Advocating Women’s Rights In Africa – Rainatou Sow

Rainatou Sow

VENTURES AFRICA – Award-winning Guinean activist, Rainatou Sow is the founder and executive director of Make Every Woman Count (MEWC), an organisation that promotes women and girl’s rights by putting it at the heart of the continent’s socio-economic development strategy. Although, a resilient activist since the age of 12, Rainatou was inspired to create her own gender-based organisation after witnessing several Guinean women sexually abused in September, 2009.

Since launching the organisation in 2010, Rainatou, through MEWC, and the help of volunteers have been working towards promoting African Women’s Rights in the African Women’s Decade (AWD 2010-2020) to “ensure that African women and girls have a real voice in all governance institutions, from the judiciary to the civil service, as well as in the private sector and civil society, so that they can fully participate equally with men in public dialogue and decisions-making and be able to influence the decisions that will determine the future of their families, communities and countries.”

Her efforts in this sphere have been recognised over the years. Apart from featuring on CNN’s African Voices, and being named one of the “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa 2012″, Rainatou was awarded “Most Inspirational Woman” by Women4Africa in 2012, perhaps the highest award to be bestowed upon an African woman. Ventures Africa had a chat with the inspirational Rainatou Sow and here’s what she had to say:

VA: Tell us about yourself growing up

RSOW: My life was the one of an ordinary young girl; the only difference was that I was always involved in doing some community work. From teaching evening classes to young girls in my neighbourhood after school to representing my school, joining the Guinean children parliament where I used to be the Minister of children and women affairs and then working with Unicef at a very young age to promote children’s education with a focus on girl child, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), HIV/AIDS through door to door and radio/TV awareness campaign. I have always wanted to make a difference, and I took every opportunity to do so.

VA: You started African women and girl child advocacy at a very young age – 12. What inspired you to fully shift your interest to women/girl child advocacy now that you are an adult?

RSOW: In September 2009, while demonstrating against the regime in Guinea, women were raped and sexually abused in the capital – Conakry. This horrible event hunts my life every single day. There was a young woman who was at her 3rd year at the University among the victims, she was raped and sexually abused. When I saw a picture of her being dragged half naked by two soldiers, I couldn’t sleep for nights. At that point, I decided that I couldn’t keep going on with my life knowing what has just happened without taking actions. That young woman could have been me and her crime was just to ask for democracy and peace.

The creation of the AWD (African Women’s Decade) prompted me to take control of my passion and career and thereby contribute to this landmark event. I wanted to do something that could have a positive impact on African women’s and girls’ lives – and the African Women’s Decade was the perfect opportunity.

VA: When you created “Make every woman count”, what did you hope to achieve and will you say you have been able to achieve what you initially set out to do and more?

RSOW: My vision in starting MEWC was to ensure that African women and girls have a real voice in all governance institutions, from the judiciary to the civil service, as well as in the private sector and civil society, so that they can fully participate equally with men in public dialogue and decisions-making and be able to influence the decisions that will determine the future of their families, communities and countries.

Through Make Every Woman Count, my aim is to provide a spectrum of platforms and tools for African women, grassroots, activists, international organisations and women rights groups. I feel that what has been missing from the African women’s movement is a space, a voice that comes directly from African women. Most organizations that focus on empowering and gaining the equal rights of women often neglect the voices of African women themselves.

I see a bright future of young African women who are showing themselves to be leaders in their own equal rights and through MEWC; I hope to help them find strength in their voices while raising awareness on their issues and work on the international stage.

Throughout my journey, I would like to be a role model for young African women and men, to inspire, to motivate them to stand out and make a difference in whatever they choose to do, so that young African women and African youths in general will really take over the leadership of all of our countries.

VA: What are the challenges you faced in creating a female-gender based organisation and how have you been able to manage these challenges?

RSOW: As a young woman led organisation, we have many struggles to deal with. The main one is getting funding to sustain our work.

I am not afraid of these challenges as I was expecting them. I wasn’t expecting to start my organisation and have money flowing in the first few months. Having said this; it has been very hard for us to secure funding to sustain our work.

