V-Peace students celebrating their graduation from the self-defense skills course taught at Dolphin Anti-Rape and AIDS Control Outreach program in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Paula Allen for V-Day)

February 14 marks the second-annual One Billion Rising event, organized by world leader in anti-violence activism V-Day. One Billion Rising is a series of global gatherings in 207 countries by one billion people, to honor the one billion women on the planet who have been beaten or raped, and to demand an end to violence now.

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo: A woman walks an entire day, bleeding, to reach a haven she’s heard of called Heal Africa. She has been raped and assaulted, and has a 19-centimeter piece of wood lodged inside her. Clinging to her are three traumatized orphans, ages 3 to 12. When she arrives, she refuses an immediate operation, because she wants to march with local peace activists in the November V-Day/UNICEF protest march. Later, once her operation is over and her body is repaired, Heal Africa provides therapy and community, trains her to run a microbusiness selling doughnuts, sets her up in a house across the street, and gets her adopted children into school.

Sometimes, in a world where as many as 1 in 3 women in the United States is raped in her lifetime and 1 woman in the Congo is raped every minute, we wake up and say, “We have to do something about this.” We at the Skees Family Foundation wanted to help “wage peace” in a powerful and lasting way, so we found a way to collaborate with V-Day to turn survivors into students.

Our foundation co-created the V-Peace Scholarships program to provide women with a chance at a self-determined life. The women need only the drive to learn and the willingness to dedicate their lives to creating peace in their home communities. Thus, the benefits of education begin with individuals and then extend out to their families, villages, and cities. Since 2005, we’ve granted $333,000, supporting 5,537 students in 11 countries, at an average cost of $60 per student per year.

Why V-Day?

Our family met Eve Ensler, the visionary founder of V-Day, through a local performance of The Vagina Monologues, one of many plays and musicals she has penned. Impressed by V-Day’s activism through performance, benefits, films, and campaigns, we wanted to add the pragmatic tool of access to education. Our foundation provided moral and financial support; the V-Day staff managed logistics, communication, and reporting.

Elements of our partnership include:

  • Grassroots networks. V-Day has boots on the ground—hundreds of community-based organizations (CBOs) and activist networks, with people and programs V-Day has known well for many years.
  • Courage in the trenches. The people at V-Day do what courageous change agents do: They look into the eyes of victims of female genital mutilation, domestic and military violence, rape, and assault. They listen to hundreds and thousands of stories. They sit with, cry with, hug, and open themselves to knowing women on an intense and vulnerable level.
  • Geographic fearlessness. Daring to travel to all corners of the world, the V-Day staff identifies students who have the will and smarts to empower themselves, and simply need the financial means to make it happen. 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 gives us at the foundation—from our kitchen office in northern Calif.—the privilege of investing in students as far away as Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, and Sudan.
  • Trust plus vision. The cornerstone of the V-Peace scholarship program has been at the intersection of V-Day’s vision and our trust: The staff selects students based on financial need and potential leadership, and we trust V-Day implicitly to choose and monitor students all over the world. V-Day sees up-close who needs us most, and V-Day’s own long-term local partnerships allow the organization to keep in contact with students through trials and failures, triumphs, and graduation.

We have learned a lot about what goes into a strong partnership along the way. Now in our 10th year as a foundation and with V-Day, we decided to speak openly about this program, both to herald V-Day’s quiet heroism and encourage other partnerships to fund education. A few important lessons:

  1. Be flexible. 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 our grant to establish a 10 percent discretionary fund to help get girls on the bus to school, repair leaky roofs 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.
  2. Strive to replicate: We also learned that to create a scholarship program through US and international organizations—even if education is not the primary mission—brings a certain economy of scale to the contacts their local staff and partners already have in place. As organizations deliver malaria bednets and water-filtration systems, food stamps and affordable healthcare, we easily can invest a few dollars in adjunct scholarship programs that effect the long-term change that education and jobs training provide.

Purva Panday Cullman, V-Day’s Programs & Giving Director, says: “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 infuse local communities with homegrown leadership.”

We are honored to be a part of that.