Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Rising above adversity to tackle human rights violations

In the popular collective imagination, Majengo area in Mombasa, conjures up an image of violence. This imagery precedes the ‘War on Terror’ narrative that has become a prevalent government speak which has permeated the minds of Kenyans. Basically Majengo is seen as the “Ground Zero” of recruitment of youth to join the Somali based militant group, al- Shabaab.

With the advent of Kenya’s counter-terrorism war, central to Majengo’s narrative has been Masjid Musa Mosque, where the once silver-tongued suspected al-Shabaab recruiter, Sheikh Aboud Rogo used to preach. Sheikh Rogo was shot and killed by an unnamed assailants on 27 August 2012. His death triggered rounds of riots, and forever changed the relations between the community and the security agencies.

But one human rights defender, Hamisa Zaja, is out to provide an organic and locally anchored alternative narrative about Majengo. To her, it’s neither a utopian site nor is it an exclusively about violence, Majengo is more than that. This is a testament that sweeping view about Majengo is insufficient. Using her personal story of triumph over layered adversities, Hamisa Zaja, a woman who is living with a disability, in a community where the culture of patriarchy is deeply entrenched, is attempting to provide an alternative worldview about Majengo, one youth at a time.

Tell us about yourself and your background?

I was born in 1970 in Mvita, Mombasa County. When I was nine months old, I was struck with polio which paralyzed my left leg from the knee downwards. Initial treatment failed to cure me.
I attended Port Reitz School for the Physically Handicapped for my primary education. The school had facilities that addressed my needs, since all the pupils were handicapped. When I started secondary school at Mama Ngina Secondary School I got a system shock.
On my first day at school at 4:00 pm, the bell rang. Unbeknownst to me, the bell was for the students to gather and fetch water. Since Mama Ngina, unlike Port Reitz is not a physically handicapped friendly school, I had to device creative means of going through the school chores like fetching water. So in exchange for my class mates collecting water for me, I offered to braid their hair on weekends. This worked. Since then, innovative approach to issues has been my stock-in-trade. My disability has not prevented me from being a human rights defender.

What role do you play in Majengo?

I have always been vocal about the problems in the community. This has made me the community’s go-to-person whenever there is human rights violation especially by the police. Constant interaction with security agencies and government officials also helps in resolving a lot of cases, and reuniting families.

Why do you think the youth are easily recruited by extremist groups?

The youth lack opportunities for meaningful life. The rise of Aboud Rogo in Majengo, was a function of his oratory prowess, and also biriyani [ a Swahili delicacy, often eaten on special days like Friday]. Biriyani is also a metaphor for lack of opportunities, which has made the youth susceptible to exploitation by al-Shabaab, and Rogo.
Given a chance, the youth in Majengo have no reason to join al-Shabaab and can be rescued from their clutches and other extremist radical groups.

What relationship exists between the community in Majengo and the security agencies?

The treatment by security agencies of the youth in Majengo has only succeeded in pushing them into the hands of al-Shabaab. Typical security operations in Majengo entails arbitrary raids. Often women – mothers, wives, and daughters are beaten while being asked about the whereabouts of their men or boys. Lastly, if a raid happens at night, no one in the house is given time to get dressed, instead they are publicly exposed to the rest of their family members and their neighbours.
Whenever there are security operations in Majengo, we send our sons to our relatives outside of Majengo … Sometimes we dress them in bui bui, the free robes worn by Muslim women, to protect them from being rounded up.

How have these security operations affected you personally?

They have affected my security and safety in three ways; as an activist, a person living with disability and as a mother of boys who are the same age as those suspected of terrorism or being in a criminal gang. My eight-year-old boy can tell you the difference between the sound of a transformer blowing up, gun shots and a grenade explosion. It is hard to see your neighbour’s children being picked up by police, and not knowing why they were arrested, and where they are. I always put myself in their shoes and that drives me regardless of my fears.

What do you think should be done to remedy the problem of recruitment of youth by groups like al-Shabaab?

