Girls and women do have inherent values the same way as boys and men, and Africa can feed itself as well as improve its economy, only if African governments and people shift their mindsets. These and other topics were discussed during my conversation with CARE’s Director of Girls’ Empowerment, Joyce Adolwa, whom I had an exclusive interview with last month at the United State of Women Summit in Washington D.C. The summit, which took place on June 14 and was hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls, was the perfect setting for our conversation, given its agenda : To empower women and girls around the world. CARE, a humanitarian organization helping to fight global poverty – pledged at the event to support the Let Girls Learn initiative by investing $15 million (U.S. dollars) in seven countries – Malawi, Mali, India, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia, – that will help support 3 million adolescent girls’ education through its Udaan “Second Chances” school program. By working with education ministers, and local organizations, the Second Chances program provides an intensive, nine months curriculum to help those girls who were unable to finish their primary school education catch up to their peers. The program has helped marginalize girls return to school. CARE also is looking to expand its reach with the support of corporations, foundations and governments. To help readers follow our conversation, questions are put in bold italic.
Tell me about your organization and what you’re doing in Africa?
JA – CARE has been in Africa for a long time. We work in over 95 countries globally, running 800 programs that focus on women and children. We have offices in West Africa, North Africa- Cairo, as well as in Eastern and Southern Africa. We work primarily on issues on access to health, quality education, food and nutrition and our effort on sanitation- effort to save drinking water. We try to provide comprehensive solutions to the issues that are faced by marginalized community in Africa by looking at both the urban- and the rural settings.
When you look at the urban states, for example, the people who lives in slums and this is globally, as well as people who lives in villages, we work with governments to really strengthen the approach to look at innovative ways of addressing social issues. Our biggest contribution to this effort and work of development has been around gender integration: How can we integrate gender into the society so that women and girls are valued at the same levels as boys and men? This really has to do at looking at the very basic level of relationships, looking at how they interact, the power dynamic and how it play out in the community. It’s addressing social customs and norms, and changing perceptions on issues that affect both men and women at the relational level of their interactions that often defined the basic space that women and girls occupy. For instance, when you think about education and what makes it relevant, and the relevance is that cycle of education that makes a child feels she/he can contribute while still in school to their society. Does the child see a linkage through their education and teachers in terms of career paths? How can we make education not just about reading, writing, English and Math, but through critical thinking and perfecting skills in technology, leadership, development, market analysis, which will help young people identify and make choices for the careers that they want to have, that way they can focus on the subjects they want to learn.
Can you explain how CARE, and you go about doing that based on your own work experience, and as an African?
JA – As an international organization, we work with the governments, especially on local levels, with local partners to help build their capacities. one of the things that has been good is to look at what has worked in similar context and specialize it to an individual community and test it out to see if it’s going to work in those individual communities, and if it does, help that community scale it out so it can reach more women and girls.
Our programs, as much as we do call ourselves a women’ and girls’ organization, are really about the entire community but we know that women and girls have been the most marginalized. That’s why we want to see the change, so our unique specialization/ lens is to look at women and girls, and see how they experience development differently, and if their experiences are becoming more positive so they are developing alongside their male counterparts and are not being left behind.
You grew up in Kenya. What was your experience like and how has that shaped your approach to work?
JA – Most of my life, I was in Kenya, I did all my studies up to the university level in Kenya. Poverty was never far away. I might have not felt hungry, but I knew people who were close to me who felt hunger. I might not have walked in tatters, but I knew it wasn’t too far away. So those experiences, along with watching a close family member die from AIDS, seeing the impact of the stigma on that family and their children, seeing friends’ families dispossessed of their properties, including their land when their father died, – and since women have no property rights that family was instantly plunged into poverty. Suddenly, they went from owning and living in a house, owning a car, and owning furnitures to losing everything after their father’s death. Losing everything the following week to the deceased father’s brothers who came and seized all the property before the funeral.
