Tell us one thing you love about Africa?
One thing I love about Africa are the women in Africa. The women in Africa are resilient, they are hard working, they are loving, and motherly. They are the embodiment of what Africa is, so what I love about Africa is; the African woman.
Who or what inspires you?
I was greatly inspired by women I grew up with in my poor high density suburb. Some people think that inspiration comes only from those at the top. For me it was a woman like Cecilia’s mother who was next door. Who despite domestic violence, despite all the abuse she went through , came out a very strong woman and never gave up working for her family, kept hope, faith and love for her children.
I was greatly inspired by my mother, a very clean woman. She would clean anything on earth and it would be sparkling. I was very much inspired by her love for family. She wanted to build family because as you all know, the foundation of the world comes from a basic unit like a family. My mother died with the last words that “I die for my children”. So, if somebody gives her life for her children, that gives me also inspiration to say, my whole life I can give it to all the girls in the world.
One thing that also inspired me is the fact that my mother was denied education, but not on a single day did I not see her reading a book. That inspired me to say, yes I am deprived by others but I will not deprive myself. So the fact that I saw my mother doing it herself, sewing, vending, everything with her own hands, that greatly inspired me. My inspiration comes from ordinary people; the stories of ordinary women who are invisible, who are not known greatly touch my heart. I am inspired by those who will never be known by the world but will be known by their struggles to liberate not only themselves but also their communities with nothing but their determination.
What, in your opinion needs to happen to eradicate women’s inequality and abuse in Africa?
I wrote my autobiography and I said never again. What happened to my mother, my grandmother and myself, should not happen to any woman or girl again. I see a way forward in saying that, and I think the power to transform ourselves first from victims to leaders lies in our hands. It is time for women to take up the leadership in issues affecting them. For instance, we need leaders at policy making level.
Whatever policy is put in place should also be implemented. Somebody actually said “if as a woman, you are not at the dinner table, you are actually the menu”. So what has happened is that with all the major decisions made at policy level, community level and even at the household level, we are not anywhere near to influencing change, we just accept what the majority of men say.
I am of the view that we must place our hope in young girls and young boys. Every child that is born, boy or girl has a mother. We shouldn’t take the old victimisation we experienced and instil it in our boys and girls. We shouldn’t take the aggressive masculinity and put it into our boys. We have hope in the new generation of young people coming that everywhere they are in classrooms or colleges, they are treated the same, that they are in equal numbers when applying for jobs and campaigning for office, that they are in equality.
People are making references to cultures that are not even written down, and we don’t know where they were practised, how, or why. I think we need to transform the attitudes and transmit a new culture where both males and females are seen as human beings. We can change the world later, but we can change the individual now.
Your story is one of hope, courage, determination and passion. How do you instil these qualities into the women and girls that you help?
I started with 10 girls in my class, and a pure, simple approach with me saying; “Girls, I am seeing you dropping out of school one by one, let’s talk”. I started with a simple question and then listening. Many times we hear about these stories that do not have individuals attached to them, but I wanted each girl to start telling their stories.
I had not told my story so I used my own personal experience to say once you keep it inside, once you don’t share the experience, once you hide from the truth of the pain and the struggles you don’t develop to the next stage. So when I had my 10 girls, I told them I was raped at age 6. Yet, I worked so hard as a child vendor to be where I am, to be your teacher who has a degree. My story wasn’t just shared by me; the girls in my classroom took the responsibility to share my story with other girls.
I was very open with the girls. I took them through one-on-one workshops. Sometimes I invited them for simple walks or to my household. The stories I shared that have transformed the girls are not stories that are far removed from their realities; they are the stories of real girls. I slowly started seeing the transformation from a victim to a leader. The more my girls became courageous, I became courageous also. The more I saw determination, I became determined. The transmission of positive energy into girls remains simple; with me standing in front of them to say it can be done and it is possible.
The work of Girl Child Network (GCN) is recognised across the world and continues to grow today. Did you ever envisage such success when you started in 1999?
When I was in the classroom, I felt the positive energy and I saw it growing from 10 girls to 100 girls. Then I saw sisters from these 100 girls inviting other sisters, and had no control of how the network was growing to over 70 000 girls every year. But what made me see that this network was powerful, was an orphaned girl aged 9 years who lost her grandmother, and then was relocated from the city to live with her grandparents in the rural areas.
When she got to this remote place, she did not stop GCN at age 9, instead she went on to form a girls club and had 2000 girls join. 2000 girls joined this 9 year old girl. That taught me something, and that’s when I began to say this network will grow much bigger than I can aim. As I talk now, I don’t even know who is doing what, where, with an exact count and it is completely beyond my control. I saw it in a vision, but to be honest I was not sure how big it would grow.
What progress have you seen amongst governments to improve the situation of disadvantaged women in Africa?
Yes, there is an acknowledgement that there is a problem of gender inequality by many African governments The acknowledgement that there is violence has been done verbally. But the implementation of policies, laws and any protection procedure, especially at law enforcement level has been lacking. So we can say we are seeing progress at the “talk shop” level. We have been talking for over 50 years.
The acknowledgement that there are harmful cultures or practices has been thrown into a debate and is dividing African leaders as to whether they should grant freedom to the women from these harmful cultures and practices. So there is still that conflict and some confusion in the progress made.
Some governments have taken bold steps forward. If you look at countries like South Africa, their laws are quite women friendly and we can see women rising to be executive board members. Governments that are beginning to accept women leadership such as in Malawi where we have a woman as Head of State, shows us that things are changing. But there is still more to be done for disadvantaged women in Africa, I think we are 20% there and have 80% more work to do.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
That’s a very inspiring question…I came from a zero. I was never there anywhere in the world. Something heroic has made people notice me. Maybe it was going into the rural village to challenge the traditional extremists who are there, armed. Or, fighting with them to rescue a child; a child that is now educated and graduated. I wouldn’t call myself a hero, but the title of hero comes from other people like 10,000,000 children who voted for me as a child rights hero in 2007 and 2010. CNN called me a hero.
Dalai Lama called me a hero. Every time I got the title hero, I said to myself, if I am instilling confidence in girls to be women and women heroes. Why should everyone else I give confidence to, accept the title of hero but me?
There are many things that heroes do which the world doesn’t see, and there are times when I lay in my bed and think of these things I have done and think this is heroic.