AFRICAN FEMINIST DIALOGUE-YOUNG AFRICAN WOMEN MEET TO ARTICULATE THEIR ISSUES & STRATEGIZE

The Harmattan winds are said to be dry blowing across the Gold Coast. Upon landing at Kotoka international airport, my friend and I quickly noted the air looked misty and one could not see very far. In Kenya, this is common only when it is raining, about to rain or raining in a nearby town. But alas, it was the Harmattan season. My Ghanaian friends (and I have quite a number in Ghana )kept mentioning the Harmattan winds and the notorious cold season which these winds unfailingly  bring each year in the country. I am from Kenya, Nakuru and the immense heat from this part of the world is in direct contrast to the cold the Harmattan winds present.

The Harmattan was the backdrop against which the African Feminist Dialogue was set. The dialogue was convened by RESURJ and Education as a Vaccine from Nigeria bringing together approximately 25 young women from across sub Saharan Africa.

I will use this platform to document my experiences at the dialogue and discussions raised during the 3days in Ghana. It was quite interesting for me to undertake a journey along memory lane and delve into the divergent and conflicting personal experiences that have over time defined my life as a feminist. I have not always been a self- identifying feminist until 2years ago. You might wonder what happened 2years ago.

2 years ago, I was in the first session of what was dubbed Feminist Leadership and Movement building Rights Institute. The first session fell on a Monday morning and was facilitated by Srilatha Batliwala who up-to-date remains my favorite author on Women’s rights and Feminism. During the session, a question was posed to the audience; when was the first time you recognized the concept of power, your lack and/or possession of it?? My feminism dates back to when I was 10years and had to stand up to one of the nastiest bullies in the neighborhood. The situation that up-to-date makes me realize that the power within was so delicate that it would have easily turned out to be a scarring moments, but luckily for me…my guts (gosh, I have had those for a long time) allowed me to stand up to the bully. The incident marked the turning point and reference point for me.

During the Feminist dialogue, young women from across the Sub Sahara reflected on their individual journeys. What is remarkable and what came out of the reflections were representation of such dynamic characters and personalities that represent and embody the strength of the feminist movement.

The more technical bit of the dialogue delved into policy spaces regionally and globally where feminist voices and analysis of issues have been called for, the representation of those voices and their reflections in the outcome policies or reviews. What was of consensus was the tokenistic engagement of women to occupy meeting rooms without the political will to actually reflect the lived realities of millions of women and girls across the globe. The dialogue delved into the reasons for backlash against women and girls bodily autonomy and choice. Top of the list was religious fundamentalism especially from West Africa region where practices such as FGM even though outlawed are still sanctioned by religion. The other issue was incoherent national policies that do not take into account intersectionalities that characterize women’s lives and finally would be women’s rights such as sexual and reproductive health and rights perceived by Africa legislators to be a “foreign agenda”.  One would ask how foreign the abortion agenda would be when we have a third of maternal mortalities attributed to unsafe abortion.

The policy environment reflections ended up with a call for young feminists to be represented in policy meetings to ensure representation, and more importantly, stronger force in pushing young women’s agenda. The pushing should be done upon built consensus and with strategy that would go to ensure the issues young feminists push are ultimately featured in the outcomes.

The last days of the conference were spent analyzing the African feminist movement and shapes it has taken. This, I must point out, took into account the voices, perceptions and individual experiences of the young women in the room. Most felt that there lacked a coordinated movement and that the one that existed was quite exclusive to older women without creating space or deliberate involvement of young women. The discussions were rich in terms of issues represented by the existing feminist movement and the gaps that have emerged. I must note that reflections took all sorts of directions bringing out the complexities of movement building. The African Feminist movement may not be clearly understood but the gains from the struggle are here with us and it is for the young women to take the mantle. “Power is not given, it is taken”, so they say. Young women were called upon to ensure that the differences that we have as human beings should not be our primary focus but rather the similarities and especially the need for change.

The meeting ended with concrete plans on working together to ensure that young women work to promote women’s agency.  Working together need not necessarily take the form of a physical network. There is an immense opportunity to claim our youth, and seize the opportunity to engage in digital and social media for the advancement of women’s rights. The advancement of women’s rights would primarily be through giving back women’s autonomy and promoting their choices as opposed to representing women’s issues only from the public health point of view.

I deem the meeting successful if not for anything else then  at least for the opportunity it presented for me to reflect on my experiences working with women and girls rights issues, interrogate my values and meet great young women passionate about women and girls. RESURJ led the way, but the 25 women promised to join the cause and establish themselves as voices that will not be swallowed up at any point when it came to feminism on the continent.

Catherine is a Mandela Fellow 2016, Women Deliver Young Leader and member of Youth RISE International working group. Catherine is a passionate young African feminist activist with over 7 years of experience in advancing gender equality, youth development and sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of sustainable development through movement building, digital and social media, policy advocacy and capacity building for young women and adolescents girls. Catherine is currently Deputy Director at Dandelion Kenya, and sits on the SDGs Kenya Forum coordination committee. Catherine has engaged with various global and regional policy processes such as ICPD Beyond 2014 review, Beijing +20 and the post 2015 development agenda. She co-authored the article ‘Leave No One Behind; Will African Women be left behind in the post 2015 development agenda ,an article published on the East African Business Monthly in February 2015. Catherine launched the #SRHRDialogues, an online advocacy and awareness raising platform on SRHR and #YAFDialogues, an online platform anticipated to be a permanent mobilizing platforms borne out of an African feminist dialogue 2015 in Accra. Follow her on Twitter: @catherinenyamb1

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