Those experiences, when I look at some of the cultural norms, I believe enriches the work that I do because I’m able to relate and understand issues like child marriage because I know some of the driving factors [to the issues], not only from the Western perspective. But also to bring perspective to some of those factors and why they are valued [in the societies]. People do things because they value it and they see an inherent goods in it, and one of the things I say about child marriage is at times, it’s the only option that a family has and that a mother can give her daughter- to say you need to get married so you can have your own home.
Having your own home, it’s a sense of empowerment. [In this case] it might be a false sense, but when you have your own home, you’re in control of what you cook and what you eat, and et cetera, in a way. But when you think about a child being 10 years old or a 13 years old, then it’s transitioning the child to a life where she does not have control and procession of her own empowerment. She is exposed to gender-based violence, early pregnancy risks and the issues that come with it, also sexual harassment because she is not at the age of consent. But when you understand why the mother married off her child early, the thinking that came behind it might not have been inherently evil. It may be wrong, but it comes because the mother has been weaken into thinking that marrying off her child early in a way was equivalent to improving that child’s life and future status in their society because that was the only option the mother ever knows in life.
How do you go about dissuading mothers and families from practicing early child marriage customs and to favor education for their daughters at all time?
JA – It’s a big problem, in terms of [stopping] early child marriage. It’s changing mindsets because we know [in some societies] girls are considered a lower social order than boys and it’s not only in Africa. In Asia for example, you have to kill-off female fetuses in favor of boys. In Africa, you have boys going to school because if you educate a girl, she’s going to leave home and benefit the family of her in-laws so why invest in those families?
Speaking of girls’ education and shifting mindsets, I actually had an instance recently during a conversation within a group, someone, a man, from the group made a comment in regards to educating girls. His misogynist prism was that educating a young woman, especially beyond her first tertiary degree, is a waste of money and time since that young woman will end up leaving her family to marry into another family. His argument was that the educational investment made by the young woman’s family will ultimately benefit her husband’s family but not hers. You should have seen the look on my face- I was agape by the comment, especially given that I know this individual and his family, he’s African, married. He has two daughters and a son and has resided in the U.S. for nearly three decades. I was beyond flabbergasted by his comment.
JA – You can take a cow to the river but you cannot force it to drink. Those mindset-shifts need to happen for people to realize that girls have values-an inherent value the same way boys do and they can contribute at the same level as boys. When you think about the fact that women and girls contribute more than 50 percent to farm work, sometimes working twice the working hours in the field and yet sometimes do not get any income or get only 10 percent of the income. Denying their contributions is social evil and injustice. These are issues that we have to address.
Let’s look at and uncover the social underlining of those injustices, and how they relate to social and gender discriminations, and then begin to work with communities to have a dialogue. [Start by asking these questions] how do you see life as a woman [living] in a village in Kenya or in Nigeria as opposed to how does a man sees it and how does a boy sees it, because we all experience life differently, and then take those [information] and look at what are those drivers [to injustice and discriminations] that need to shift so that you can accommodate [women] working in a field dominated by men, so that men can see women as bringing value? How do we begin to work with our school systems because social norms, maybe cultivated at home, they are also reinforced at school, so when a child looks around the classroom, she’s not looking at the images of a woman sweeping while a man is portrayed as a doctor?
How can we sharpen the aspirations of girls and boys so they both know they can aspire to be a nurse, doctor, a teacher, a pilot without being told that only boys can be those things?
Do you support what Rwanda has done in bringing and integrating women into its politics and Parliament after the civil war ended?
JA – Absolutely! [On the account that] women bring a perspective that if you do not sit in that gender you cannot have. You can tell people, [for example], me as a woman, you can tell me the issues that men have and yes, I can advocate for them, but I do not experience them in same way as men do.
