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Building a Future for Rwandan Women, Brick by Brick

The Women's Opportunity Center was conceived as a sustainable space for vocational and agricultural training that will be built by local women.

The Women's Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda, will not be a place for victims, but for survivors. When the facility opens in 2013, it will train women who lived through Rwanda's 1994 genocide to help rebuild their country, literally brick by brick.

The project is the result of a collaboration between Washington, D.C.-based NGO Women for Women International, which aids women who have lived through wars around the world, and New York architecture firm Sharon Davis Design. Since 2008, the two groups have focused on building a community center to help educate and prepare Rwandan women for economic independence.

It's a much-needed effort in Rwanda, where the effects of the organized massacres and sexual assaults against the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus were especially devastating for women and girls. The resulting emotional trauma, unintended pregnancies, and HIV infections led to massive economic losses and financial instability, especially for those who lost their husbands and children to imprisonment, death, or militia recruitment.

Since the conflict ended, Rwanda's democratic leadership, now led by President Paul Kagame, has mandated 30 percent female representation in government and has been outspoken about the need to empower women as part of the country's reconciliation efforts. That mission inspired the creation of the Women's Opportunity Center, conceived as a sustainable space for vocational and agricultural training that will be built by local women as part of the educational process. The design won 2nd place among planned projects and 1st place in the education subcategory in last November's World Architecture Festival.

"We approached the design of the project to be an educational tool in itself," says project manager Bruce Engel. "For example, water scarcity is a huge issue, but no one collects rain. Designing some of the roofs in the shape of big leaves that collect rainwater was meant to express this idea, to teach it."

The center will also include a water purification and filtration system, compost toilets, and a demonstration farm that will produce food and animal waste for methane-based biogas—an imperative considering the region's over-harvesting of timber for fuel.

The design team also wanted to create an atmosphere that would encourage participation in the center's actual programming. Engel and his team designed a "mini-village," based on a king's compound he had seen on one of his first trips to the country, on two hectares of land: One central building with educational and common spaces radiating out from it. The roofs of some classrooms will open for an "inspirational feeling," and all the spaces will be circular and without rows to minimize a sense of classroom hierarchy. To create privacy, some walls will be perforated instead of having windows, a design choice intended to foster open discussion about the students' past traumas and personal issues.

One of the most tangible results of the team's integrating new techniques with local industry came during the project's earliest stages. "We always wanted to think of ways that the women could participate in the center's creation," Engel says. "We were on the ground and saw that the quality of the bricks being made were so poor, we were nervous to use them, especially in this earthquake zone."

In the region's traditional brickmaking method, known as "slop-molding," brickmakers pour wet clay into a mold, then use the moisture to jostle it out before it dries fully. When placed on the ground, the moist bricks can deform under their own weight, and, in the sun, they can dry out too quickly and begin cracking.

"We did all this research about brickmaking in other parts of Africa and the world," Engel says. "Then we thought, 'How about we combine our desire to make a better brick, the desire to have the women more involved in their own center, and WfW's mission for job creation and income generation?'" The result was the formation of a cooperative of 250 women who began to use a "sand-molding" technique, which results in denser clay and more consistent, solid bricks.

The learning curve was frustrating for everyone involved, and the group produced just a few hundred bricks each week for the first few months. Now 30 women in the cooperative make 20,000 bricks a week and are just 100,000 bricks away from having enough to build the Women's Opportunity Center. After finishing that job, the cooperative hopes to continue selling bricks to other developers around Rwanda.

The WOC is scheduled to open next March on International Women's Day. Engel, who now lives in Kayonza full-time and teaches architecture in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, says the project is still very much an experiment. But for the brickmakers that have steady work and can pay workers to till their land while they're at the foundry full-time—the foundation is strong.

Photos courtesy of Sharon Davis Design

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