Africa: Unlocking Feminist Activism with Social Justice Leader Theo Sowa

AllAfrica’s Melody Chironda spoke with renowned women’s rights and social justice activist Theo Sowa about women’s rights and democracy in the wake of the release of a report by Shake the Table on the need to increase funding for feminist organisations.

Sowa has been at the forefront of the human rights and feminist movements and has made significant contributions to the promotion and protection of women’s rights in conflict situations, as well as in evaluating and strengthening women-focused development programs in Africa. She also served as the CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund and has worked tirelessly to highlight injustices and inequality across the world. She has received a number of awards to honour the scope of her work and activism.

Sowa has always been interested in and involved in human rights from learning from her parents. “The more you grow, the more you see the unfairness and the injustice in this world, she said.

At the beginning of her career, she spent a lot of time working on child rights and on issues of children and armed conflict. “But everywhere you go, you see on our continent, Africa, but also in Europe, in North America, and throughout the world, you see the inequality that women have to deal with every day. The discrimination that women have to deal with every day. The violence that women have to face, but at the same time, you see the strength of women.

“And, you know, being in any part of Africa every single day, we see how resilient women are, whether they’re the market women, whether they’re women entrepreneurs, there are women who are peacebuilders. So when I see that kind of strength, it makes me want to be part of promoting that strength, part of supporting that strength because Africa as a continent, we need 100% of our human resources, and we cannot afford for half of our population to be held back because of prejudice and discrimination”, she said.

Sowa explains why feminist movements are the key drivers of transformative and why directing funding to the movements is becoming increasingly clear for all funders.

“The one thing I always say is that movements will continue to exist, with or without funding. If you look at our movements, and what we have achieved, whether it’s feminist movements, labour movements, other types of movements, will exist because it’s a belief and the passion for change. But the truth of the matter is, if we want to raise the impact, if we really want to make sure that feminist movements reach our full potential, then we should support them, we should support them properly, we should support them with true resources.

“There’s a black feminist fund that was set up recently. And their tagline is, Fund Us Like You Want Us To Win. And that’s what hasn’t been done for feminist movements. If you think about what’s been achieved, whether it’s the women who’ve led peace movements, or women who sustained families and communities during economic hardship, whether it was the women of Liberia and Sierra Leone during the conflict, the Ebola crisis, those at the front line of protecting communities, feminist movements do so much, but they get so little.

“The research that was done showed that something like 1% of the money from foundations, ends up with women’s rights organizations, and 1% is nothing. So if we really want to change this world, if we really want to make a difference, then let’s find the people who make that difference. And let’s fund them properly”.

Shifting the narrative and scaling impact 

“What I would say, is that feminist movements to me are very, very special because they’re intersectional. We have feminists who are working on environmental movements, labour rights, gender equality, and feminists who are working on disability rights. So feminist movements actually are widespread, they’re holistic, and they’re intersectional. And that means that we can really drive change, we drive change for everybody. So feminism is truly transformative. So in order to actually reach the full potential of feminism, I think that people need to change the narrative. I’ve often said that they need to stop the narrative that African women are victims because we’re not. And frankly, we never have been. African women are survivors, yes, because they have survived very, very much. But Africans are change-makers. And that’s what feminism supports.

“We have evidence that feminist movements bring social change for all of our communities. And for a whole range of groups that have been populations that have been discriminated against, I feel that our role then is to support those movements. I don’t want feminist movements and women’s rights organizations to stay small. And that’s what happens a lot, they stay small because people fund them in very small ways. I want us to support the activists to let them do their work. And we all have a role in that. And some people have a role in bringing money. Some people have a role in bringing time, some people have a role in bringing ideas. But all of us need to work together to make that happen. And this Lighting the Way report that has just come out says, philanthropy should get behind feminist movements. Let’s move from this 1%. And let’s actually fund feminist movements, because then we will see real change now”.

The report suggested that potential donors should consider directing money to feminist funds that can act as intermediaries between philanthropists and grassroots leaders. They can also support feminist movements by educating themselves about power structures that enable gender inequalities, among other things.

There is an African proverb that says ” If you educate a girl, you educate a nation.” To make this remark clear, the World Bank reported that there is evidence that shows that investing in women’s and girls’ education, health and economic opportunities is fundamental to realizing the continent’s human capital potential and spurring sustainable economic growth. Education is a fundamental building block for both gender equality today and a sustainable tomorrow, yet millions of girls worldwide are being denied the right to an education – a tragedy made worse by mass school shutdowns over the last two years. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that at least 18.5 million children, the majority of whom are girls, do not have access to education in Nigeria.  Many children are being cut off from their education and other vital benefits schools provide, as families and communities remain fearful of sending their children back.

Sowa absolutely agrees that education is paramount. “I completely believe that we have to get those girls into schools, we have to educate girls. We have to educate boys as well in so that because they have a responsibility to our communities too. But education shows you the level of discrimination that women and girls have to deal with. And what it also says to me, is that we need to do this holistically. One of our problems is that people look at girls and they look at women, and they act as if we exist in silos.