For example, when you talk about contraceptives, where men in Africa have mostly usually been shun out of the conversation of access to contraception outside of condoms such as vasectomy, I can advocate for vasectomy for instant, but I’m a woman. The perspective of a man on such issue would be greater than mine. It’s the same thing as having women in power. They are able to identify issues that might be a complete blindspot and foreign to men and they are able to bring value as women, not as masculine but as women.
Do you think what is happening in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, integrating women into politics, public offices, transitioning into democratic societies, and dealing with some of the challenges that come with that, have any significant influence on the younger generation’s outlook and the continent’s economic advancement as a whole?
JA – When you talk about emerging markets, they are in Africa. Some of the top fastest growing economies are in Africa. We have a lot of resources. We have a dual development economy where you have areas with a lot of growth in terms of development, and then you have areas that are lacking behind.
One thing I always try to remind people is that Africa is not a country but a continent of 54 countries. So judging a continent by what happened in one area to the whole Africa is so wrong because we don’t say what happened in Orlando [recently] represents the whole United States. But we do that when it comes to Africa, and we do that for Asia. I think a lot of it has to do with the education of the people here in [America] to understand that Africa is a continent of more than 40 countries. But most importantly, we have to look at the growth potential.
A lot of what is happening in Africa, part of it is because of neocolonialism and dictatorships that were bred within that. The other part of it is a struggle with democracy. I think the notion that one size fits all in democracy, that’s something that we as a society globally really needs to work through because democracy needs to be decontextualized because people have a right to choose, and to vote and to live free-that’s true, but how do [we] look at it in this country as opposed to to the next so we are not adapting the same system because we have varying cultures. We have American culture that’s different from the British and yet the British have a monarch, so how do we look at democracy as diverse?
Let’s talk about some of the other social challenges that African societies are experiencing in term of freedom of speech, sexual identity or orientation, youth empowerment and involvement in politics. There have been a lot of riots and public protests in recent years from youth demanding that people in power step aside after their tenures, demand for improved socioeconomic development. Some of those protests have resulted in imprisonments, deaths or people exiled. What are some of your thoughts about freedom of speech and the media roles as they relate to Africa?
JA – The issue is not an African issue. When you look at the U.S. and a Presidential candidate in 2016 talking about gagging the media, then we know it’s not an African issue.
The media also has a responsibility on behalf of the people, to report on statements that are being said, but also to look at the responses and values that it should bring to the people that are being told. In a lot of countries, people believe what the media says is true. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not, if the media reports that a candidate is better than the other, then it is so in a lot of countries in Africa. The media has to look at their work as part of social moral obligation.
CARE has been working in Africa for a while now, what are some of the challenges that the organization has had to overcome, whether it’s with governments, civil society or locals, when trying to execute a program or projects?
JA – I think by far, when you think about the fact that crises globally are increasing. When you think about disasters, this year alone, when you think about the health issues, climate change effects and the disasters that will result from that globally. In Africa, when you think about El Nino flooding one area and causing drought in other areas. Some countries are experiencing a lot of rain, while others areas experience extreme drought. Changes in weather patterns have a lot to do with this, so we know globally that these crises are going to be in the way and for us, [as organization] what can we do and how do we work with governments and communities to make them more resilient to be better so when these crises and acts of nature happen, they can bounce back and prevail.
We look at how can we work, for example, with post governments cooperatively to help facilitate access to education for children, access to certifications, skills that young people who have been displaced, exiled or refugees in other countries so they can use those certification obtained from the government and use them as qualification for employment. A lot of these [solutions] have to do with starting at the global level, and coming to consensus and at the same time, and how can we help address how governments [can] raise their voices to help international organizations enable to do the work they need to do to help the country?
For us, Africa is just one in terms of where we address issues. We work very well with local governments, the private sectors, and see that increasing because that’s the only way we’re going to increase our impact. In our operations, we look at how can we invest and build capacities for the communities so that when we leave, they will continue the program?
What are some of your dreams for Africa?
JA – As an African, number one, food productivity. If Africa can supply and feed its own population, I think we have it made.
