An In-Depth Interview With Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International

In a recent interview with Zainab Salbi, Founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of wars rebuild their lives, we discussed the inspiration behind the founding, the necessity to galvanize a global women's movement, toleration and the lack of public outrage, and much more.

The full interview can be found below.

Rahim Kanani: What's changed, in your own thinking, from when you first started Women for Women International in 1993, and where you are today?

Zainab Salbi: Unfortunately not much has changed in terms of violence against women. Women for women International started because the war in Bosnia and the rape camps that were organized there and 17 years later we have similar acts of mass rape taking place in Congo. Tolerance of violence against women has not changed that much since the founding of Women for Women International.

Where I have evolved in my thinking is that access to knowledge is equally important as access to resources. And rather than just distributing aid, it is vitally important to help each woman stand up on her feet with her knowledge of her rights and her ability to earn her own living and that's how the program of Women for Women International has evolved since its founding.

Rahim Kanani: What has been your proudest moment, both personally and professionally, since founding WFWI?

Zainab Salbi: There were many humbling experiences since the founding of Women for Women International. Throughout the year I learned that victims come in all image -- some raped, some witnessing an act of violence, some losing loved ones. 
I learned that the solutions come by both listening to the people impacted by the crisis and by learning from historical experiences in other places. Everything is give and take. The solutions are in the middle not in the extremity of the situation. All together, the last 17 years has been about much learnings of humility, courage, the impact of love and hate on our lives and on lasting peace among much more... I am grateful. I am grateful.

Rahim Kanani: What inspired you to create Women for Women International?

Zainab Salbi: Growing up under Saddam's rule, I witnessed many injustices occurring everyday in my country and yet I could not do anything to prevent them. Many years later, when I was living in the US, I learned about the atrocities and violence that were going on in the rape concentration camps in Bosnia and I realized that I could no longer stand aside and do nothing. The idea that women and girls were being raped without regard for their human rights outraged me. Around this time, I also learned about the Jewish Holocaust and how the world had said "never again" but was failing to keep its promise. I firmly believed then and still believe today that the only way to stop violence against women is to speak out and refused to be silenced.

Rahim Kanani: The organization is Women for Women International, why specifically target the creation of women-women alliances?

Zainab Salbi: I have come to understand that in order to effectively advance women's rights, we need to galvanize a global women's movement. While women may look different as some wear suites and others wear saris or some cover their hair while others wear their hair loose, women need to stand together because they all face the central point of discrimination although the extremity of which may be different from Kigali to Kabul. Women need to support each other from those demanding immediate ends to wars in the DRC and Sudan to those demanding immediate end of exclusion at the decision making table in Afghanistan. The goal is to identify an overarching theme for the movement that all women can embrace and stand behind while still working on their various missions and pushing their various causes within the broader theme.

Rahim Kanani: If the work of WFWI is necessitated by virtue of a larger global injustice, what is that injustice, and are we moving in the right direction to address it?

Zainab Salbi: The injustice is that women continue to be the main target of violence both during wartime and peacetime and yet there is still a lack of a public outrage. It seems to me that violence against women has been tolerated for so long that the world has become numb to it. From World War II when over 900,000 women were raped to the rape of over 500,000 women in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, women continue to be raped in various war-torn countries such as the DRC and Sudan. Unfortunately, violence against women is not the only injustice women face globally; it is one of the many inequalities that impede the full development of socially excluded women globally. From an economic perspective, women are also treated unfairly: they perform 66 percent of the world's work and produce 50 percent of the food but they only earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property. From joblessness to lack of education and professional skills to sexual and gender-based violence, women face a multi-faceted oppression.

But even in the face of such a dark reality, I believe that a lot of progress has been achieved to address gender inequality: We have moved from a time where women in the US could not apply for credit card without their husband's signature to a time where women are the owners of their businesses. Additionally, women at the grassroots level are making their voices heard through participation in open forums and discussions to inform policy makers at the national and international level. For example, the Open Days event for UNSCR 1325 that took place in June enabled civil society members, especially women's organizations to brief UN officials about the status of UN SCR 1325 implementation in their country. This took place in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Nepal, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Haiti, Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire, Burundi, and Senegal). Unfortunately, although women's participation at peace negotiations and conflict resolutions continues to increase, it is still not enough. It appears easier to talk about protecting women than it is to fully include women at all decision-making levels in peace talks and post-conflict planning.

For instance:
a. Only 1 in 13 participants in peace negotiations since 1992 has been a woman
b. Only 2 percent of peace agreement signatories were women
c. Women have never been a chief negotiator in any UN-sponsored talks
d. Only 8 percent of peace talks have included women at any level

Rahim Kanani: How do we engage men and boys in this conversation about women and girls?

Zainab Salbi: At Women for Women International, we believe that men are critical partners and advocates for women. Throughout 17 years of working with women, we have learned that in order to achieve our ultimate goal or establishing viable societies, we must engage both men and women in our quest for change. That is why we have created a Men's Leadership Program (MLP) with a vision to train and educate community and traditional leaders on ways to leverage their role within their communities to create greater awareness and respect for women's rights. So far, we have trained over 1,200 male community leaders from Afghanistan, the DRC, Nigeria and Iraq.

By helping leaders become more aware of the factors affecting the development of their communities, they can begin to respond to issues such as violence against women, HIV/AIDS and women's social, economic and political participation. As one DRC Military Officer and MLP Participant explains: "I never understood the importance of women in the community and also never understood the impact of rape on women. Rape cases brought before the military were treated with apprehension due to this lack of awareness and I therefore showed little concern for the victims. I did not see the importance of punishing the perpetrators. After the MLP training, I understood that I needed to change my perceptions... Above all, it is important to continue to sensitize the military be they perpetrators or not, so that the guilty ones will wake up to the consequences of their actions or better still take the relevant preventive measures."

Rahim Kanani: Speak a little bit about this notion of "living your truth," within the context of leadership and action.

Zainab Salbi: Being a leader for me is about having the courage to speak the truth, and live the truth, despite attempts to silence our thoughts, feelings, and past experiences. I also believe that leadership acts should be manifested by engaging in external work that can be observed and shared with everyone else, such as the work we do at Women for Women International with women survivors of wars. I would also add that leadership is not about having the charisma or speaking inspirational words, but about leading with example. Leadership is about encouraging women to break their silence and tell their stories to the world.

Rahim Kanani: If we had more women as head's of state, who understand "the other side of war," would the world see less conflict and more cooperation?

Zainab Salbi: I believe that there is an urgent need to restructure the discussion of war to include the impact it has on women. Working with women survivors of war has taught me that we need to listen to women's perspectives on war in order to understand how to effectively rebuild a country, a community and a family. Since war often enters homes through the "kitchen door," we need to understand women's attempts to keep life going in the face of shortage of food, closing of schools and reduced freedoms. This means that without women's full inclusion at the decision making table, we cannot have any healthy decision making that is good for men and women alike. It is the diversity of views that stems from different experiences and different backgrounds that lead to healthy decision-making and not the unified experiences and unified views.

Cross-posted with