Partnering for Peace: V-Peace Scholarships Send Survivors to School in the U. S. and the World ‘s Most Dangerous Places

Categorized as: on February 14, 2014.


V-Peace Scholarships Dolphin Program. Photo courtesy of V-Day.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes, in a world where as many as 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will be raped in our lifetimes, and 1 woman in the Congo is raped every minute, we feel compelled to do something. We wanted to help wage peace in a powerful, lasting way, so we collaborated with V-Day to turn survivors into students. Read what’s possible when vision meets trust.

An abridged version of this piece was published by Stanford Social Innovation Review, here.

“Education translates into power.” – Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day 


By Suzanne Skees

“I would learn fishing, not eating fish.” – 28-year-old Afghani refugee,* now a graduate student in international studies/political science


Dare to Go, Know, and Invest

V-Peace scholarships = V-Day’s vision + our trust.

Sometimes, in a world where as many as 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will be raped in our lifetimes, and 1 woman in the Congo is raped every minute, we wake up and say, “We have to do something about this.” We wanted to help wage peace in a powerful, lasting way, so we collaborated with V-Day (a world leader in anti-violence activism) to turn survivors into students.

We blended both our organizations’ missions to establish a scholarship fund to support survivors of violence who wish to pursue education—primary, secondary, university, or vocational—and then use their knowledge and skills to work for peace in their local communities.

Go: Beginning in 2005, V-Day convened women survivors and leaders across Africa from such countries as Burkina Faso and Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. They gathered activists in the Middle East, Europe, Canada, and the United States, forming networks of awareness, protest, and healing.

Know: As they worked at the grassroots level, V-Day did what courageous change agents do: They looked into the eyes of victims of FGM, domestic and military violence, rape, and assault. They listened to hundreds, then thousands, of wrenching stories. They sat with, cried with, hugged, and came to know women on an intense and vulnerable level.

They found students who had the will and smarts to empower themselves and simply needed the financial means to do so. Daring to travel to all corners of the world and know deeply those who needed them, Eve Ensler and the V-Day staff found survivors who craved a chance at school. Thus began our awards program.

Invest: A quality we’ve always admired about V-Day staff is that they aren’t afraid to work in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict and post-conflict zones. That allowed us, from our kitchen office in northern California, the vast privilege of investing in the brain trust of students in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, Congo and Sudan. So far, we’ve enabled 5,537 students in 11 countries to attend school at an average annual cost per of $60 per student.

Dare to Trust, Adapt, and Share

Trust: The cornerstone of the V-Peace scholarship program has been at the intersection of V-Day’s vision and our trust: Their staff selects students based on dire need and potential leadership, and our foundation trusts V-Day implicitly to choose and monitor students all over the world. They have boots on the ground through their activist networks and local partners, so V-Day sees up-close who needs us most and knows long-term what they do with opportunity.

Adapt: We learned together that we needed to adapt to circumstances in the field: For instance, our local scholarship partner for tsunami orphans in Sri Lanka informed us that many students had no access to clean water or latrines; some were homeless. We quickly rewrote the grant to establish a 10% discretionary fund to help get girls on the bus to school, repair a leaky roof during the rainy season, or purchase uniforms and books. Both our organizations believe in treating the whole person, not just the academic student; and we know a healthy student with secure housing becomes free to learn.

Share: We decided, after nine years of running this program quietly, to talk openly about it. It’s so simple that it could be replicated anywhere grassroots activists discover need and potential, and it’s an example of what’s possible when vision meets trust. Snapshots of our students follow.

Sri Lanka

“The V-Peace Scholarships enable these women to finish their educations and become financially and emotionally strong as well as intellectually aware. This . . . makes them better citizens, more likely to assert their rights, assist and advocate for those less fortunate, and generally be good role models for the women and girls around them.” – Pam Schmoll, Trustee, Buddhi Balika Trust

Girls hit hardest by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on the west coast of Sri Lanka have had the chance to return to school, thanks to local partner Buddhi Balika Trust, whose staff members donate 100% of their time and supplies without pay. Many of the girls had been orphaned, so Buddhi Balika staff placed them in the school dormitory or with relatives, then paired each student with an older professional woman in a “Big Sister” mentor program. These students aspire to work professionally, make their families proud, and help rebuild their war-torn/hurricane ravaged country. Tamil and Sinhalese girls live and study together, coming from Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian backgrounds.

Most are in upper secondary school. A few need to wrap up their final year of university. Others are sitting for their A-level exams, which are very challenging but gain them entry into university (like our ACT/SAT). Those who do not succeed with the exams go into vocational training, e.g., in civil engineering, tailoring, and graphic arts. Those in university study computer science, biological science, and art.