Do you think Africa has enough to feed its people?
JA – I believe Africa has enough to feed its people and is capable of doing that and more.
If that’s the case, what is holding the African continent back?
JA – It’s poor planning. We have exponential population growth. When you think about 15 to 20 years olds, with over 20 percent pregnancy rate, that’s huge and when we talk about societies and families that don’t even have enough for their own food security – how can we ensure we can feed our own population before we start thinking about investing in villages, in markets? How can we create breadbaskets and greenbelt within each community? When we think about the combined areas that’s covered by the Great Lake Region, all the way to Zimbabwe and Malawi, that’s very fertile land and that alone can feed the entire continent. How can we tap into the resources to enable food security?
What are some of the issues that could be holding African societies back from attaining food security? Land issues, funding and investment in agriculture and technical skills?
JA – I think government and people need to open their eyes and be aware that land and food need to be treasured. right now, africans look at oil, mining as trade and investment, we see diamond, precious gems as resources but food and water resources are not considered as valued as those.
So you ‘re saying rather than look at food as just sustenance, Africa should look at it in terms of trade and investment, essentially as money?
JA – Food and water should be treated as the same as other valuable natural resources, with better planning. The minute governments cannot feed their population, all the other systems is out.
The drought in Malawi for example, it’s also about perceptions. For example, farmers or farming as a profession wasn’t considered attractive as being a doctor or lawyer for our generation or the next generation. A profession in agriculture was often looked down unfavorably by many people when I was growing up. We all wanted to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, but no one wanted to be a farmer. People would have laughed at you and think you’re crazy if you said you wanted to be a farmer. I remember in the early 80s, when former President Olusegun Obasanjo, this was after his military regime ended, he tried to encourage Nigerians in the Southern part of the country to get involved in farming, in agriculture. For a while, people considered and tried it, but mostly, it wasn’t seen as a noble, high status profession- to be a farmer. So everyone went back to trying to become a doctor or a lawyers or an engineer. I was a young girl then, but I remember it because agriculture was taught at schools.
JA – And in there lies the problem and issue. We have to improve education when it comes to agriculture. For example in agriculture, it was taught at an early level of my education in Kenya. I learned how to grow and sell mangoes. I knew one mango sells for 20 Shillings, and if my seeds produced 100, that’s 2000 Shillings from one single tree. So you have people growing mangoes and orchards, and Kenya as a result has become an exporter of tropical fruits, which is great. So when we talk about food security, we have to invest in farming. We do not have to depend on food aid, and when drought comes, we have enough and [do not need to] depend on international aid. Kind of like what the U.S. does. They sometimes pay their farmers to plant or not plant certain crops. Africa needs to do the same thing -subsidize the farmers.
Are you working with any African government on food security issue and solutions?
JA – Yes, food nutrition is one of our biggest projects. One other thing that I wanted to mention is education. We have to educate our population. According to the U.N., a lot of developing countries lose more than a billion dollar a year for failing to educate their girls to the same level as boys. Can you think of that amount for just a second? That’s a lot of money. Education, in a society increases the well being and productivity at all levels. We are working with Malawi on some of those issues. We’re also working with other governments around the world.
Speaking of education and other issues that we ‘ve discussed today, health is another major issue, globally. There’s a plethora of diseases lately. There’s HIV/AIDS, Zika, Ebola, Yellow fever outbreaks in Angola and other parts of Africa and developing world, Cholera and so on and so forth, in addition to limited amount or lack of vaccines to treat these diseases. What are your thoughts on the state of health care availability and preparedness in Africa?
