Laurie Adams: CEO, Women for Women International (WfWI)

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Laurie Adams is the Chief Executive Officer of Women for Women International (WfWI), a leading global organization dedicated to working with women survivors of war. With more than 25 years of experience working in international development and human rights, Ms. Adams is an innovative leader, strategist, and gender rights advocate. Prior to joining WfWI, Ms. Adams served as the Director of Women’s Rights for Oxfam Great Britain leading communications, fundraising, program development, and advocacy of Oxfam’s women’s rights work. Previously, Ms. Adams managed Oxfam’s country programs in three African regions, based out of Kenya, Senegal, and South Arica, where she played a pivotal role transforming the governance and management structure of the confederation. Ms. Adams joined Oxfam after eight years at ActionAid International’s secretariat in Johannesburg, leading efforts to measure impact, strengthen program quality and learning, and build accountability across more 40 countries. Ms. Adams’ has also been very active as a volunteer in grassroots LGBTIQ and women’s rights movements and philanthropy, including serving on the boards of The Other Foundation and the Forum for the Empowerment of Women. Ms. Adams holds a Master’s degree in Public Policy Management from the University of London, a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Women’s Rights from Dartmouth College, and completed the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.

How did you get involved in Women for Women International?

I joined Women for Women International (WfWI) in 2015 as the Vice President for Programs and was promoted to President and then the Chief Executive Officer of the organization. I’ve been working in the human rights field for more than 25 years and it all started in college when I joined protests against apartheid in South Africa and advocated for better policies around sexual assault and for gender equity and diversity on our campus. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working in dozens of countries with global development and human rights organizations like ActionAid International and Oxfam as well as great local organizations in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

What are the emerging needs of women survivors of war that WfWI is responding to?

The share of the extremely impoverished people living in conflict-affected and fragile communities is expected to rise about 15% of the global population today to almost 50% by 2030. With increase in conflict, we will see an increase in poverty, hunger, and unemployment. In addition, the number of displaced and refugee people and the average length of displacement have increased to an alarming degree over the past decade. To me that means the work of WfWI is more important than ever now. We need to not only increase the numbers of the women we serve but also invest in reaching communities that are newly impacted by conflict. This is why in 2015 in the light of crisis in Iraq and Syria, we began working with local partners in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to serve Yezidi survivors of violence as well as other displaced Iraqi women and Syrian refugee women.

WfWI works with the most marginalized and impoverished women in countries impacted by war and conflict. While women’s needs vary depending on their context, after more than two decades of working in this field I can see many overlaps. Gender-based violence is a global violence and it has impacted at least one in three women. In addition, poverty continues to impact women disproportionately. Only about half of the women on earth hold paying jobs. In fact, women and girls make 70 percent of modern-day slaves. All these forms of violence and discrimination are exasperated during conflict and war. Rape and sexualized violence during war is not only a human rights violation but also a public health and social crisis that has destroyed the fabrics of families and communities from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iraq and Syria. This is why Women for Women International is focused on the social and economic empowerment of women survivors of war in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Sudan. At the heart of our work is a yearlong program that gives women the tools they need to rebuild their lives. Through our program women learn vocational, numeracy, and business skills, and about their health and rights. Our holistic approach not only raises women’s income and helps them lift themselves and their families out of poverty but also gives them the support and the skills they need to stand up for their rights.

What are some of the challenges of working with a non-profit organization?

The biggest challenge facing global non-profits is a lack of consistent funding for our work. This is a challenge that not only WfWI but many other organizations are dealing with as well and it is one that require creative solutions. At WfWI, we are lucky because through our sponsorship program, individuals around the world can be part of our movement of the empowerment of the world’s most marginalized women and in fact people from more than 200 countries have signed up to sponsor a woman through our program. The most important factor in dealing with lack of funding for global development and women’s rights work is to remain curious, open and nimble. That is what we do at WfWI. We’re constantly exploring how we can raise funds while engaging more people and making the donation process a meaningful experience for our supporters.

What is your vision for Women for Women International?

Our vision is to create a world where every woman can reach her full potential and with the support of caring individuals around the world we are on our way to achieving this dream. We also want make it possible to connect more people to women around the world through our sponsorship program because that connection can be transformative for supporters as well as women survivors of war.

Next year marks the 25th anniversary of Women for Women International. We’ve accomplished a tremendous amount in this time. We’ve served nearly half a million women in some of the hardest countries to be a woman. In addition, we’ve reached more than 20 thousand men to engage them as allies and champions for women’s rights and equality. However, conflict continues to deteriorate the lives of women and communities around the world. Today 65 million people are displaced and two billion people live in countries undergoing fragility, conflict, and violence. Our work is far from over. At WfWI, we hope to serve even more women impacted by war in the coming year. We are committed to serving women refugees and internally displaced women in the Middle East and after opening a country office in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq plan on opening another sanctuary for women in Jordan. We will also continue to explore effective ways to serve women suffering in South Sudan and women survivors of sexualized violence whether they are in Afghanistan or the DRC.

