Friday, March 11, 2016

Mary Balikungeri: The Consummate Women’s Advocate

Ms Mary Balikungeri, Founder and Director , RWN


For more than two-and-a-half decades, I have been engaging in crosscutting debates about how to empower women and move beyond women-friendly policies to protective actions. And, as the founder and Director of Rwanda Women’s Network, we as an organization have been working with various local and international partners. RWN also plays a capacity building and facilitating role to a network of over 52 grassroots associations across Rwanda. The Network has been part of the African Centers of Excellence (ACE) since 2013.

I have been described as a consummate grassroots advocate, working to bridge the local with the global. And, having received leadership training through the ACE Leadership Program, which RWN is spearheading in Rwanda, it has only made me stronger in our quest for the woman’s cause.

Going through the ACE Leadership Program is a transformative process that has enabled me to transfer the knowledge I have learned to Network members, some of whom have formed a pool of facilitators to lead in the local ACE Program. This has laid the foundation to upscale women’s spaces, which offer forums for them to engage gainfully towards policy change.
The ACE came at the right time as it not only enhances women’s leadership and decision-making capacities, but gives the women the empowering ability to interrogate their inner powers. When a woman realizes her inner strength, she also gains the ability to be assertive in demanding her rights.

After years of organizing among national leaders and grassroots women, community-based women in the Network across the country are focused on how to make the women friendly legislation meaningful in practice. One of these relates to gender-based violence.

What we’ve been doing is mapping who are positive men, bring them on board in our spaces and train them to be community mobilizes.  Our women from our spaces are out in the communities speaking about all these issues, the ways laws are changing and maybe creating new relations between men and women. We’ve seen that the inheritance law especially has attracted the men. They are keen to understand the impact the law has and how it affects them as men and heads of their families. The women meet these men, and really we’re very selective about who we invite to join us -- we want to be sure they won’t bring in their manly attitudes. But we think they have a big role to play with the gender-based violence work. We tell them, “This is also your business. It can’t be women’s business alone. Then we let them take the lead in training people in that message.

As a vocal supporter of a burgeoning pro-choice contingent of activists we are pushing for, among other issues, more friendly sexual and reproductive policies, including the abortion law, which is currently being revisited. The law, as it currently stands, has been cumbersome to implement by involving an unfriendly judicial and medical process to the disadvantage of women and girls. This has meant that, though a law exists, is has not served the purpose it was enacted to address.

What we’re missing is a focused, smart awareness about abortion and how we come to this.  It starts with our hesitancy to talk about sexuality. Before we even get to the discussion of choice, we have to fix this stigma towards women’s health that leaves young people uninformed. This new abortion law is being much talked about now, and activists are asking, “Is the current law really working for women?” We’re pushing to give freedom to abort when they feel they need to. But this is a very Christian country, and they’re saying, “Why are we promoting abortion when we should be promoting morality?” The fact is that people should be making choices about their health before they even get to the question of abortion. But it will take us ages because of this taboo. So let’s start with accepting to talk openly about sex and the right to make healthy, informed choices.

Notably, it has been through the women-specific spaces that the women have been finding their strength. Exchanges in the spaces have been insightful for me and my team, as we strategize about how best to reach out to the women they aim to support. 
We’re learning a lot about empowerment of women and how they make decisions about their sexual rights, making sure that a woman determines when she has a baby, that the family has access to contraceptives. It’s really opening up a new conversation, with lots of learning for women. It’s amazing to hear what they say about sexuality, being forced in bed when you’re not even willing. To some women, this is normal, to others, no! So it’s really showing how important it is to be sure women across the country take leadership with rights issues.

On these issues, as well as in enhancing their leadership capacity and skills, ACE has graduated the women to engage at all levels from the grassroots to the national level.

From where ACE found us, it has been an empowering process beginning with the leadership curriculum development up to now when RWN and her national partners are putting it to work to enhance women’s leadership capacity and skills. Being part of the ACE initiative has also ensured a networking platform locally, nationally and at the regional 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.