Working with women refugees in Northern Iraq


Mandana Hendessi, Iraq Country Director for Women for Women International, will be speaking at a dinner hosted by WAM UK on Tuesday 2nd May 2017 in London.

She will be talking about the work that Women for Women International (WfWi) and its partners are doing in and around refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq where they are providing life and business skills training to women refugees, as well as psycho-social support and crucially, a safe space for women to gather, share experiences and support each other. Tickets to the event are available here.

Warvin Foundation - Dohuk

Ahead of the event, we asked Mandana to tell us a little of the work that is going on and why it has been important for Women for Women International to engage in this issue.

What impact is the project having on women refugees in areas like Northern Iraq?

We have reached out to 600 Syrian refugee women living both inside and outside camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since November 2014. We have provided psycho-social support, livelihood training, women’s rights and gender-based violence awareness and prevention and access to justice. We have also provided training in business and leadership skills for the women. As a result of our training and support, we have seen the women improve their self-confidence, which enables them to be more involved in decision-making in the household as well as in the community. It empowers them to build and develop support networks in the community, connect to essential services, as well as become more confident in reporting harassment, abuse and violence to authorities. Importantly they are improving their income generation.

Why has WfWi chosen to work in this specific area?

When the war in Syria intensified in 2012, we were concerned about Syrian women and tried to find ways of supporting them but found it impossible to work in Syria itself as the security there deteriorated very rapidly. So we decided to support Syrian refugee women in neighbouring countries. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was chosen because of the large influx of Syrian refugees there and the relative security it provided to work with the women through local partners.

What is it like for women living in the camps and surrounding areas?

Whilst living in a camp can provide some security and protection for women, it takes away their individuality, reducing them to a number. However, women who live outside camps are often more vulnerable to harassment and abuse by local men. They are often caring for their families on their own. Furthermore, they are more likely to be poorer, having to make ends meet on very low income.

The biggest threat to Syrian women in Kurdistan Region of Iraq is gender-based violence, which impedes their chances of finding gainful employment. Many of our beneficiaries have recounted experiences to us of when they have searched for jobs and were told by prospective employers that they would get a job if they had sex with them. Other women say they do not set foot outside the home because they fear abuse and harassment by local men ranging from taxi drivers to doctors.

What would happen to some of these women and their families if they didn’t receive support?

I can think of a few obvious possibilities: chronic physical and mental ill-health, heightened risk of violence, poor hygiene and nutrition, losing hope and inspiration – to sum up, the slow and painful death of a generation.

What are the prospects for people living in the camps?

Living in a camp should just be an emergency measure. It’s cruel and inhumane to expect people to live in a camp for years with no prospect of integration into the wider host country. We cannot subject people to such a restricted and soul-less existence for so long! The host countries have to find creative measures of integrating refugee and displaced families into the community. This is essential – refugee and displaced women have so much to offer not just to their own communities, but also to the host community, enriching the local culture.

Of course one would hope that the conflict in Syria and Iraq ends soon, that infrastructure is reconstructed, peace and reconciliation achieved so that Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqi women and their families are able to return home – but some may bond with their places of exile and with people who have embraced them; they settle into new jobs and new ways of living. They need to be allowed to exercise choices about where they want to settle – where they feel secure and comfortable.

 Is the situation getting worse in these areas/camps?

The current situation is desperate – I can’t think of a situation that could be worse than this! For the long-term, we need to work for peace and justice for all in the region; meanwhile, we need to run programmes for refugees and displaced women that aim to nurture their resilience and talents, helping them to rebuild their lives wherever they are and live more fulfilled lives with their families.



Mandana Hendessi is an international development professional with over 25 years’ experience in management, consulting, designing and developing programmes for civil society organisations, governments, International NGOs, and the UN, covering a diversity of socio-economic and human rights issues.

Nearly all of her international experience has been in conflict-affected contexts. For example, in Iraq, Mandana supported the nascent women’s movement to secure a 25% quota for women’s representation in the parliament (2004). In the West Bank, she provided technical assistance to Palestinian women’s enterprises on a range of issues from market research to business planning (2007). In Afghanistan, as the Head of Mission for Medica Mondiale, an international NGO, she led on the development of psycho-social counseling and legal aid for Afghan women who have experienced gender-based violence, promoting access to justice for women who came into conflict with the law.

