By Rah Bickley
The 2006 winner of the world’s largest humanitarian prize is not a household name.
But Women for Women International is a lifeline for more than 70,000 women in war-torn countries who are fighting to keep themselves and their children alive.
In September, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit received the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the largest humanitarian award in the world, besting even the Nobel Prize.
“This will take our program to the next level,” Zainab Salbi, the organization’s founder and CEO, said in an email message. “We will deepen our impact on the women, their families and their communities.”
Hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, who established the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation in 1944, specified that the prize should go to an organization that “significantly alleviates human suffering.”
Since then, his $2.5 billion-asset foundation and its related funds have given out about $450 million worldwide.
Since its inception in 1996, Women for Women has come to the aid of 70,000 female victims of war in nine chaos-torn countries, including Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many of those victims witnessed the murders of their husbands and children, have been raped, have watched while their homes were reduced to rubble and have ended up penniless and desperate.
Women to Women provides emergency assistance and emotional support by matching the women with sponsors, or “sisters,” from other countries who send encouraging letters and $27 a month for water, food and other necessities.
Once the women have achieved stability, the group helps them become financially self-sufficient by teaching job skills and helping them set up businesses.
The organization also helps the women understand their political rights.
The idea is to enable them to support their families, as a means of supporting women’s rights in their own countries.
One such woman is Violette Mutegwamaso, who saw her husband killed and her village destroyed by civil war in Rwanda.
She was left with three children to eke out a subsistence living farming.
After Women for Women matched her with a Boston mother of two, Mutegwamaso was able to expand her sorghum-harvesting business into a sorghum-drink business and she now earns far more than the average Rwandan, and has become a local employer and leader.
Over the past decade, Women for Women has given out $28 million in direct aid and micro-credit loans, and in 2005 it spent $9.6 million on program services, of which $2.24 million was direct aid.
Salbi, an Iraqi native, is the daughter of Saddam Hussein’s former personal pilot.
She says her mother sent her away to the U.S. when Saddam, the Iraqi dictator who once announced over dinner that he had killed his best friend, started appearing interested in the young girl.
Before she left, however, Salbi endured the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War, during which many of her friends and neighbors were killed.
Women for Women will use the Hilton prize to launch a new phase for the organization.
It plans to expand its services by building permanent safe havens and employment centers for women in all nine countries it serves: Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the U.N. protectorate of Kosovo.
The idea came from focus groups with the organization’s graduates.
“Women are the glue that keeps families and communities whole,” Salbi said. “No society can progress if women are not fully engaged.”