Fighting for Women’s Rights


When Zainab Salbi decided at age 23 to found a nonprofit to help women in conflict zones, her friends laughed at her and called her a wanna-be Mother Theresa. She retorted that she “was a wanna-be Mother Theresa, but with much better fashion sense.” The organization she founded, Women for Women International, has since grown from an idealistic college student’s dream into a globe-spanning NGO that has helped over 300,000 women to get vocational education, rights awareness training, and job opportunities. This Tuesday, Salbi gave approximately forty students and faculty in the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department a glimpse of how that transformation occurred.

Salbi credits much of her success to putting the creation of the program ahead of fundraising when she first founded Women for Women. She went three years without drawing any salary, forcing her so deep into poverty that she could only afford one new pair of shoes a year. Instead of putting her effort into searching for donors, Salbi went to Bosnia, the first country Women for Women International targeted, to investigate the best ways to help women affected by the conflict. To her, the key became to “help women to explore their own strength,” not to treat them as mere victims. She designed a program that combined a year’s vocational training in careers currently needed in the area with job placement assistance.

Once she had a workable model, Salbi finally started to search for donors to help her scale up. Especially in its early days, Women for Women International mostly got its money from individuals sponsoring a woman with $30 a month. To Salbi, sticking to small-scale donations was an important aspect of their expansion, keeping Women for Women from being beholden to the preferences of a few powerful donors. It also gave every woman, from Angelina Jolie to a bathroom attendant at a hotel, a chance to reach out and help other women.

Salbi acknowledged that Women for Women’s expansion has come at a cost, tying up the organization’s time and energy with getting funding and dealing with an increased administrative burden. “I lost my passion for the work as we kept expanding,” Salbi said. At that point, she knew it was time for her to step down as CEO, after running the organization for 18 years. Salbi intends to move on to fighting for women’s rights outside of the social sector, which she feels is often bogged down by unrealistic donor requirements, such as the current push for sustainability in every project. “Some projects just can’t be held to that metric,” she explained.

Throughout her talk, Salbi drove home to her listeners the importance of following one’s passions. Passion gave her the energy to turn her dream into an influential organization. From the methods she used to raise funds to the projects she implemented, Salbi shaped every aspect of her organization to try to preserve that driving energy. As she moves on to work on women’s rights through the media, Salbi intends to once again harness her passion to make the world a better place for women.

Kelsey Larson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at