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.