“Education is the key to these girls going back to their villages with power.” — Agnes Pareyio, founder, Tasaru Girls’ Safe House

One of our earliest investments supported programs at the Tasaru Girls’ Rescue Center in Narok, Kenya, where founder Agnes Pareyio runs FGM (female genital mutilation) sensitization workshops for community members, alternative coming-of-age rituals for pubescent girls, and yearlong school for both those who’ve survived and those who’ve escaped FGM.

A few Tasaru graduates have been able to go on to pursue higher education because of V-Day’s vision; for example, one girl studied accounting at Kenya Polytechnic University in Nairobi.

Other Kenyan V-Peace students include Laura, who studied at Kagumo Girls’ Secondary School; Angela got a V-Peace scholarship after she lost government assistance in the second half of high school; and Fiona earned a degree at Makini College.

We’ve also helped purchase books, papers, and school supplies for 500 girls and boys in one of the poorest schools we’ve ever seen, the Makina Baptist School in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. And in Kiambu, Kenya, 800 students at Wagatu School have worked with V-Day local partner Dolphin Anti-AIDS and Rape, a grassroots organization that trains students in self-defense.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

“I want to rebuild my country. I have compassion and trust myself. I can understand people and their pain.” – V-Peace student who became the founder of an Afghani girls’ school

Two V-Peace Afghani refugees attend law school in Pakistan. One writes of her struggles in school and back home:

“I could pass the exam despite many problems including language. I visited Afghanistan twice, and Kabul was full of horrors and bad news from all over the country.  . . Children die in a village simply for not having any water to drink. 17-year-old Janaan and many others like her commit suicide on a daily basis, for they are not able to live a miserable life anymore . . . You hear that your dear friend’s husband is kidnapped and after a month he’s found dead, but you can’t do anything to stop such brutality. As an activist, my heart is broken and my mind is tired with all that is happening there.”

Another Afghani refugee got the chance to attend university in the United States, because our partners at V-Day saw her strength below a debilitating case of depression. Shabnam, age 28, recalls enduring the Taliban regime:

“I was in the hospital for too long. I cried all the time.” Then Shabnam made a risky move to empower girls that threatened her life and ended up saving her family. “One of my friends advised me to make a school at home for girls,” Shabnam says. “I started with six girls and after a few weeks, I had more than 100 students. My family was not happy about it . . . one of my brothers told me, ‘If you continue teaching I will kill you.’

“I asked the girls to stay with me because I am with them, and so they all agreed and we didn’t stop our class. Later on, my brothers went to Iran, my father lost his job, and I supported my family with the money I was earning from my students. I was feeding my family, then, through my teaching.

“My next dream is my country: I want to return to my country with the power of knowledge. I would learn fishing, not eating fish. From my point of view the only way to stop war, violence, power and to establish democracy is to educate the people.”

A student in Kabul, Afghanistan stayed in school and matriculated to the University of London. She plans to write on women’s issues to effect social change. Another student earned her teaching credential while working as a teaching assistant. A single mom had the chance to attend Islah Teacher Training Institute, where she believed her certificate would guarantee steady work to provide for her son. “These awards allow young women to stand up against the violence against women all around them, by being able to obtain a certificate and teach in a school,” says V-Day. “They’ll inspire other women to do the same.”

Congo (DRC) and Congo-Brazzaville

“There’s a lovely little girl who was raped two years ago and at 14 gave birth to premature twins. Her mother was a wonderful support to her as she cared for her babies in the incubator. Her tears were always like this: ‘I’m only 14 and I am already a mother. I wanted to study and be a nurse.’ We helped her go back to school, and today she finished among the top students with over 70% on her entrance exam. We’re so happy to support her as she continues on to secondary school. These students got off to a bad start in life through the horrors of violation, and ensuring their education goes a long way toward evening up the playing field for them.” – Lyn Lusi, visionary founder of HEAL Africa (1950-2012), in a report to V-Day

The International Rescue Committee calls the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) the “worst humanitarian disaster since World War II.” For decades, it has been characterized by extreme violence, mass population displacements, widespread rape, and a collapse of public health services. Since 1998 alone, more than 6 million people have died and more than 1.2 million have been displaced. In this multi-faceted conflict, women’s bodies are the battleground.

Our local partner in DR Congo, Heal Africa, began with a hospital where medical staff literally stitch women’s bodies back together after being ravaged by rape, assault, and fistula. Our V-Peace scholarships have sent survivors back to school at all levels, from primary through university/vocational. Our fund helps pay for medical and therapeutic needs, room and board, education and job training. Executive director Christine Schuler Deschryver describes a typical case:

“One woman arrived here raped with a 19cm piece of wood inside her organ. She came with three traumatized orphans from three to twelve years old. She walked all the way to Bukavu to look for me. She didn’t want to be operated on right away, because she wanted to march with us on the 25th of November (V-Day/UNICEF march). After that, she was operated on in Panzi Hospital. I paid for a house for them, put the orphans back to school and took care of them.”