Make Every Woman Count (MEWC) is mostly run by a team of volunteers who are using their skills and knowledge to fulfil MEWC’s mission. However, the journey is full of challenges and we try our best every day to overcome these barriers. We are competing with bigger organisation for the same funding and I can tell you that it is very though.

Instead of investing in young people ideas, most funders would rather give the money to big organisations to do the work. Young women and men have difficulties getting their own voice heard because they are young and are expected to keep quiet and “wait for their time”.

I like to believe that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and this is just another challenge we will overcome.

VA: MEWC draws inspiration from African women around the world. What is MEWC doing to make the African Union’s African Women’s Decade (AWD) a significant one?

RSOW: MEWC is working to promote and raise awareness of the African Women’s decade. We do this through our social media, publications and events. Since the first year of the African Women’s Decade, MEWC publishes a yearly report that summarises the progress made by African countries regarding women’s rights and gender equality on the continent.

MEWC will publish one report yearly throughout the 10-year duration of the African Women’s Decade.

MEWC’s Annual Review of the African Women’s Decade (AWD) aims to evaluate the progress, or lack thereof, made to include and promote the rights of women at the country, regional, and Pan-African levels. This is done by presenting each country on the continent with a background and a presentation of progress and developments made within different areas, with importance for the human rights of women and gender equality.

We evaluate each of the levels around our central gender issues, including Women, Peace and Security; Violence Against Women; Political Participation and Leadership; Economic Empowerment; HIV/AIDS and Reproductive Health; and Human Rights of Women. The report is divided into sections according to regional visions of the African continent, and the countries are then presented individually.

The objective of the report is twofold: firstly, it is meant to be a reference to provide insight into the rights of women in Africa during the AWD and secondly, to provide pressure on individual countries that either failed to make any progress on women’s rights or repealed legislation protecting women.

The report is also an important tool when advocating for change, as developments regarding progress on gender issues will be made available. Furthermore, the report can function as an incentive for countries to improve their efforts in the areas of gender equality and the human rights of women.

We also organise a conference every year to mark the anniversary of the African Women’s Decade. The conference is a great opportunity to hear about the work Africans are doing to advance women’s rights during the decade – be it in the diaspora or on the continent.

VA: You do an overview annual report on 54 countries in Africa to evaluate the status and conditions of women in African countries. Since you started this report, will you say there have been improvements on these issues?

RSOW: In the past years, there has been some encouraging progress regarding gender equality in Africa.

Some states have made considerable advancements in protecting women from sexual violence as well as encouraging them to participate in politics and election. Most have gender policies or some kind of national women’s mechanism, such as a Ministry of Gender or Ministry of Women’s Affairs. There are also aspects of gender equality in many constitutions and some countries have passed other laws on different aspects of women’s rights.

There has also been some recent progress regarding women’s political in the recent years. Women’s representation in parliaments in Sub-Saharan Africa is now higher than in South Asia, the Arab states or Eastern Europe. The year 2012 has proved promising for the African woman’s status within public bodies. Women are beginning to break the political glass ceiling in many countries and finding their way in roles traditionally occupied by men. According to the 2012 data from the Inter- Parliamentary Union, women occupy 20.2 percent of parliamentary seats in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is slightly higher than the world average of 19.5 percent.

Earlier on last year, Joyce Banda was appointed as the first Malawian woman president to make two female head of state in Africa, while Gambian Fatou Bensouda was elected as the first female International Criminal Court prosecutor. She is the first African to hold this post. The big highlight of the year 2012 was the appointment of the first female Chairperson of the AU Commission Dr. Dlamini-Zuma.

VA: Tell us about the solemn declaration on gender equality

RSOW: During the Third Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July 2004, the Heads of State and Government adopted the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA).

The Declaration is an important African instrument for promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment as it strengthens African ownership of the gender equality agenda and keeps the issues alive at the highest political level in Africa. Through the Solemn Declaration, Heads of State and Government commit themselves to report annually on progress towards gender equality. This was the first time a continental organisation took ownership of gender mainstreaming to the highest level – prioritizing issues such as HIV/AIDS and the recruitment of child soldiers.

