Thursday, January 5, 2017

Carrying The Torch for Young women

By Felister Makandi Gitonga

My name is Felister Makandi Gitonga. I like to define myself as a Pan- African feminist. I have always been a feminist but I was still in the closet until when I joined university and I was pushed out of the closet. University was great. I was passionate about the course I was doing, I liked most of my lectures, and I was meeting great friends who have continued to be in my life even after campus. But despite all that I found myself struggling to keep up my identity as a young woman.

Strong, Intelligent, independent, focused, opinionated are some of the few words I could use to describe my character but university wanted strong but not too strong to seek the head of journalism club with the boys. Intelligent is good as long as you don’t display it in the company of male peers especially socially.  then you were a know it all. You could be independent but not too independent you will scare young men who are trying to woe you. Opinions are great too as long as you don’t take on a toe to toe discussion with a male student. Then you were stubborn and competing with men. It soon dawned on me that I was shrinking my true Identity. I was not alone, other young women were going through the same. Some choose to conform. It made things easier. From an early stage of my adult life it was clear that there were double standard. And there was a need for young women to come together and define their identity and tell their narrative without letting anyone define it for them.

 Long story short more than six years later I joined the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI) as a programs officer, a feminist organisation that seeks to empower the young woman and provide a safe space for young women to share their experiences and network. The last 10 months at YWLI have validated my passion for working with young women. Conversations about violence against women brought up emerging issues like cyber bulling and internet shaming, abuse of young women in public spaces and date rape. During the 16 days of activism we tackled sexual violence and role of communities in finding justice for the victims and the intimidation of young women human rights defenders who are trying to rescue victims. The adolescent girls were on OUR radar too as YWLI provided a safe space for them through the adolescent leadership camps where they learnt about their rights and shared their lived experiences.

All this experiences have informed my conviction that adolescent girls and young women need spaces to organise and build synergies in tackling issues that affect them.  Young women in particular need to be interrogated as a stand-alone group that has special needs as opposed to being clustered with youth or women in all initiatives that aim to empower youth and women especially with the domestication of the sustainable development goals launched in 2015.  Data revolution is also imperative as it informs interventions. It is a great initiative to end violence, but what is more urgent? Cyber violence or intimate partner violence? Who is more affected by violence in the public spaces? Is it the urban young woman or the one living in rural area? Data helps answer all this question and interventions are then informed by true lived experiences of young women and adolescent girls.

I have been privileged to speak on behalf of young women in many platforms that could change their lives. As the New Year begins I see another opportunity to continue advocating for young women in spaces that matter, learn from their shared experiences and providing safe spaces for dialogues. Young women and adolescent girls are the frontier I report to and the ground is fertile for engaging with them.  

Young Women's Leadership Institute (YWLI) 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) , Ethiopia Office.

For more on IIE , ACE or YWLI please follow the links below.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Walking the Feminist Talk: Contributing to the Domestication of the Maputo Protocol In Sierra Leone

Today we share with you an inspirational leadership experience of Ms.Valerie Tucker, an African Feminist, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights Activist, former Country Director Ipas, Sierra Leone and alumni of the African Women leadership Institute (AWLI). In her story Valerie narrates how she together with other women got the government of Sierra Leone to pass the Safe Abortion Bill through parliament aimed at decriminalizing abortion following the ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), challenges encountered, the AWLI influence on her work and best practices that we trust you too can borrow a leaf from.

It is difficult to speak about my contribution to influence and get the Safe Abortion Bill through the parliament of Sierra Leone without reminiscing my AWLI experience. Joining the AWLI in 1999 held under the theme Reproductive Health in Post Conflict Countries, was the best decision I have ever taken through my career path.  Until l got involved in the AWLI I did not know how limited we were and because we do not know any better we have accepted the status quo of African Women and have not questioned in as much as we could. I evidently recall a session facilitated by Ms. Zeedah Meierhofer-Mangela on our reproductive health, the session pushed us to call things by their names and appreciate that women are not merely sexual objects for men's pleasure. While I had always taken it for granted that I was comfortable talking about my sexuality given my background in health, there were many women in the room who were apprehensive to even utter a word about their sexual life. This demonstrated how women do not have a stake even in their own bodies.

