African women are often marginalized, but many fail to realize that these women are the pillars of their families, towns, villages, cities and society as a whole. In times of crisis it’s these women who are first to jump on the front lines of service. It is they who risk their lives to care for the sick and helpless. It is because of them that many things get done. Sadly, they are rarely recognized for their work and what they continue to do on the ground level.
This is why Ask Her Talks, launched by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF), is a formidable platform that provides an unprecedented stage for African women to shift the thinking about who African women are, what they represent in society and why we should be asking her in order to get things done. SLF works with African community-based organizations who are making real changes in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Since 2003 the foundation has funded over 1100 initiatives and continues to work in countries that are most deeply affected by the crisis.
Ask Her Talks launched in three cities; Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. After attending the Toronto show on May 27, 2015, I was inspired and extremely moved by the words of the featured speakers. Hosted by Jackie Richardson, one of Canada’s most prominent jazz, gospel and blues singers, Ask Her Talks featured a line up five African women who came to discuss and challenge our ideas about African women, if philanthropy works, and what can be done to invoke change.
What we usually see in the media is not always the most positive image when it comes to Africa and its women. “The image of the African woman in particular in mainstream understanding still tends to be that image of victim-hood, an image of suffering and an image of incapacity and if I’m totally honest I must say that bears no resemblance to any of the African women that I work with,” said Jessica Horn, Senior Advisor to the African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS. As the first speaker, she immediately had the audience attentive to her every word.
When asked why she got involved with Ask Her Talks, Horn said, “I think this idea is brilliant to bring together the kinds of women who are doers and activists.” Her words certainly ring true because everyone at the reception couldn’t stop talking about how amazing all the women were. It invokes ideas of the future and what lies ahead for women of Africa. “There is a population of just over half a billion African women,” Horn continued, “the mobilization is everywhere and every country has some kind of mobilization of women. It’s also really diverse….the prominence of African women will only increase and I think it’s going to be great to see more women taking on active roles in leadership and helping to change the landscape.”
Jennifer Ayot who is the Senior Legal Officer of War Child in Uganda, was very personal in her talk declaring, “As a single mother of a 4-year-old daughter. I refuse to remain silent.” In her work as a Lawyer she has seen many injustices and witnessed the depths of a woman’s pain. Ayot said, “The courtroom is not the only solution to stopping violence against women and girls.There is a need to empower a woman’s livelihood, to fend for her family and to fend for herself and a voice to speak out so she is not afraid to take charge of her own and her children’s lives.” Ayot said she came to this conclusion after witnessing a woman who had been abused, but still plead to have her abuser released – because she was completely financially dependent on him for everything. She continued, “The justice system still ignores, denies and tactfully condones violence against women and girls… because of corruption many women and girls today in Uganda still don’t have what they really need and deserve. Accessible, reliable affordable and timely justice.”
Internationally, we often see the media pushing the agenda of Africans in desperate need for people from developed countries to come and ‘save them’. Often forgetting that when offered assistance, those who are already there have a better understanding of how to manage their many challenges. “Women not only know the solutions to their problems, but they have new ideas, they have fresh and cutting edge innovations that can change whole communities if only you ask them,” said Netty Musanhu, Executive Director of Musasa Project. “These women are the ones who should be at the forefront of any community intervention since they have experienced the challenges first hand.”
She poignantly challenged the idea that the continent is one homogeneous pool. “It is sometimes perceived that all African women’s issues are the same and Africa is therefore ‘one big country’ where interventions can simply be ‘cut and pasted’ from one country to the other without much regard to our cultural, religious and economic differences.” That was certainly an insightful and thought-provoking statement that many people from the continent have often said. Aid has more to do with working in collaboration than trying to push an agenda on a people who understand their countries better than anyone else.
Musanhu also reflected on the idea that there is huge potential in the investment into African grassroots women who work fearlessly on the front lines every day showing their resilience in all they do.
Spoken Word artist SashOYA Simpson did a wonderful performance that was touching and also very moving evoking emotion with some powerful words including, “Marching at the front lines is never easy.” Towards the end of her piece she said something I found quite discerning. She said, “Time is our companion, enemy and friend….this battle is far from over.”
Marie-Jean Bachu Bahati Nyenyezi, also known as ‘Mama Bachu’, did her talk in French. There were slides translating for those who did not understand. She shared powerful and painful stories of what women have experienced when it comes to violence, rape and sexual assault. She held nothing back in the detailed descriptions of what some women experience. She also inspired the audience by telling stories about how the City of Joy provided a place of encouragement, support, psychotherapy and development for a bright future for these women who have suffered at the hands of their abusers and violators. When a woman is given hope she has the ability to not only survive but to persevere and become great.
Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, rounded out the evening lending her voice to the importance of asking questions. All too often we donate money to charitable organizations not really knowing what is happening with the money or if it even makes it to the ground level. Sowa addressed this issue simply, “Ask the organizations you give to about the extent to which they listen and hear local organizations they work with. Ask them about the extent at which African women are decision makers in their work not just people who are ‘done to.” She urged us to invest where it counts even if it takes more effort on our part to do so. “That can be the difference in investing powerfully in real change led by women’s organizations or deciding that you’re going to get a few cents out of charity…..With the right information you can make a difference with your own giving.”
In conversation during the reception after the event she shared some thoughts with me. I asked what inspired her to keep pressing on despite the challenges for African women and she immediately said that it’s other women who inspire her. “I’m so lucky to do the work that I do. because we’re constantly meeting women, going to women’s organizations and you see the huge amounts of change that people can make with hardly anything in the way of resources,” she said. “and so every time I go to one of those programs and I see women changing not just their own lives but the lives of their children, families and their communities inspires me every time.”
One of the ways to invoke change is in opening the door to young Africans outside of the continent to utilize their talents and skills in a way that will build up what is already there. We spoke about what needs to be done to encourage people to return to the continent in order to create a real change for the future. “I think we need more bridges, there’s a lot of work that those of us in Africa can do, or those of us in the diaspora in making those leads and making sure there are opportunities for young people to come home,” she told me, ” and spend some time just seeing a country or different parts of the continent. When people think they can do something or have something to offer they can come home.” There is certainly so much happening on the continent creatively and economically over the last few years. Many women are becoming entrepreneurs, running businesses and taking the initiative to have more control over their lives. “When people see how exciting it is and that there is so much happening on the continent in music film the arts and there is so much happening economically (they realize) there is sometimes greater opportunity in many of the African economies than there are elsewhere.”
Ask Her Talks accomplished something that’s just the beginning of opening up the dialogue about the role and perceptions of the African Woman. It’s a new platform that gives a voice to those not often heard on an international scale.
“You have the opportunity to Ask Her and then act on it,” Sowa said. She closed the night perfectly with these words, “I’d like to invite you to join me, to join us in celebrating the strengths and achievements of all African women. In all of our wonderful and amazing and sometimes frustrating diversity;.our geographic, our cultural, our economic, our political diversity. I’d like you to join us in celebrating our activism and I’d like to remind you, just ask us.”