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Helping women in difficult situations and empowering them: that’s the goal of human rights organisation Solwodi (Solidarity with Women in Distress). Solwodi is partnered with GIZ to assist women in Germany who are thinking of returning to their home country. A two-week course prepares participants for starting their own business when they return. Social worker Antonina Reiners supports them in the process.

Ms Reiners, who attends these courses for women planning to start their own business?
The participants come from very different backgrounds. They are between 20 and 60 years old, and come from Nigeria, Albania, Kosovo and other countries. They also have varying levels of education. Some of them are illiterate, but there are also women who have been to university. Several of them are due to be deported, while others are still considering whether they want to return to their own countries. What they have in common is being either single or single parents. The training courses have been running since early 2019, and we have conducted eight of them so far. A maximum of six women may participate in each course. That enables us to give them the best possible guidance.

What do these women learn?
We collaborated with the training organisation run by the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) in Bonn/Rhein-Sieg to gather all sorts of information necessary for starting a business. This extends from developing a business concept and simple accounting methods through to marketing.

Have any participants been successful in starting their own business?
Yes. One former participant has opened a restaurant in Peru, for example, another a sewing shop in Uganda. She makes and sells her own creations as well as selling craft supplies.

You are involved in the course as a social worker. What is your role?
I help the women solve all sorts of problems, and I am available by phone day and night. I provide extra help during the course to those women who can't read or write. But the most important aspect is my psychosocial care, because going back home comes with anxieties and fears. Many women no longer have a social network in their home country and others have even fled their families – for reasons like a threatened forced marriage. Some have children who were born in Germany and simply don't know anything about their country of origin.

It's not easy for a single mother to take two weeks off. How do you arrange that?
Before the corona pandemic, the course was held in Sankt Augustin near Bonn. The women and their children were accommodated and cared for in guest rooms provided by the Divine Word Missionaries. I collected the women and brought them to their accommodation. Childcare was also provided, which removed a lot of the obstacles.

How has the course changed during the corona pandemic?
Currently of course we can't hold any events in person. That wouldn't be advisable, since it would involve women travelling from different states throughout Germany. So we developed a series of online seminars, which have now been held for the first time.

What did you learn from these seminars?
Pure knowledge can be imparted online almost as well as through courses held in person. We did have to extend the course to three weeks however, though we did reduce lessons to three hours per day. It's not possible to concentrate on the screen for too long. I contacted the social workers where the women are staying beforehand so they could help the participants access the internet. But learning at their accommodation is not ideal. Where they live is loud and stressful.

How were you able to provide online support as a social worker?
It is difficult to build trust without meeting in person. The many discussions on the fringes of the course simply aren't possible. In this first series of online seminars, I did help one illiterate woman to master the course. But one important basic learning objective is that the women recognise and exploit their own strengths.

How can that contribute to successfully starting a business?
These women often underestimate their own abilities. One of my tasks therefore is to make them realise how strong they really are. A mother who conscientiously cares for her children despite difficult circumstances displays stamina, patience and empathy – which are also major qualities required for dealing with customers when running your own business. When our women understand that, they become more confident about becoming more independent.

Image copyright ©️ Irina Ruppert/laif

These women often underestimate their own abilities. I make them realise how strong they really are.
Antonina Reiners