Inspirational Woman Interview: Annette Scarpitta

Annette Scarpitta is the Founder and Program Director of Rwenena Kids, an initiative run by the Synergy of Congolese Women’s Associations (SAFECO) with the aim of educating vulnerable children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Previously, she played an active role in the start-up of the Kakenya Center for Excellence, which provides Maasai girls with a holistic education—academic as well as instruction in health and hygiene and leadership skills. Annette also served on the board of Kabultec, which provides a couples literacy program and promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. Annette has worked in publications for more than 20 years, with experience as a generalist researcher and writer, as well as a text and photo editor. She holds a B.A. in European Studies from Scripps College and an M.A. in History from Rice University.

What is your background?

Annette Scarpitta: I am a Valley Girl, from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Growing up in the land of malls, global poverty and the need to alleviate it was not on my mind. As a young adult, I volunteered to serve people in shelters. Years later, my passion to do good took a permanent foothold thanks to a series of inspirational women—from Africa and Afghanistan—who crossed my path and who serve women and girls in their home countries.  By serving these leaders’ communities myself, I saw the impact of my work and subsequently encouraged others—particularly youth—to also affect meaningful change.

You are the Founder and Program Director of Rwenena Kids, which is a project of Synergy of Congolese Women’s Associations (SAFECO). What inspired you to found Rwenena Kids and what is your vision for this program?

Annette Scarpitta: Rwenena Kids originated as the brainchild of a 7th-grade girl in my social justice class. She and the rest of the class wanted to support the children of violated women in eastern DRC. The effort expanded beyond the students into an education program that would come to focus on Rwenena (Ruh-NEHN-uh), a village so remote it is not seen on most maps. Located close to the Burundian border, Rwenena was once the site of a refugee camp, and ethnic tensions remain.

I learned that no other entity served the community, despite enormous need and deprivation of basic human rights set forth in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These circumstances propelled my motivation to serve them.  Rwenena Kids must focus on education due to capacity and funding restrictions, but I realize that impactful change cannot come to the community without other resources. My vision includes partnering with other groups equipped and willing to provide training and seed money that would enable community members—particularly women—to maintain an adequate standard of living. Another important piece is ongoing community dialogs to promote inclusiveness and peace. Our Sport for Peace and Development program helps with this long-term effort.

Can you talk more about Rwenena Kids’ Sport for Peace and Development initiatives and associated social entrepreneurship programs for African women artisans?

Annette Scarpitta: Last summer, we started the area’s first Sport for Peace and Development program tailored specifically for rising first graders as a “gentle introduction” to the school environment. Ever since my 2013 visit, I have been struck by the ability of a ball to elicit joy out of even the most vulnerable children. What better way to ease what is often a difficult transition into school?

Utilizing play-based learning, the program instills the importance of mutual respect for all, team building, and cooperation. Based on Football 3 methodology, students learn soccer skills, and locally trained coaches teach conflict resolution through dialog and compromise. Children are mediators and they, not adults, determine soccer match outcomes not only by points scored but also by fair play. The program includes basic health and hygiene education to children and their caring adults. Notwithstanding initial skepticism, the community embraced the summer program, which we have adapted to serve the entire school throughout the academic year.

By purchasing Congolese crafts from an entrepreneurial program of SAFECO in the provincial capital, Bukavu, we support women artisans with disabilities. All profits go to Rwenena Kids.

What are some of the biggest challenges to education and women’s empowerment in the DRC? What are some hurdles non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in these areas face?

Annette Scarpitta: Cultural norms harmful to women and girls persist, and we need to work from within that culture through trained and committed local or regional field managers and partners to achieve impactful and lasting change. Building women’s capacity and self-confidence is critical. They should be committed to change without fear of retribution. Trainers need to facilitate dialogs with men to demonstrate that the success of women need not be a threat but an opportunity to improve life in the household and beyond. This process takes time, and challenges may prove insurmountable.

For optimal education, students should not come to school hungry and should not be prevented from attending school for lack of fees. Teachers must receive periodic training to improve the quality of education. Reputable organizations have the ability to provide teacher training and educational resources, but these services have not reached or impacted Rwenena.

In our program, with local leadership, the community is embracing our inclusion of girls—a slightly higher number than boys. We emphasize all children’s equal opportunity to reach their full potential.

Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Annette Scarpitta: How can it  not matter? The world cannot succeed to its full potential without us.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Annette Scarpitta: I have been fortunate to cross paths with several strong women leaders creating organizations benefiting their nations and their home communities. I must single out Kakenya Ntaiya, who comes from a remote Maasai village where girls have traditionally been expected to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) at puberty and marry and bear children shortly thereafter. Kakenya founded and continues to lead the Kakenya Center for Excellence, which motivates girls through traditional and leadership education to become effective change agents. I have known Kakenya since her vision was a dream and have been honored to be part of the Center’s tremendous success in raising awareness both within and beyond the community.  She has demonstrated to me what effective change looks like.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in entering the international development space?

Annette Scarpitta: Folks serious about a career in international development would do well to acquire a relevant Master’s degree, if feasible. Hiring organizations also value experience in the field, such as through the Peace Corps. For those making a career transition, try to keep your day job and acquire new experience in your free time. If you take this path, depending on the nature of the work, be prepared to rise early, burn midnight oil, and work on weekends.

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