 “At Panzi, we seek to offer socioeconomic reintegration as well as medical assistance. You’re helping women and girls who have suffered unthinkable atrocities to regain their dignity, to care for their families, and return to school—indeed rounding out medical and psychosocial assistance that they receive here.” – Dr. Denis Mukwege, head of Panzi Hospital at V-Day’s City of Joy

Because of V-Day’s local partners, we became aware that witchcraft is deeply feared in Congo, and sometimes an accused girl can be thrown out into the streets and abandoned. Our local partner in the village of Lubumbashi, the Georges Malaika Foundation, has rescued several such girls and gotten them into safe housing and back into school. They also support orphans with clothing, supplies, and school fees, and transport students safely in a zone where they’re in direct risk of rape.

In a village called Mechengo, where City of Joy cofounder Christine Schuler Deschyver’s mother lives, we paid school fees for 100 of their 400 students, many of them attending in makeshift classrooms made of boards of wood and sheets of cloth. “Most of these children are orphans from war, product of rape, HIV positive and from the poorest families in the village,” reports Christine.

In Congo Brazzaville, V-Day reached125 pygmy/indigenous girls living in the southern forest region of Lékoumou, where many had endured poverty, sexual violence, and forced early marriages. V-Peace funds helped establish a remote-learning program that sent teachers on motorcycles to their villages. For most of the girls, this was their first chance ever to attend school.

“While the girls had once been exiled by their families because they were raped, their families have begun to welcome them back into their homes because they value the support the girls can provide their families—another example of how education translates into power.” – Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day

Reaching Out with a Wish to Know

“I decided to change my pain into power.” – V-Peace graduate now working in a domestic violence shelter

One summer, V-Day sent 58 student profiles from Goma, Congo to our California office. Wishing to include us in the circle of healing, they’d photocopied intake forms in French, with English translations, to provide a long-distance view into the lives of our V-Peace students. I spent weeks poring over the profiles, matching the names with photographs sent separately via a CD compiled by volunteers. I wept as I read their matter-of-fact accounts of horrific violations, of girls as young as five, seven, twelve. Our foundation sent back 58 handwritten letters, telling each girl never to give up on herself, and that a family in America cares about her.

A 13-year-old girl who was gang raped by “many” soldiers now lives with her unemployed father and six siblings; their mother sells secondhand clothes in a remote village. Now living and studying at Heal Africa, she’s in the fifth grade and safe. She enjoys playing card games. Her little sister, also raped, enjoys math games and wants to be a teacher. A six-year-old girl was “raped by one unknown man,” said the report, “the same day my sister was raped. Since he raped me, I am ill. I live with my mother and father. We eat once a day.” She enjoys card games and housekeeping. A five year-old, walking one day through the fields of her parents’ banana farm fetching water from the well back to their straw house, was raped by “two civilian males.” Another girl—one of eight children—was raped by three soldiers on the same day her mother was also taken away and gang-raped. An orphan who’s now in second grade was also raped by soldiers and says, “I live now only by the grace of God.”

The stories begin to blend into a pattern: many parents have died from the war, AIDS, and other illnesses. A few parents stay together but many fathers have abandoned their children to drink or marry again in nearby villages. Invariably the girls were walking somewhere—to school, to the water well, to church—places they’d known all their lives, that used to be safe—and were ambushed by “street children” or “soldiers.” If they’re lucky, they land here at Heal Africa, where they first access medical and therapeutic care, then get to experience living and studying in a place that’s safe. Noella dreams of becoming a businesswoman; Lutonde wants to be a nurse. Musimwa wants to be a police officer.

North America

Here in the United States, as in war-torn countries around the world, the need for educational support for survivors of violence far surpasses our small program’s capacity. However, this again is where trust becomes critical, for we know that our partners choose wisely and we have faith that our small efforts have a larger ripple effect.

One such program, NiteStar in New York City, provides sex education to middle-school girls and boys with an emphasis on informed choices. Another U.S. partner, GEMS (Girls’ Educational Mentoring Services) School, enables former victims of human trafficking to attend college in such fields as psychology and public administration. “The students have made significant strides in overcoming histories of violence and victimization,” reports V-Day. “Supporting their educational progress contributes to their long-term economic independence, thereby lessening their chances of future victimization.”

One student fled Congo after she’d been raped and had witnessed the rape of her sister, who contracted HIV. She escaped to the U.S. and enrolled as a V-Peace scholar in a graduate program in social work.

