12/21/2007 05:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Helping War's Most Vulnerable Victims

Zainab Salbi grew up in the shadow of a tyrant.

As the young daughter of Saddam Hussein's private pilot, she was constantly at the whim of a man who regularly ordered the murder and rape of his own citizens. Salbi was expected to attend his palace parties, dine with him, and even call him "uncle." Life was a constant struggle.

"He was like poison gas being leaked into our home," she explains in a sombre tone.

So at the age of 20, Salbi's mother arranged for her to flee to America. She escaped Iraq with $400 in her pocket, leaving everything behind to start her life "from zero."

Three years later, just as Salbi was settling in as a student in Virginia, she came across a television report of the now infamous "rape camps" set up by Serbian soldiers in Bosnia. Her heart sank as it reminded her of the women she knew still suffering under Saddam's brutal regime.

Distraught, Salbi took the $2000 set aside for her honeymoon--she had been married just months before--and found a way to help. She established Women for Women International, an organization designed to reach out to victims like the ones in Iraq and Bosnia.

She was driven by a simple mission: to give women in war-torn countries like hers the chance to rebuild their shattered lives.

"In the news we only hear about security problems," Salbi explains. "Not the economic reality of people."

Females are often forced to bear the biggest economic brunt of war. With husbands caught up in fighting, they are cast as their family's sole provider. Without an education or job--rights commonly denied to them in male-dominated cultures--many fall into extreme poverty.

Others are even less fortunate and become the target of rape and sexual slavery, as was the case with thousands of women in Bosnia.

So Women for Women offers war-affected females a one-year rehabilitation program, complete with direct financial aid, human rights awareness training, job skills mentorship, and even micro-credit loans to help them start small businesses and become active members of their communities.

Since 1993, the organization has empowered more than 120,000 women in countries like Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan and Afghanistan, through a unique sponsorship program that pairs women in countries like Canada with ones suffering the horrors of war.

"The most important factor of success is not abandoning them," Salbi says.

In Kosovo alone, where the population after a decade of war is nearly 70 per cent female, Women for Women has put more than 10,000 women through its holistic program.

This success has brought Salbi full circle. In 2003 her organization opened an office in Iraq--in her grandfather's old house--to help women in the chaos that has followed the U.S.-led invasion.

It's been a dangerous few years, with militants now targeting women who continue to hold down jobs, but Salbi remains resilient. Upwards of 2,000 Iraqis have received Women for Women training.

Despite this ongoing violence in Iraq, Salbi rejects the idea that more U.S. troops would be able to help ease the plight of women and other ordinary citizens.

"That's not the answer," she says adamantly.

Instead, she believes that only a concerted effort to rebuild civil society, from schools to hospitals, will win the trust of locals skeptical over the presence of foreigners on their land.

And that's exactly how she hopes to help her country.

"Most other organizations have pulled out because of the security situation," Salbi explains. "My greatest fight is not to close the office because, if it is closed, civil society in the country will be dealt yet another blow."