When the Rubber Meets the Road...A Remarkable Encounter with FeminismBy Irene Kagoya
When you hear about the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) you are most likely to think of it as any other Institute … when you speak to one who has been through the AWLI is when you actually realize this Institute is like no other! In this Month’s Alumni of the Month feature we bring you an exclusive dialogue with one of our very influential AWLI alumni, Saida Ali, Program Officer, at the International Women’s Health Coalition.
Q: Most of us really know you as Saida Ali … we either have interacted with you and or virtually heard of the name but I believe there is more to this beautiful name… who are you?
She first laughs off wondering what I am looking for but goes spot on to say beyond just saying that I am Saida Ali, I think people know me as an activist and women’s rights feminist activist to be specific. The other side of me people don’t know is that I am a mother of a 6 year old daughter. I bring that in because as a mother of a daughter, I see why it’s all worthwhile for the work that I do in terms of making lives and society better for women and girls worldwide.
Q- What would you consider to be your strength?
That would be my oral communication because that is something that I need or often use in different forums. I use it a lot in articulating the issues, being able to reach out to governments, speak to the media and also mobilizing women at different levels requires you to have the confidence and boldness to speak even on women's and girls' issues that do not always get supported such as sexual rights. So my strength is in both the oral communication and the analysis that is essential in both articulation and strategic engagement on the issues.
Q- What inspires you to do the work that you do, well knowing that its challenging to advocate for women‘s rights more so as an activist
Speaking passionately she starts off by saying ...For the longest time I have to say my inspiration remains the same. I know I have said this before. My motivation is really in the lives of women and girls. African women and girls motivate me. Perhaps in a few years when the status changes for the better, then it would be a huge turn around. My motivation is the transformation of the lives of those women and girls. On a very positive note, my passion is driven by the agency of African women and girls - the power to determine and shift their lives in the most difficult of circumstances. At another level I am motivated by the need to drive our own agenda and transform the narratives that define African women and girls in a certain way. I am motivated to be part of redefining who an African girl or woman is. She is not a hopeless, helpless, uneducated person who does not know what she wants or what needs to be done to change the world around her. I am motivated to challenge a narrative that is negative about who we are and what we are capable of doing. I also know that challenging that narrative does not happen in a vacuum but is also driven by a broader agenda of ensuring that women's bodily integrity and autonym are respected - it is a motivation that is centrally placed in challenging patriarchy
Q- As you may be aware, Akina Mama wa Afrika is celebrating 30 years since her formation in 1985... Do you in anyway identify with this milestone?
Absolutely!! I wish you could see me… by just you asking me that gives me goose bumps. The reasons I get the goose bumps when talking about identifying with this milestone is that I see myself…I see a 23 year going 24 joining AWLI at the time when it was for 25 year olds and above. The AWLI changed my life! It was my first ever proper formal training and introduction into understanding feminism, that feminism matters, to appreciating the relevance of using feminist analysis to sharpen my advocacy skills and demanding the rights not just for myself but for other African women and girls. Wow - I identify with that question! Yes I could have read about it, heard about it at the University but what that meant for me was the legitimacy to challenge the status quo, oppression and discrimination in all its forms, the relevance that it gives voice and choices to women. As a young African woman at that time I connected and networked with other African women. I think I don’t do this question justice but I think for me it was just a formidable way of meeting and connecting with feminism and other African feminists.
Q- What is your most memorable AWLI experience? What was the one thing that really stood out for you?
Wondering which one to pin down she says…let me see… I think what stood out was the focus on personal empowerment - bringing out the personal inner power and connecting that to other aspects of life. I often remember Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, one of the AMwA founder members and a facilitator during our AWLI constantly telling us that the personal is political and that stood out for me too. -Perhaps, the tipping point for addressing some of the challenges and barriers to women's and girls' empowerment lie in harnessing that personal inner power and linking that to politicizing our personal experiences. So, other than the many fabulous experiences I had at the AWLI what stood out for me and is a constant in my life is definitely the recognition of what my inner fire can do.