JA – I think Africa has a lot to learn from the Ebola crisis. Governments have to be prepared and understand that, for example we have Zika virus right now that started in Brazil and spreading to other parts of the world, it is [a government’s] their responsibility to invest in their population, in healthcare. It’s not that funds are not allocated for these issues, it’s that funds are allocated and [in Africa] people take advantage of it and when crises come along, there’s no money to address the issue. This is where better planning, increased education, increased awareness, comes in. People need to know- how do people contract HIV, Ebola. I remember when I was growing up, there were huge campaigns about specific issues on the radio and other media such as effects of deforestation that were drilled into people. In the same way, it should be done about health. By the time someone is going to the hospital, it’s too late. They are already sick. Prevention is better than cure. The solution then is, how can we invest in better public health so that our health system can contain only those who really need the help rather than those situation that could have been prevented that arises from lack of sanitation or lack of awareness?
Speaking of campaigns, during the Ebola crisis for example, public awareness and campaigns were sponsored by African governments, the U.S., CDC, WHO, U.N. The programs were instituted on the radios and other media to stem the spread of the virus, but the efforts were hindered from taking root because of local traditions and other cultural beliefs.
JA – That speaks to what I said earlier, what is the value to the people? If you can tap into the cultural value of that thing, and present an equal alternative, then it’s easier to change mindset. But when you come into a culture and say this is not good, then immediately, you have people shutting down. So how can we develop a culture of conversation that allow us to undercover those cultural norms, understand why they exist and develop equal alternatives. Once we do that, people can then begin to ask themselves: do we still practice these norms and beliefs because our forefathers did it?
For example, female genital mutilation, a cultural practice that has been rampant in several African countries and cultures for centuries. In places where they have been able to eradicate this practice, they have created an alternative to that experience, the rite of girls’ passage. They look at what girls are supposed to learn during the ceremony – girls learn how to behave, how to be a better wife, and how to please their husband.
By learning and understanding the things that girls are supposed to learn during the rite of passage experience and ceremony, we can then begin to look at how to take those things and turn it into something that do not have physical harms to a girl or a woman, so that when women go through that rite of passage ceremony, they would graduate into womanhood that is valuable without any physical harms. So you look at how to build a campaign around that such as demonstrating the ills, and evils of what they have been practicing by talking about the dangers of the practice, and what it does to a woman because those were never talked about in the first place. African women just bottled things up. Girls are told during those ceremonies that everything you experience from now on, you never talk about it.
And that’s one of the solutions to the issue?
JA – Yes. How would a man know that this [genital mutilation] is something that is really going to hurt his daughter?
Are you saying that by not speaking or sharing experiences, African women are further perpetuating some of these heinous rituals and violent practices against other women?
JA – Yes. The way we [African women] have been raised is to be repressive and submissive, Women go through it [rite of passage rituals and ceremony] because they think, actually, they have been told it will improve their status to womanhood. It’s not only rural people that go through the ceremony. There are college educated African women, living in urban areas, some living in the U.S., U.K. and other parts of the developed world that still go through it because without the cutting, they are not marriageable in their society. They are outcast from their peers. They are not considered as fully women and they are not considered part of the culture and we always want to belong as people. So how can we change that mindset?
What about the diasporas. How can they get involved to help solve some of these issues we have talked about?
JA – The diaspora has a real connection with poverty. A lot of Africans always send funds home, We are our economy. The Africans that I know are sending money home to support education, community, building schools, paying rents for families, but the real issue is how do we finance our voice to begin to shift policies in our respective country and government. We always have leaders coming to the U.S., and they always meet with the diaspora. How can we leverage that to say we need to change some of the outdated customs?
So you are saying we should use our remittance and other monetary investments to impact policy change on the continent?
JA – We send more than $250 million to Africa. The other issue is our voice is soft. We as diaspora do our own individual thing. You do yours, while I do mine. For example, in so far you take care of your relatives, build a house for your mother, she and they will be fine and happy about it. But we don’t speak out when we see corruption as a united voice to say it’s unacceptable. Can you imagine the collective power of all Kenyans, Nigerians and other Africans in the diaspora writing a letter to their respective government to say this is unacceptable? That’s a powerful voice to use for change. We have to use it effectively.
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