One of things that can be done is empowerment of youth in Majengo in order to prevent them from joining violent extremist groups. However this has to be as personal as it is communal.
I have children. One of them is at the age where he could join al-Shabaab or be killed by the police for fitting the ‘profile’. When I noticed early tell-tale signs, I sat him down and warned him against joining violent extremist groups. I also helped him start a juice vending business. He has since changed his ways. He has enough income such that he cannot easily be lured into joining groups like al-Shabaab.

Isn’t the government already initiating youth empowerment projects?

The government’s attempt at giving youth revolving funds shows they are focusing on ways to empower youth but it is flawed. The biggest gap with most youth projects in Majengo is that the government requires the youth to form groups and then provide them with revolving fund. How can you give a hungry person a revolving fund and expect them to thrive, when they are extremely poor in the first place? The government should instead look for ways to give grants to the youth with good ideas. Each county should have youth programs that provide skill training while generating income.
Further, the success of youth empowerment projects, and the police’s fight against crime can only succeed if there is a change in approach. By mistreating the youth, the police are only pushing them into the hands of violent extremist recruiter’s.

What would you like the world to know about you?

That I, Hamisa Zaja, rose from being a disabled lady whose hand once no man wanted to ask for in marriage, to a fierce human rights defender. I will continue to fight for the people of Majengo, and hold police accountable especially in counter-terrorism operations.

Ms Hamisa Zaja is a board member for the  ACE partner organization in Kenya, Young Women's Leadership Institute (YWLI). You can also find the story published on Amnesty International Kenya's web page  

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.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

 TuWezeshe Dada

TuWezeshe Akina Dada Africa-UK Young Women’s Leadership and Empowerment Movement (from here on known as TuWezeshe Dada) is a three year Comic Relief Common Ground Initiative funded women and girls’ rights project. Operating between July 2016-March 2019, TuWezeshe Dada will be implemented in five countries; the United Kingdom, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Somaliland. Facilitated by a consortium of four organisations namely Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD), Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP) and Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI), TuWezeshe Dada aims to improve the rights and amplify the actions of East African girls and young women in their fight against all forms of gender based violence. Through innovative and effective approaches including convening, capacity building, leadership development, mentoring and social communication change activities, TuWezeshe Dada will address gender based violence in a holistic, integrated and intersectional fashion. Project interventions will focus on strengthening the links between and improving the visibility, profile and leadership of young women in East Africa and the UK diaspora as well as across generations and urban/rural divides.

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, April 20, 2017

Ayesha’s Cry…My Cry 

By Mahlet M. Alemayehu

These are tearful words of a thirteen year old girl – Ayesha.

“I got married when I was 13, I was still going to school and I had a dream of everything good.  My mother would beat me whenever I refused marriage; I was finally told that I am about to be wedded the day before my wedding day. I was forced to get married. I got married to a man 20 years older than me. When I got married I was sick and they took me to a hospital. I also wanted to stab myself but my husband stopped me. Many people say, if a girl is 8 years old, she is good for marriage. But I wish if I could finish my education. I was destroyed by early marriage. I found myself with a man who wants his marital rights. They destroyed my life!”

This is the story of fifteen million girls each year, 28 girls every minute, who are married off before the age of 18 as the world continues to force them into becoming women and doing things unbearable for their age both emotionally and physically. We watch them become wives snatched from their play grounds and education; we watch them become mothers at a greater risk of experiencing dangerous complications in pregnancy and child birth. We watch them suffer with lifelong health complications including fistula until we no longer want to even share a room with them, we watch them become burdened with household responsibilities and rearing children only at the age of 8, 9, 10 while they themselves are children. We watch them get violated and infected and die of HIV AIDS and all this is bestowed upon them as a result of a decision made on their behalf by people they trust the most. These girls are dis-empowered, dependent on their husbands and deprived from their fundamental rights to health education and safety with the social and cultural norms fueling the enormity of the issue.

