Most kids think their moms are pretty special. Andrée Simon’s 8-year-old son is no exception.
“He thinks I fly around the world saving people’s lives,” said the petite mother of two.
While Simon would downplay her son’s impression of her, it really isn’t too far from the truth.
Simon is president and chief operating officer of Women for Women International, and as such she does fly around the world helping women save their own lives.
Simon, who lives in Washington, D.C., recently spoke to students in the Leadership Seminar for Social Justice class and to Caroline Scholars in the Caroline Hall student lounge at Mount Mary College. Caroline Scholars are full-time undergraduate students who have demonstrated a passion for social justice. They receive scholarships that cover tuition, room and board.
With a room of students interested in social justice, Simon proved a source of information about gender inequality around the world and how WfWI is providing vocational and business skills, rights awareness and health education to women survivors of war in eight countries so that they can rebuild their lives. She also explained how she got to be head of WfWI, a 20-year-old organization that has helped more than 351,000 women and mobilized 300,000 to support them.
She started by telling the students, “I actually do believe you are going to change the world, in a big way or a small way.”
She added that mistakes are just a part of the learning process and that “you survive, you get up and move on.”
“Don’t let you stop you from anything,” she advised.
Her own path started with two teachers as parents.
“Instead of toys, I grew up with books,” said Simon.
She spoke two languages growing up – she now speaks four – and encouraged the students, “If you don’t speak two languages, get on it.”
It was also diligence that got her through two master’s degrees – in international studies and finance – and on to jobs as deputy directory of FINCA, a network of 21 microfinance affiliates serving 700,000 clients across four continents, and adjunct professor of microfinance at Georgetown University, as well as to become a regular speaker on the topic of microfinance.
In 2010, Simon was recognized as a “40 Under 40 International Development Leader,” a list that featured leaders in Washington, D.C.
“I worked really hard.… I took things seriously because I wanted to be really good at what I did,” said Simon of her success.
She told the students that if they’re interested in international studies, as she was, they could “travel to a country to volunteer your services” or check with schools to see if they offer stipends to do volunteer work in summer. She said employers are looking for people with “good analytical skills” and courses in economics, accounting and statistics would help in those areas.
She said “the Peace Corps is one of the best ways to get your foot in the door overseas” and study abroad programs offer great opportunities for students pursuing international studies and other majors.
Through her work, Simon has traveled all over the world, particularly East Africa and Eurasia.
“That’s where I’ve learned my strengths and weaknesses,” said Simon about her travels. She called herself an “airplane junkie … who hates to fly but loves to land.” She especially loves getting off a plane in a foreign country and smelling how different the air is.
WfWI works with women in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Simon fielded several questions from students, including one about where she’s traveled in Africa. Simon has spent a lot of time in East Congo, where “women grow up with the expectation that they’re going to be raped.”
She said “rape is often used as a weapon, especially in war,” to diminish the enemy.
She called East Congo a “beautiful, lush country … rich in minerals” but with constant rebel fighting. “Yet, the people are beautiful and proud … all they want is peace.”
For women in war-torn countries who “have been violated and cast out of their communities,” WfWI brings hope and so much more, Simon said.
Women are sponsored by WfWI for 12-month programs that provide vocational and health training, plus medical support.
“We teach them how to bead, knit or sew, how to raise chickens so that they can support themselves,” Simon said. “They can go and buy medicine for their children and maybe even employ other women.”
The organization also teaches women what their rights are within their country.
“We teach them their rights and how they can stand up for each other,” she said.
Simon recalled talking to a woman who had been beaten by her husband, and her sisters confronted the man to get him to stop.
Knowing your rights is something Simon feels strongly about and something she wanted to impart to her audience.
“I want you to put that in your pocket and take it away for later,” she said.
Simon talked about how her organization recruits nationals to bring WfWI programs to the women.
“You can’t come from outside and tell them how they should live. The information must make sense in the content of the culture,” she said.
Simon recalled a time in Rwanda in which a group of people from various relief organizations was taken to a field where native women were working barefoot, knee-deep in mud, with their newborn babies strapped to their backs. Simon said many in the visiting group felt the native women needed shoes or brassieres when that would have been totally foreign to their culture.
She also said that in many cultures women have not been equal to men for thousands of years and it’s hard to transform their thinking.
Simon was asked, if men are in charge in these communities, how does WfWI reach women?
Simon explained that her organization will bring gifts to community leaders, such as T-shirts, hats and even money, so WfWI can implement a men’s education program, which will explain rape in terms of the men’s own sisters and mothers.
She also explained that if a woman’s husband won’t let his wife go to the training but sees other women being helped – such as by having access to medicine and job skills – then the husband might relent.
“When you can show how it benefits them, show by example, then they will want to come,” she said.
Word of a nonprofit such as WfWI coming to a community spreads quickly and there are usually plenty of women seeking help. “We have more women (who want help) than sponsors,” said Simon. “We have to turn a lot of them away.”
When asked if she ever felt in danger, Simon hesitated. She said that there is danger everywhere, even in American cities, and that people perceive “that when it’s foreign … it’s more dangerous.”
She recalled being in Haiti during riots and having the vehicle she was riding in being lifted by the rioters. Another time she was riding in a Jeep in the Congo when the vehicle was stopped by a man with a machine gun in the middle of the road.
Though Simon’s traveled through the world’s battle zones in order to bring equality to women, she focuses on her mission and not the dangers.
“I think there’s a power in the universe that looks out for people trying to do good things,” she said.