What's next for your organization in the near future?

We are so excited to celebrate Women for Women International’s 25th anniversary next year. Not only is this a historic moment for WfWI, which has served nearly half a million women, but also for women worldwide. We are at a turning point for women. Everywhere, women and girls are organizing and demanding their rights and we are proud to celebrate 25 years of contributing to that.

Your key initiatives for the success of WfWI?

Under my leadership, Women for Women International was able to open its first new country office in ten years. Our office in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will be able to serve thousands of Syrian refugees and Iraqi women, including internally displaced Yazidis who have faced some of the most tragic atrocities of war. In addition, we’ve been able to form partnerships with local organization in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and South Sudan to ensure that we meet the most urgent needs of women impacted by conflict.

During my time as the President of Women for Women International, we were also able to hold one of the most successful events in the organization’s history. The WfWI 2017 luncheon included Secretary Hillary Clinton and CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour and made headlines around the world. It was also attended by more than 500 supporters of the organization and brought in $1.2 million to support our transformative work around the world.

I am also proud of launching Match Her Courage, a new campaign for 2018 that will raise funds and allow us to serve more marginalized and impoverished.

Your most difficult moment at Women for Women International? (and what did you learn?)

One of the hardest parts about my job is knowing how immense the needs of women around the world are and not being able to serve all of them. Nearly every time we go to a new community to enroll women into the program, we have to turn many away because we can serve only a limited number. In Nigeria, for example, during enrollment days hundreds of women line up in church parking lots, in school yards, and in community centers, in hopes of getting into the program and inevitably, some have to go home because we don’t have the resources and the space to serve them all. This is heartbreaking to me, but it is also a motivator to work harder, to raise more funds, and to make it possible for every woman who wants to be part of our program to join.  

Ideal experience for a supporter/sponsor?

Women for Women International’s sponsorship program is a truly unique experience. In a world where we are surrounded by the constant noise of technology, we’ve made it possible for our sponsors to go back to basics and create a truly human connection with another person. When you sponsor a woman through WfWI, you not only learn about her name, location, and background, but also have the chance to exchange letter with them and know their progress throughout the program directly from themselves. For only $35 a month, anyone can sponsor a woman to go through our transformative program and create a sisterhood, a special bond that will change their life forever. I am myself a sponsor and I’ve gained so much from being one. It is not just sending money somewhere far away and being done with it. It gives you the chance to see the tangible impact you’ve made in the life of a real woman. It is incredibly fulfilling.

How do you motivate others?

Women for Women International’s staff and supporters are incredibly motivated to begin with. It is a source of pride for me. To motivate new people to join our work and contribute to our work, even if that contribution is not monetary at all, I often rely on the stories of women’s resilience and power around the world. I often tell the story of one of the women we served in Afghanistan. Her name is Hosai Bayani. She was abandoned by her husband and struggled with poverty until she joined WfWI’s program in her community. She was so dedicated and bright that quickly she became a trainer in our program and a leader in her area. With support from other women, she ran for local office and became a member of the provincial council where she uses her position and voice to advocate for the rights of women and end gender-based violence. How can you hear stories of women like Hosai, who’ve overcome tragedy and heartbreak, and have been able to not only stand on their own feet but also help hundreds of other women? Women have the power to change the world. It is that power that motivates me, our staff, and all the hundreds of people who support our work.

Career advice to those in your industry?

I think the most important advice I can give to anyone considering entering the human rights and development field is to remember and celebrate our common humanity. Our field often runs into the risk of humanitarians thinking they have all the answers and they are there to serve the less advantaged. The relationship between those working in the field and those being served is often seen as one-sided giving to the disadvantaged, but the reality is that we learn so much from having the opportunity and the privilege to serve others. Every day of working in this field is a lesson in human resilience, in how our similarities by far outnumber our differences, in how it is our circumstances, not the content of our characters, that has led to some people facing more poverty, conflict, and violence than others. I try to always remember that I could’ve been one of the women we serve. Often our only difference is that I was born into a safe and loving home or in a region of the world that is not as volatile as others. We should work with people and communities in the developing world as equal partners because there is a lot that we can learn from those we are hoping to serve.

In fact, the lessons I’ve learned from global activists and leaders have been instrumental in my own professional development. I’ve learned the most on how to lead change from Women for Women International’s Malian director for our DRC program. I’ve learned the most on how to campaign from my time in the pan-African movement. I’ve learned the most about strategy from activists and organizers in South Africa. There is a lot we can learn from our global counterparts that will make our work richer and more effective.