling and material assistance.
She specifically is involved in management and coordination of activities so as to provide assistance to victims of sexual violence, widows, persons living with HIV/AIDS, and orphans.
She says RWN supplied relief aid during the massive return of refugees from the DRC and Tanzania in 1996.
RWN Aids beneficiaries have received medication for opportunistic diseases. The RWN has constructed 150 houses for 750 beneficiaries in Rukara. They participated in the rehabilitation of shelter for 50 families and rape victims of the 1994 genocide in Kigali city. Some beneficiaries received houses, a medical clinic, and a primary school for their children. Some have learned trades like tailoring, and produced articles that procured them some revenue. RWN have micro financed women’s associations and groups fostering orphans in five prefectures.
In the Rwanda Newsline, in an article by Janet Umuhoza, Mary is described as “the epitome of the Rwandan civil society. … She is the widow of the late Antoine Balikungeri who died in Switzerland, and the mother of two girls. Mary is the daughter of the Reverend Misaki Vuningoma and Dorothy of Gahini in Commune Rukara. In 1959, the family went in exile in Uganda where Mary studied up to her O and A levels. She went for her further studies in Kenya, Europe and France.
Mary is also the co-founder of the Kigali Rotary Club (Virunga). She was the head of Church World Service, an international NGO. She says that: “everyone must make his or her contribution in his own field.” She adds: “The organization has vowed to say no to apathy, no to charity and no to poverty. This organization’s mission is to promote and empower Rwandan women to be effective participants in the development of their country.”
Mary is faced with lack of material and financial resources. There are many needy people and very few counselors in psychological trauma available to provide their services. Because of her work, her family rarely sees her. However, she manages her work as well as her family because her family is supportive and really appreciates what she does.
Her work is recognized in many places and serves as a model in other African countries where women face similar problems.
An article by Barbara Crossette states that: “Rwanda torn apart…has seen the emergence of strong women’s organizations committed to rebuilding a semblance of normality for their families.”
“Mary Balikungeri, (…) has been active not only in resolving conflict but in battling against AIDS, in part a legacy of war and the widening incidence of rape as an instrument of abuse by the men with guns.” She has been working to remove the stigma of AIDS and advices women that it is necessary to be tested for the virus that causes it.
“Ms Balikungeri (…) recently toured the United States as a guest of the American government, traveling with 15 women from all over Africa, including those from countries at war. As they traveled, they shared stories- and met some American women living in poverty and distress”.
“You come to realize,” Ms. Balikugeri said, we need each other. All of us, regardless of where we are from. We saw that everywhere women are the victims”.
She said: “It is with wanting to reinforce and expand my involvement in peace building activities in Africa that I became part of the Women as Partners for Peace in Africa, WOPPA in the year 2000. An initiative with the objective of ensuring effective participation of women in all peace initiatives, promotes and supports networking, identifies and articulately addresses women’s specific experiences in conflict and application of such to address peace”.


Mary V. Balikungeri from Rwanda is concerned with the plight of people, especially women affected by war and conflict, in order to rehabilitate them in the community. "Growing up as a refugee in unstable conditions, I was able to experience at first hand the suffering of people affected by the upheavals of war," Mary V. Balikungeri says, hence the creation of Polyclinics of Hope, equipped with a sanitary center, trauma service and counseling. Mary has been active in this work since 1995 when she was involved in the post-war reconstruction of Rwanda.
Mary faces difficulty in acquiring material and financial support for RWN. However, many have benefited from Mary’s work. Many suffering from HIV/Aids have received medication for opportunistic diseases. RWN has constructed 150 houses for 750 beneficiaries in Rukara, a medical clinic and a primary school for their children. Some assisted in the rehabilitation of shelter for 50 families and rape victims of the 1994 genocide in Kigali Cty. Some beneficiaries learned trades like tailoring and now earn revenues from their products. RWN has microfinanced women’s associations and groups fostering orphans in five prefectures.


Rwanda is under reconstruction and still burdened with issues from the 1994 genocide. Many associations and organisations are involved in the work of rehabilitation to foster development. The President and the First Lady are among the motivators in realizing concrete visions.


Rwanda Women's Community Development Network Kigali (RWN)


Africa | Rwanda


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