 Ayesha had a dream, a dream that she will get to enjoy her childhood to the fullest, to play as a child, go to school as a child, and grow up like a normal child. When she was forced into being married, her dream died within her. I also have a dream, a dream that hasn’t yet died with hers. I wish to see a world where each one of us here as mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers would no longer sell our girl children for our own benefits in the name of marriage or continue to stand by and watch others while they do the same. I wish to see a world where we care enough to educate the vary many Ayesha’s of our days so they are able to exercise their rights; a world where girls can enjoy a safe environment and experience a normal childhood; a world where we care to talk about Ayesha and get everyone around us to do the same until everyone says Ayesha should not marry! We should come together to facilitate awareness among our leaders and elders and put pressure on our local governmental bodies to make sure that the talks are walked; that they take child marriage seriously and the policies we here are in place are indeed implemented and experienced!

No one should be forced into marriage; even more, no child should be forced into marriage before the age of 18!

The African Centers of Excellence (ACE) for Women's Leadership program is run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) , Ethiopia Office.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rwanda Women Leadership Institute: Making Your Challenges a Catalyst for Transformation
                                   By Annette Mukiga

Lydia Busingye is a young woman who was kidnapped and subjected to sexual abuse at the age of thirteen. This tragedy left her with feelings of resentment, self-blame, low self-worth and confidence. As a result she felt discouraged to pursue her dreams of becoming a confident and effective leader someday.
Over the years that she struggled with her experience, Lydia found inspiration to regain her confidence and self-worth by having successful women role models such as Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, the late Minister Aloisea Inyumba, Joyce Meyer and Oprah Winfrey. Their life stories and achievements motivated Lydia to use the negative experiences from her childhood to rebuild her strength and encourage other women and girls to do the same. 

She developed an interest in building self-esteem for women and girls through restoring hope, dreams and fighting against sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). Lydia’s passion for women and girls issues encouraged her to look for opportunities that empowered her and other women in various ways. 

Lydia describes the Rwanda Women Leadership Institute (RWLI) as one such opportunity that has empowered her to be the woman she is today. As a woman who once dreamt of becoming a leader, she commends the program for reigniting her dream through its training in leadership skills. 

One of her most important lessons from the program is from an African proverb that was shared during the training; “if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.”  According to Lydia, the proverb, reinforces “the importance of working together and supporting one another as women in pursuing our dreams,” and the capacity women have to be leaders that can contribute to meaningful change and development in society. She also learnt the importance of self-love, care, protection/safety of women and girls in any environment. 

As a RWLI alumni, Lydia has used both personal and professional platforms to share information on women’s key role in decision making, transformational leadership and SGBV. She hopes that in sharing with other women and girls, she can help them protect themselves and address issues of abuse as well as motivate them to be agents of change in their respective communities. Lydia describes RWLI as a programme that has given her the right tools to achieve her dreams; “I am now dreaming to be a woman of integrity, a role model, a source of health and wealth in my country and worldwide.”

RWLI represents one of the projects implemented by Rwanda Women’s Network (RWN) in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion to empower Rwandan women from all walks of life. The institute’s objectives compliment various national and global campaigns that promote women’s rights and gender parity; such as the Rwanda’s national theme for International Women’s Day; “Preserving the Dignity Regained.”
Rwanda is commended globally for its gender sensitive policies and the highest Parliamentarian representation of women (64%) in the world. The theme outlines the nation’s role in building on these achievements in the empowerment of women. RWN is expanding and contributing to these gains through RWLI and more projects by using holistic approaches to address issues affecting women and girls in Rwanda.
In line with the global movement #BeBoldForChange, the RWLI program encompasses the importance of women’s active role in influencing change that contributes to empowerment of women and gender parity.  

RWLI falls under one of the RWN main program areas; Governance and Leadership. It equips women with knowledge and tools to be effective leaders and equal contributors to change and development in their respective sectors and communities. RWLI continues to empower and inspire more women like Lydia to “make their challenges a catalyst for positive transformation,” at a personal, community and national level. 

Rwanda Women's Network (RWN) 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 RWN please follow the links below.