“For so long,” she recalls, “I had so much anger for the perpetrators who destroyed my family in ways one cannot imagine. I told myself that I would never go back to the Congo because I could not bear seeing the city and the home where so many dreams were taken away from my sister, myself, and my whole family.

“However, over the years, I realized that millions of Congolese women and children are still going through the pain of being raped and contracting HIV. Therefore, I decided to change my pain into power.”

A middle-school student raped by several male classmates got a chance to be safe in a private school. A single mother in university in Louisiana, a Congolese refugee earning her master’s in social work in Alabama . . .V-Peace students come to V-Day through personal relationships. . “They find us,” notes program director Purva Panday-Cullman. Three students in Canada, refugees from Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Iran, got to study ESL (English as a Second Language) and attend college through our local partner, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Center of Ottawa.

Beyond Safe Borders

Recent years have seen our V-Peace education network reach into India, Iraq, South Africa, and Sudan.

Our local partner in Dharamsala, India sends “barefoot lawyers” (advocates) into communities to help victims take their cases to court. Our V-Peace students attend school while also working actively in the community as a liaison with village people in the courts.

In Iraq, three girls from very poor families with violent fathers got to attend trade school, and another five students continue their work through our local partner, Kurdistan Villages Reconstruction Association, while war rages all around them.

One student in South Africa received a V-Peace award to board at school and avoid a dangerous commute across Johannesburg. “For most girls and women,” she says, “traveling to the city is dangerous. We face either the risk of being in a road accident, being caught up in taxi feuds, being assaulted on or off the taxis in Johannesburg which are filled to the brim with unemployed men and street beggars who steal.” Before, she experienced fatigue and could not perform well at school. Now, she’s receiving three healthy meals and three study periods per day; she’s made lasting friendships and has launched a “V-Girls’” movement in South Africa.

Another 20-year-old South African student came from a very poor family.  Her father died when she was very young and her mother is an alcoholic, so she has to care for herself and two younger siblings. She started a workshop called “Sunday Summits” in which girls can share stories of promiscuity, rape, and abuse, take comfort in supporting one another to make healthy choices, and seek help.

Partnering with another activist born and raised in the Eritrean refugee camp in Sudan, where 200,000 ethnic Eritreans have lived for 27 years, V-Day funded the camp’s “First High School for Girls” for ten students. Many of these students, forced into early childhood arranged marriages, are mothers already and suffer from fistula. They now have a chance to advance.

Visioning Empowerment Philanthropy

“The program has grown to be a pillar of V-Day’s work globally, allowing us to invest in young leaders who are contributing to social change on a community level. Our V-Peace scholarships continue to infuse local communities with homegrown leadership.” —  Purva Panday-Cullman, V-Day director of programs and development

When Eve wrote the poem, book, and play “I Am an Emotional Creature,” she and her team began to dream of rallying girls around the world to help one another to transform, as V-Day says, “from pain into power.” They did more than dream: They produced the play from Johannesburg to Paris to Berkeley, gathered groups of teenage girls on a pilot “V-Girls” council, and began exploring ways to shift philanthropy from the checkbooks of people like our family, to the wallets of young girls around the world. V-Day is exploring an online fundraising platform, facilitating online fundraising “how-to” guides for girl groups, and seeking mobile-banking and other easy means for crowdfunding by kids with just a few pennies or shillings to give. They call it empowerment philanthropy. This approach will reach far further than the middle-class philanthropy our family has endorsed.

We believe V-Day can do anything they set their minds to, because they know how to deploy their passion for change through enormous networks of grassroots activists from all places, cultures, and life experiences. As they showed in their 2013 movement, “One Billion Rising,” they can rally one-seventh of the planet’s citizens, the same number who will be raped in our lifetimes, to dance for peace.

The same tragic truth that links us in our experiences of violence in our colleges and families, apartments and streets, also unites us in our quest for peace. Education, the one investment no one ever can take away from our V-Peace students, will change our world.

“Through the V-Peace Scholarship program, a partnership between the Skees Family Foundation and V-Day, we have been able to support a generation of girl and young women survivors who are using education to break the cycle of violence. It has been a profoundly fruitful collaboration for which I am grateful. Through it we have planted seeds of revolution on a grassroots level, girl by girl, young woman by young woman.” – Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day

V-Peace Scholarships by the numbers:

  • 9 years of partnership from 2005 through 2013
  • $333,000 from Skees Family Foundation, supplemented by grants by other donors
  • 11 countries
  • 5,537 students supported
  • $60 average per student per year

*Please note that staff names are accurate but students’ names have been changed or deleted to protect their identity.


LEARN more about how V-Day works with activists around the world to end violence, here.

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DONATE directly to help support thousands more students as they transform from survivors into leaders of peace, here.

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