Q- Any learning from the AWLI that has particularly proved useful in your work that you continue to draw on and continues to support you in your work?
Yeah! I mean there are many it would take me a month to talk about this but let me try... The AWLI was useful for us in how a number of us came together at that time as young women. This saw the beginnings of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute which continues to do work on getting the voices of young women out there. Through that work and space I continued to identify the need to build the personal, self-esteem, the confidence of young women and girls as a way of building the path towards them claiming their human rights. I mean it’s not going to happen if we are not connecting to that bit of personal empowerment. I continue to use that in different spaces including in motivational talks with girls.
Secondly a big part of the AWLI was advocacy. What I am doing today on global advocacy had its foundation laid at the AWLI. It was beyond just understanding what advocacy means, to actually getting to the realization that advocacy on women's rights is not for the faint hearted. It can also take a long time to see the fruits of what you are working on and some people do give up on the way. You need to be bold and resilient especially if you are constantly reminding people that sexual rights underpin all other human rights, which is what I do in my work with IWHC. What I learned from the AWLI did not just set the foundation of my engagement in international policy but was also a critical building block.
The AWLI pushed me to challenge myself. For instance, I know it’s almost not possible to do this work without constantly reading. I remember Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi in a session on understanding feminism underscored the importance of reading. One of the things I have never forgotten from her session was her saying that you have to read in order to be able to do the analysis, to do the work, to challenge, to articulate the issues you have to read there is no way out!
Q- My next question was whether you could recommend a Sister to the AWLI but it looks definite….
she laughs and goes on to say…
It’s not just recommending a sister to the AWLI. I think I would also recommend that we appreciate the AWLI. I think one of the main challenges of trainings like this one has been getting the donor community to see the value of this kind of training. I think it’s important to say that without this kind of training it would have been difficult given circumstances that some of us have encountered when pushing for the women's rights agenda in our countries. Not paying attention to the impact of the AWLI would contradict what it is we have been saying about strengthening women’s voices at different levels in terms of advocacy pushing for rights, claiming those rights, participation and representation of African women in different governance levels. This is why we say voice is important.
Going through the AWLI I know now as I knew then that I never have to fumble in the dark. What the AWLI did for me is it gave me the light that is applying a feminist analysis to my work and standing for women's and girls' rights - no buts or ifs about it!
Q- What would be your take on the just ended May intergovernmental negotiations on Financing for Development (FfD) and how can African women push for the Gender Equality Agenda in the FFD processes & beyond
There are a number of things but I want to just focus on two or three things; the governmental consultations highlighted the North-South divide in a way that dilutes discussions on aid and justifies Northern government’s rejection of differentiated responsibilities and the distribution of resources. This divide has continued to play out in all FfD consultations and a number of Northern governments have indicated they will not support the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). CBDR is one of the key principles that we are pushing for as feminists. There are opportunities to work closely with the G77 and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) who have shown support for some of the principles we are pushing for. It is also important as African women to strategize to get the progressive countries with the group of G77 & China to speak out on gender equality and other matters that support the realization of human rights for women and girls.
There are concerns related to some systemic issues that have further pushed that North-South divide. These include concerns around trade, private finance and the public-private partnerships (PPPs) and ODA related issues. It may sound complicated. On these FfD core issues, I found that some states engaged in unhelpful ways. Notably some developed countries are opposed to have a FfD follow up mechanism, the right of the states to regulate in order to protect public interest, including health and critical areas for sustainable development, they oppose to use Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibilities in social sectors of vital importance to sustainable development. Developed countries have indicated that they promote multistakeholder partnerships on critical areas for women's rights. While this kind of support is very important, it also speaks to a rhetoric on women's rights because they are advocating against the possibility to ensure that governments from the South have the conditions to realize such rights.