“Women have to be educated, but education is not the only thing. If they are not safe in schools, if they are not protected against violence, then they will never benefit from the pivot stamp of education. So we need to educate girls, and we need to protect women and girls from violence. We need to make sure that women have economic advancement because it’s been shown in various studies that where women help increase their income, the outcomes for all of the family improve. So education, it’s something that’s very close to my heart. And I believe we’ve got to transform our education systems so that we are producing vibrant young people who can really challenge and change our world.

“And we want to produce young girls who are confident in their ability, and who will then have the tools to fight for their place in this world. But we can’t do it in a silo, we have to look at education, in line with the way in which we look at women and girls as a whole. So educational justice, but social justice and economic justice and political justice, we need to do it all together.”

In the light of the need to protect women and girls from violence, the report raised issues about the #MeToo movement that shook the world and brought the extent of sexual harassment into the open. Beyond the headlines, data shows the far-reaching impacts of the #MeToo movement as hundreds of women and men filed sexual harassment and assault complaints and came forward with their own #MeToo stories.

“There was a report done by two female academics and one was S. Laurel Weldon. They did a multi-year study and one of the things they found was that the single most effective instrument, single most effective way of tackling violence against women was feminist movements and that in countries where feminist movements were strong, the push against violence against women was more successful. So for me, when we talk about violence against women, we do have to make that a priority. And we have to make that not just a policy priority, but it a practice priority.

“We’ve seen it in Africa, and we’ve got some excellent organizations, like Raising Voices in Uganda. They came up with an excellent program of work that involved communities, and the work that they did to reduce violence against women in the communities that they were working with, Sowa explained. Raising Voices creates evidence-based violence prevention programs based in the everyday realities of schools and communities and supports others to use those methodologies.

“They’ve got this fabulous piece of research, which helps us layout exactly what we need to do to get community-based responses to violence, to stop this violence against women. But again, to do this, we need to fund and we need to fund in ways that work very often. And this is one of the things that the report brings forward, where women’s rights groups are concerned and especially where African women’s rights groups and women’s rights groups globally are concerned. People fund it in very small ways. So instead of being able to concentrate on the work and getting the work done, you find a lot of African women leaders of civil society, having to run around and chase money just to keep going and that distracts them from the goal. So I really agree with a call from this report that all of us should be part of funding feminist movements and African Women’s rights organizations with larger amounts of money in flexible ways, and in ways that allow them to focus on their work.

There has been little progress in achieving gender parity in Africa, and women’s equality remains low. Africa has some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, making it an ideal frontier for businesses seeking growth and new markets. Despite its potential, gender inequality persists. Millions of women and Africa’s overall social and economic progress will not reach its full potential if gender diversity is not embraced.

“One of the things I love about our continent is, that we never give up. It’s one of the things that inspires me about African women. When I go into communities, for example, in Kenya, in Kibera, and you see, the Talking Box group. The group has girls who have had so little in terms of material things in their lives, and yet, they found themselves together with groups. They’ve taught themselves boxing as a way, both of self-defense and protecting themselves against violence. But also as a way of getting girls collectively, to be more confident, and to remain in school so that they can get the education they need. I’ve been in refugee camps, where women have been through terrible, terrible violence. And at the end of it, what they ask is, what can we do to stop our daughters from having to go through the same thing?

“I’ve seen women with fantastic ideas for real economic, entrepreneurship, ways to make African women, be part of getting decent jobs, well paying jobs. So we’re looking at all of that. And it makes me think, that we have so much that we can show the world about how we survive, about how we can work together. And feminist movements have been part of promoting that feminist movement, whether you’re looking at people like Wangari Maathai, and the Greenbelt movement and looking at women’s rights in the environment, or you’re looking at people like Lima Bobby and the wonderful women in Liberia that were part of their peace movements. We have so much that we can learn from each other, and so much that the world can learn from us. And we should promote that, we should celebrate that. But most importantly, if we’re linking this to the report, our wealthy Africans and African philanthropists, we should invest in our women, we should invest in our women’s rights organizations. Because if we do that, we’re actually investing in Africa’s future”.

Sowa shares the best advice on how we can all promote equality in our daily lives.

“So I think what I would say, there are so many things, but I would say that we as African women, should take pride in ourselves, in whichever form we are. We are not one homogenous group. We are wonderful in our variety, in our differences, as well as our similarities. And so I want to say especially to younger African women, embrace your difference. Embrace your womanhood embrace your Africanism, and celebrate it. Don’t let people tell you that you are less than you are. And wherever we can, we should be working collectively, because collectively, we’re stronger. Collectively, we get more done. And I’m really hoping that people who listen will also think about investing in our collective action in all the ways they can. But yes, I want our African women and our African girls to be proud. Girls, I want them to celebrate it and to live it, and to find joy in it, even as they fight discrimination, even as they break down the systems that try and oppress them”.

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