I have always believed in women's empowerment and women taking health matters into their own hands; getting the bill through was one step to domesticating the Maputo Protocol and realization of women’s reproductive health and rights in Sierra Leone. So while working as the Country Representative for Ipas in Sierra Leone I got deeply involved in advocating for women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights; We could not sit and wait for the script to be read to us; together with other women's organizations and a few sisters we took it upon ourselves to lobby and push our Parliament to ratify the Maputo Protocol.  It was not an easy task as several women leaders had tried unsuccessfully in the past but the pass.  The Protocol had specific areas they were not comfortable with; especially the ones on abortion and female genital mutilation so we had to reach some sort of compromise in order to get it to the stage where it could be voted upon in Parliament.

Domesticating the Maputo Protocol with the Safe Abortion Bill was no piece of cake; we had to mobilize ourselves to lobby the government, this involved various strategies such as hosting retreats for parliamentarians to really appreciate the content of the bill and its aspirations, arranged for formal and informal meetings to lobby policy makers, within and out of the country whenever an opportunity prevailed. Wrote shadow reports and made presentations at the Pan African Parliament on reproductive health even though others thought that this was not important. At some point, we were even summoned to a pre-legislative session in parliament where I had to enlighten members on the bill.    It was difficult particularly to get government to agree to some of articles in the bill especially as several parliamentarians insisted on the rights of husbands.  It was an historical moment.  A real push towards women’s reproductive rights liberation.  

It was largely the young women who were pushing government to ratify the bill compared to the older women; however we had to get their buy in by ensuing that even as we were questioning we were bringing them along and not pushing them away. We had to work together to front our agenda and as such the power of sisterhood through this journey cannot be underestimated. During the AWLI we were taught about sisterhood & leading together, it gave me a deeper understanding of how sisterhood makes this happen, that we needed sisters who truly believe in the cause and want to see things happen, it's not just about attending meetings and showing face but sisters who are ready to stand up and challenge the status quo even when things get tough. I recall my Sister Hawa who was by me the whole time during the ratification of the Maputo Protocol, we became couriers at some point delivering letters and thank you notes to Ministries, Leaders of Parliament and the Office of the First Lady for their unwavering support.  Sister Hawa and I had to support each other!

Engaging in the advocacy for the domestication of the Maputo Protocol was like practicing what I had been taught, at the AWLI.  As we interacted with different government leaders and policy makers I evidently saw the power dynamics and how they continuously played out particularly the hidden power which was quite difficult to deal with, that at some point I had to go back to my notes from the AWLI to really comprehend and confront it. 

Reflecting on some of the lessons I realize that we have to establish networks and connect with the Movers and Shakers when it comes to policy influence, you are likely not to even meet them in your home country but abroad and this is good time to create that rapport and front your issues, be sure to connect.  You have to connect with everyone including the cleaners and secretaries they are key informers with whom we must build networks with when engaged in policy advocacy. The media can make or break your case when leading an advocacy effort.  You have to build a firm relationship with the media. They have to understand it and believe in it to champion it.  Remember to be courteous even the least expected things like a special greeting or thank you card is very powerful in terms of influencing our leaders to support your cause as you conduct your advocacy. 

We have to be strategic, when you invite leading officials to a meeting, find a fancy term for the meeting so it's not ordinary, you may even consider taking the meeting out of the country if resources allow to create another environment for them rethink a given position. Engage the leadership of the community “Mummy Queens” they are the real influencers and remember parliamentarians are always concerned about numbers if you are able to influence the Mummy Queens then this will have a trickle-down effect and the leaders will have no option but to support your cause. You also have to carefully craft your agenda to fit into the government's priorities in order to interest them and make it work for you. For instance if it's an agenda for change or prosperity you have to push government to think of those issues that are critical to you and closely linked to their agenda.

The journey of advocating for women’s sexual and reproductive health has not been all rosy, my sisters; majority staunch Christians did not understand what it is I was doing however my husband and children were very supportive and  appreciated the need for securing women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. This coupled with my passion for women’s sexuality and reproductive health rights have remained the driving force in my work. Even if it means saving one Sierra Leonean woman’s life I will not give up on the struggle for women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. When I look back at the campaign, what we managed to achieve, and my personality, I can only relate myself to a scorpion, given that I had to constantly adapt and spring quickly at any given opportunity till the day the bill was passed. For me this was just another milestone as we work to  secure women’s sexual and reproductive health rights; the struggle continues!
Ms. Valerie remains a motivational power house and African feminists found her true life’s path and has chosen to trek it with LOVE!