Prior to joining WfWI in February 2015, Mandana most recently directed the Afghanistan Program at Global Rights, where she engaged young Afghans to support and promote democratic values, the rule of law, and the rights of women.

Since 1993, Women for Women International has helped more than 447,000 marginalised women in countries affected by war and conflict. They serve women in 8 countries including Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Iraq, offering support, tools, and access to life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.

Women for Women International brings women together in a safe space to learn life, business, and vocational skills.  Once enrolled, each woman receives a monthly stipend – a vital support that enables her to participate. Women increase their ability to earn an income with new skills that are in demand. They learn about their legal rights, and they become knowledgeable about health and nutrition. The result: stronger women, stronger families, and stronger communities. The ripple effect is profound.

VisionFund International on drive to tailor the provision of its microfinance services to women

By Annalisa Plachesi and Miranda Barham, WAM Steering CommitteeJacqueline CEO

WAM UK hosted a very engaging discussion with special guest, Johanna Ryan, VisionFund International’s Social Performance Director.  Johanna took us through the journey that the VisionFund International has been on since 2003, when it was set up to provide small loans to business owners to help them to grow and expand sustainable businesses in the developing world.

VisionFund brings financial access to the entrepreneurial poor in areas that other microfinance providers find too costly to reach. Working with farmers and small businesses in predominantly rural areas, the organisation strives to unlock the economic potential in their communities that can lift whole villages out of poverty. Mission-driven, VisionFund is focused on impacting the lives of children living in poverty. Across a network of over 30 microfinance institutions, most of VisionFund’s clients are women as they are shown to be more likely to invest surplus income into their children’s nutritional, health and educational needs. Their clients are mainly mothers or grandmothers with dependent children or women who employ others with children.

Johanna opened the event by introducing two women, Donatila and Claudine. Donatila, 60 years old from Rwanda looks after seven children. After the sudden death of her first husband, she remarried but her second husband left her.

“When talking to Donatila, I remember her describing her sorrow as she had nothing and – in her own words – she was ‘just an old woman without a husband with no means to provide for the children,’” Johanna explained. Donatila was then introduced to VisionFund and managed to get a $45 loan to trade sorghum in her local market. With her profits she managed to buy salt and onions to feed her family and to cover school fees for her children.

Claudine, who is 25 years old and also from Rwanda, took out a $300 loan and started to sell milk and manure. She made enough money to have her floor cemented, and to purchase clothing. “Claudine has a dream,” Johanna continued, “and it is to see her children grow up to be mayors, governors and members of parliament, whether they are boys or girls.”

Forty-two percent of women globally are outside the formal financial system.[1]  Forty percent of the global agricultural labour force is female and this rises to 50% in Africa and Asia.[2] Of 780 million illiterate people, two-thirds are women.[3] It is these statistics combined with the ambition described by women like Claudine that have driven VisionFund to launch the Women’s Empowerment Fund, a new initiative to empower two million women by 2021.

The Fund is a bold vision to raise $25 million to financially empower two million women and create brighter futures for six million children annually by 2021. VisionFund will achieve this by:

(1) Strengthening links to savings for women. Savings provide a safety net to deal with emergencies as well as family events like births and deaths.

(2) Developing insurance products that specifically protect women. Microinsurance helps protect clients, their investments and businesses against untimely and unexpected shocks. To respond to some of the specific challenges facing women, VisionFund is developing products available for the first time in the market such as health insurance with maternity coverage, crop insurance for women without land titles, and life insurance for spouses and children.

(3) Bringing mobile banking to rural areas, which are often hard to reach and costly to serve. For women, this investment will mean increased personal safety as they will not have to travel with relatively large amounts of cash. It will mean confidentiality as they will not be seen in the branches, which is an issue for women because otherwise they are likely to be asked for money from other members of the community. Also, it gives them greater control over their finances as they can manage them from their home. For some women, depending on the cultural context, it is not easy for them to move around freely. It also provides VisionFund with convenient delivery channels and the opportunity to collect and analyse data, which will be used to improve their products and services.

(4) Expanding access to financial education for women – whilst nearly 33 percent of VisionFund’s clients received financial education in 2016, with a new delivery system for financial education, VisionFund plans to reach 75 percent by 2021.