Notably for advocacy, African feminists need to organize beyond borders and oceans and reach out to others especially in Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific to join forces in neutralizing the vocal minorities that water down our agenda on gender equality and women's rights. Specifically for African women it is important to realize that our continent loses billions of dollars every year through illicit financial flows and tax evasion by multinationals and other private businesses. While it is important for us to question corruption in our own countries, it is imperative that the outcome of the FfD process clearly articulates the required accountability mechanisms that create an enabling environment for states to regulate multi-nationals and other private companies for the common good of society.
As I said, there are many issues and while some of them may be seen as not women's rights issues they in fact are. The FfD process has a strong link to the sustainable development goals and where financing for implementation and realization of the post 2015 development agenda will come from. Basically, without the money you cannot implement anything that could possibly alleviate the status of women and girls, leave alone addressing poverty for anyone.
. Q- There is a lot of momentum that has been going on in terms of advocacy and policy influence on gender equality especially during the post2015 discourse.How do we keep up this kind of momentum beyond this phase and September 2015?
I think part of keeping the momentum is in the implementation and that is why the means of implementation as a component of post2015 is such a huge and important one. Yes apart of which relates to finances but the other relates to accountability, review and monitoring.
It is important to remain connected to country level contexts related to implementation of the post 2015 development agenda beyond September this year when governments adopt the framework. CSOs will continue to do work at the national level but they have to understand what it is that governments commit to and which ministry is in charge of implementation and look at how that implementation is going to tie to their National Action Plans on development more broadly. Well, depending on what each country calls it… What is critical is to have civil society make sure they continue to do work that holds governments accountable. It is important to also work with UN agencies such as UN Women and UNDP. I would like to specifically mention here that UNDP through their country level teams are focusing on different goals and targets and how they will be rolled out at the country level. UNDP has indicated that there is space for engagement to involve civil society in both implementation and monitoring the implementation. So women's groups and organizations need to reach out to their UNDP country offices before September and indicate their interest in this process of monitoring implementation if they have not yet done so.
Q- I know that you are a self-determined and a hard working person however is there any particular African woman who inspires you or has inspired you?
“I think there are many but let me see …” she takes a few seconds to decide being that she is inspired by many…
I think I would have to definitely say Wangari Maathai. Important to mention why, I think Wangari Maathai reminded me of how much African women can do and can achieve and yet not be fully celebrated in their home. I don’t mean Kenyan women didn’t celebrate her but just how the government at the time persecuted her for standing up for the need to conserve our environment and challenged land grabbing as an injustice that was at the root and still is at the root of some of the problems we are dealing with in Kenya. In the end, she did get the Noble Peace Prize ....someone had to recognize those efforts. She paid a huge prize. No matter what, she remains a great hero to lot of us in Africa. Seeing how the protection of the environment and climate justice is a huge political debate makes me truly proud of what Wangari Maathai started in Kenya.
Q- What would be your advice to a young feminist leader in Africa and how can they move past some of the challenges they face as young feminists?
Sometimes I am so overwhelmed just thinking about what young women and girls are facing today. There are challenges such as child, early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, lack of access to education including comprehensive sexuality education that informs the choices young women and girls make, and a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services that are critical life saver for women and girls. While I know we have made great strides we are still in need of strong young women voices to continue doing the work; to defend the gains and push for further advancement of human rights of women and girls. So, specifically speaking of young feminists we are talking about young women who have already come to the political consciousness. Persistence is key to doing any advocacy and make sure your voice remains the force it has become. It is a central part of what is in your heart and head. No one can take that away unless you give them permission to do so.
Q- Which one thing would you like the world to remember about Saida when she is long gone?
She takes a sigh…I just want the world to remember me as Saida the simple ordinary woman who stood for social justice - yeah basically that is it - I want to be remembered for leading a simple life yet challenging and doing what a lot of people think is extra ordinary.
Q- Any comment...
I have thoroughly enjoyed myself talking to you Irene. Now I must wake my daughter and prepare her for school then get to work.
Unfortunately time is not always our best friend even when we were both enjoying the conversation we had to bring it to close.
Be on the lookout for the Alumni of the Month of July.
AKina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA) is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Sub Saharan Africa- Ethiopia Office.
For more on IIE , ACE or AMwA please follow the links below.