Compiled by Ms. Irene Kagoya & Mercy Asianut

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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Getting creative through WISE

Her birth place is Shashamene, Southern part of Ethiopia.  As her mother led a very poor existence, she grew up with her grandparents in the town of Zeway (a small town located in central Ethiopia).  Amelework Bekele said that she had led a comfortable life, as children who grow up with their grandparents often do.  After completing her academic education, she joined Don Bosco Catholic School, pursuing a course in tailoring.  She then spent 12 years teaching tailoring and sewing in the same school.  With only a small salary from this job, however, she could not support her mother.  She lost all hope and went abroad to a Middle Eastern country.  Amelework takes up the story…

I worked in a Middle East country for seven years and was lucky not to encounter any difficulties.  I was happy to help my mother with the money I earned at great effort.  Upon returning home, I immediately got married to a retired government worker.  With a small amount of capital I then began tailoring activities.  We supported ourselves with my husband’s pension and the income I obtained from my tailoring work.  However, I did not utilize the money I obtained in an appropriate manner, since I did not have any knowledge of appropriate money handling. I simply could not save money and felt within me that something was missing. It was hard to live month to month with a small income.

One day I went to my kebele ( district office) to buy sugar and noticed a large gathering of women.  I tried to find out what was happening, but could not do so for a while, as everyone was busy doing something.  I waited for the chance to talk to some of them, and was happy with the explanation leaders of ‘Serto Masaya’ Savings Saving and Credit Cooperative gave me regarding the activities of the Cooperative.  I joined the Cooperative in 2008.

After completing a Business skills training programme, I took a loan, bought required cloth and other related items, and revived my tailoring business.  Having received valuable knowledge from the training programmes, I began to put aside a small amount of savings from my income.  I also started to plan my household and business activities.  Gradually, everything fell into place.  After a while, I underwent yet another training course in Creative Thinking, which had a huge positive impact on my activities.  During the course of my work I was able to use the creativity I knew I had within me, and started designing various clothes for numerous customers. When I needed money I borrowed some from my Cooperative, eventually increasing my activities.  I came first in various ‘innovative business ideas competitions’ and received cash prizes from Women In Self Employment.  My designs include flowers composed of chicken feathers, cake made of black ‘teff’ (local cereal), ‘Father Christmas’ costumes made from nylon, and women’s handbags made of plastic.  I always try to design something new.  I could say creativity is my life.

As my retiree husband used to sit at home with nothing to do, and since my own income was insufficient to live on, I obtained honey and butter from Bahir Dar, and with assistance from my husband began distributing them to merchants and other interested persons.  I also bought a washing machine to wash clothes of bachelor men in my locality for fee, thus obtaining additional income.  So instead of simply relying on my husband’s monthly salary, we were able to increase our income by diversifying our activities.  Our situation today is much better than that of yesterday.

 In addition to an amount of 6000 birr ($300) savings in my association, I also save money which I put in the bank.  I have currently taken out a loan of 7,000 birr ($350) from my cooperative.  What makes me very happy is that I am undertaking various activities at the same time.  I would not have been successful if I had taken up an activity only.

As I possess many years’ experience in tailoring work, my future plan is to purchase a large number of sewing machines and set up a training school in tailoring and embroidery.  I think I will be successful in this, as there is no one competing on the business in my locality.

Finally, I wish to say that nothing is impossible if people are able to use their inner creativity in their work, supported by the required knowledge. 
Involving oneself in different commercial activities, rather than just one, is the ultimate way to increase one’s income.”

                                                             Amelework Bekele 

              Serto Masaya WISE Saving and Credit Cooperative
                                                           Akaki-Kality Sub-city

Women in Self Employment (WISE) is one of the four partner institutes of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership Program run by the Institute of Intenrational Education (IIE), Ethiopia Office 

For more on IIE , ACE or WISE please follow the links below.