(5) Creating family-friendly branches which allow mothers to care for their children while they wait in line without, for example, being under searing sun, and developing practical guidelines for improving outreach and service to women, especially mothers, prioritizing women’s needs for confidentiality, privacy, and respect.

(6) Developing financial products tailored for women to ensure they adequately serve the needs of all VisionFund’s clients, with a focus on the needs of women and mothers. This will be represented in the development of new products that focus on fuel-efficient cook stoves, household water filters, latrine construction, solar energy products, and children’s education.

One of the ways that VisionFund will pivot its services to be more women-friendly is by recruiting older women, from the communities it works in, to become loan officers. These women will automatically understand the challenges and local context that VisionFund’s female clients face and will therefore be able to provide services in a more sensitive and sympathetic manner.

“Many older women don’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking with a 25 year-old male loan officer,” explained Johanna. “It can be a barrier to them opening up and giving us the real picture of their lives.” This matters for VisionFund as their fundamental rule of client protection is, ‘we do no harm,’ and they adhere to other strict client protection principles. Taking the time to get a full and honest picture of the client’s financial, business and familial situation is critical to understanding how the client can benefit from a loan or other financial services product and how it can be tailored to individual requirements.

Understanding and improving the impact of their work on women and families is very important for VisionFund. It plans to use rigorous academic and professional research to further understand how it impacts its clients, and will focus on adjusting existing services to better meet the specific requirements of women in their local context, as well as introducing unique products to help more women and their families climb up the economic ladder.

”For women like Donatila and Claudine,” Johanna added, ”empowerment means living a better life than what they experienced before.” With access to financial services and training, along with encouragement from their communities, women with few other resources can change their world and the future of their children. Starting with today’s women, for the women of tomorrow.

If you would like to support VisionFund International to raise funding in support of women taking their first step in business, please donate here. For further information on the Women’s Empowerment Fund, please visit “Together, we can transform lives. One loan at a time.”


Investing in Social Enterprise to Fight Poverty


By Rupert Scofield, President and CEO of FINCA International 

Rupert Scofield will be speaking at a dinner hosted by Women Advancing Microfinance UK on Tuesday 10th May in London. He will talk to us about the work FINCA does and the impact it’s having, in particular in the social enterprise and innovation space. Tickets to the event are available here

Ahead of the event, we asked Rupert to give us some thoughts about what it is that makes FINCA different, how they have evolved their approach and support for those they work with and their unique approach to fostering social enterprises.

 Tell us about the clients FINCA reaches and what it is about your offering that allows you to reach clients other microfinance organisations don’t.

FINCA’s segment is not “the poorest of the poor”, which are now reached by specialised “Ultra Poor” or “Graduation” programmes which provide subsidies not loans, although some of our most successful clients have come from that segment.    Most of our clients live on $2 to $4 per day when they take their first FINCA loan and then progressively move up the ladder.

The vast majority have an existing business when they join FINCA, but not all.  In Africa, for example, we encourage our village banks to take on one or two younger women who want to start a business but need mentoring and support from the group in order to succeed.

While many other MFIs work in this segment, FINCA is unique in that we have done this now for three decades and on four continents, learning to adapt our methodology to many different cultures.   We still deliver the majority of our loans through “village banks”, and although that methodology has been adapted over time, it remains largely the same, depending on local knowledge and a group rather than physical guarantee.   When you visit a village bank, you can see that it is a strong, community-based support group where the members help each other weather the adversities that come with living at the base of the economic pyramid.

You developed an initiative called FINCA Plus back in 2012. Can you explain a little about what you hoped to achieve?

We saw an opportunity to become a “holistic” MFI, one that would also provide non-financial services of value to our clients, things that would make them more resistant to the contra temps that threatened to knock them off the ladder out of poverty.   We sought instead to develop interventions in new sectors like healthcare, water & sanitation, education, energy, and agriculture.   While organisations like BRAC had been doing this for decades, we decided to take a different approach.   Rather than becoming experts in these sectors, we would find partners whose products and services would be of high value to our clients, and figure out how to finance and deliver them.

We discovered that there were literally hundreds of social enterprises doing amazing work, and who were eager to partner with FINCA and take advantage of our well-known brand.

Furthermore, there are “incubators” working with social entrepreneurs and helping them to develop their concepts to the point where they are “investible” and scalable.   This led to our decision to create the Social Enterprise Collider, a facility that will invest in early stage social enterprises deemed promising but too risky for institutional investors or even most Venture Capitalists.   At the same time, we created Brite Life, a distribution company that markets solar energy products, fuel efficient cook stoves, water filters and other products which bring a powerful value proposition to our clients, providing benefits in the health, education, and energy areas.

To hear more from Rupert about FINCA’s unique approach to social enterprise initiatives, please join us for the dinner discussion on Tuesday 10th May 2016. Tickets for the event are available here.


Rupert Scofield, FINCA International President and Co-Chief Executive Officer, also serves as President and CEO of FINCA Microfinance Holdings, LLC, a first-of-its-kind, socially-responsible investment partnership for microfinance, formulated to strike the right balance between attracting capital needed for expansion and protecting the integrity of FINCA’s charitable mission.

Mr. Scofield co-founded FINCA in 1984 with John Hatch, and has served as its President and CEO since 1994. A practitioner at heart, he is actively involved in the management of FINCA’s operations, and is also a frequent keynote speaker. As author of The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build and Run a Business that Improves the World, Mr. Scofield seeks to inspire the next generation of microfinance leaders and social entrepreneurs.

Prior to FINCA, Mr. Scofield served as the CEO of Rural Development Services, a consulting firm, and country program director of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Program in El Salvador. He earned two Masters of Arts degrees in agricultural economics and public administration from the University of Wisconsin, as well as a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University, and served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.

Read more about FINCA here.

Celebrating IWD: Q&A with Diana Noble, CEO of CDC

In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), March 8th 2016, WAM UK interviewed Diana Noble, CEO of CDC Group Plc. 


Diana Noble, CEO of CDC, the UK’s development finance institution.

What is CDC?

CDC is the UK’s development finance institution. Wholly owned by the UK Government, we invest in the private sector in Africa and South Asia – where over 80 per cent of the world’s poorest people live – to support the building of businesses and to create jobs.

We focus on investing in sectors where growth leads to jobs.  These include microfinance institutions, as well as companies in agribusiness, construction, manufacturing and broader financial services. In 2014, our investments created around 1.3 million direct and indirect new jobs and livelihoods.

Why is microfinance important for women and their families?

Many of the businesses we support help empower women and this is particularly true of microfinance institutions and other financial services companies. CDC has invested over US$300m in microfinance institutions and funds to date, reaching out to over 15 million women clients.

There are a number of reasons why microfinance is important for women and their families. According to the World Bank, only 50 per cent of women in the world have access to formal financial services and microfinance institutions aim to improve this statistic. However microfinance is not only economically but also socially empowering for women by enhancing their status in male-dominated societies, improving financial literacy, and allowing them to scale up their businesses. Also, when women participate in the workforce and are earning, it tends to have a positive impact on the family as a whole with evidence suggesting that women reinvest 90 per cent of their income back into the families, while that figure is just 35 per cent for men.

Can you give us any examples of how CDC’s investee companies have supported women?

CDC recently invested in Equitas, an Indian microfinance institution based in Chennai, Southern India. Its clients are women who run small businesses.

We decided to invest in Equitas because the company prides itself on being a responsible lender – before loans are given, borrowers attend three days of financial training and further support and advice is provided afterwards too. Equitas has helped many women entrepreneurs. Kala was given a loan equivalent to around US$160 to buy a sewing machine and start her tailoring business. When colleagues met Kala recently in Chennai, she said she was close to repaying the loan and she uses the extra income she now generates to pay for her children’s education.


Kala, Entrepreneur. Source: CDC

In Africa, CDC has invested in DCFU Bank in Uganda, which helps support women entrepreneurs to start and build their businesses. For example, Yvonne Katamba used a loan to help grow her cleaning business. In just 10 years, it grew from an annual turnover of US$2,000 to US$275,000, and she now employs 175 people.

Yvonne Katamba.jpg

Yvonne Katamba, Entrepreneur. Souce: CDC

What plans does CDC have for future investments?

At CDC, we will continue to invest in sectors and business which can create jobs and make a lasting impact to people’s lives. This includes supporting companies in Africa and South Asia that help to empower women.

In the last financial year, our figures suggest the businesses we invest in employ 165,000 direct jobs for women. Our aim is to continue to build on this, so we can provide opportunities to even more people in some of the poorest parts of the world.