According to the Evaluation of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in 2010, report findings from 18 African countries out of the 53 indicated that only 34 per cent of the member states have honoured the commitment of subsequent reporting on progress made in implementing the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) as required under article12.

VA: Will you say in this African Union decade of women voices, African women are finding their voice amongst their male counterpart?

RSOW: Despite the obstacles and challenges they face, a growing proportion of women are breaking through the glass ceiling. Today, African women are beginning to break the political glass ceiling in many countries and finding their way in roles that was traditionally occupied by men. We now have two African women out of 54 head of state and the chair of the African Union is a woman. Women who have entered into leadership positions attribute their success to factors such as access to education and work opportunities, good mentoring by both men and women, support from family, employers, supervisors, teachers and colleagues, and successful lobbying by gender activists.

VA: What will you say is unique about the African women that make it matter that their voices be heard in their community or country?

RSOW: Women represent half of the population in Africa; we simply cannot develop a continent if half of its population is left out. African governments need to tap into the talent and wisdom of women.

It is not a secret that the world’s challenges will not be effectively addressed unless the exclusion faced by women and girls is tackled across the board. We need to have more women in decision-making and leadership positions because whether the issue is food security, economic recovery, health, or peace and security; the participation and inclusion of women is needed today more than ever for more sustainable and equitable solutions.

VA: How do you think the African woman can develop herself in this generation and why must they be empowered to have more roles in decision-making and leadership positions in their society?

RSOW: Over the years, women have taken to the streets to protest against variety of issues affecting them, from rising food prices, to the lack of female political and economic participation, demand for peace negotiations, or to call for the departure of a long-time dictator. Through such actions, women have continuously demonstrated their commitment and their willingness to see their country change for the better. However, when it comes to seeing women in established positions of political power, such as parliamentarians, members of government or even as heads of state; the numbers seems to stall at merely 20.2 percent.

The participation and inclusion of African Women and girls are vital to the continent growth and development. African governments can simply no longer afford to deny the full potential of half of the population. Women and girls need to be empowered and have their developmental skills unleashed to participate in the socio-economic and political development of the continent.

We need to ensure that gains made in women’s political mobilisation, advocacy, and government representation actually reflect a substantial change in the lives of ordinary women, which is still far from a reality. By placing women at the centre of it all, African women and girls will have an opportunity to flourish and become advocates and leaders.

However, there is a need for African Governments to back up their commitments with actions. We need to empower African women and girls with the tools they need to become agents of change.

VA: What role does the government have to play in women advocacy?

RSOW: We need to ask African Governments to be accountable, and take responsibility in keeping their promises. We need to push African governments to work harder on women issues; those who have not ratified the various legal framework to ratify, those who have already ratified to put money aside for implementation with concrete action plans such as clear gender budgeting as well as allocating more funding for food security, human security and better education/health care for sustainable development.

Women’s issues and machineries charged with women’s affairs have been marginalized and under-resourced for too long, and this has led to the very slow implementation of international and regional commitments made to women’s empowerment and gender equality.

It is important to remember that the protection of citizens is up to the Government of each country and UN or International organisations, NGOs cannot act on behalf of a country. Governments and Members of Parliament have a responsibility to ensure that the necessary legislation and norms are in place. They have to allocate the resources needed to turn words into actions when it comes to ensuring the rights of half of the population (women).

I believe that we as the civil society, as well as individuals, should ask our politicians and other decision makers what they are doing to promote women’s rights and to fight the scourge of sexual violence.

While governments and the private sector have their own responsibilities; Africans themselves have a role to play in creating lasting peace and sustainable development in the continent.

VA: Where do you see African women at the end of the AWD era and how do you think such goal can be achieved?

RSOW: By the end of the AWD, I want to see the complete removal of discrimination against women, both in law and in practice, as this greatly hinders women’s economic, social and political rights, women’s land rights as well as their Sexual and reproductive health rights. I will also like to see a 50:50 ratio of women to men in government in Africa.

Political commitment is the key to ensuring women enjoy their rights. African governments need to back up their commitments with actions. Women have to know their rights, and take action to demand accountability. Many are kept in ignorance due to lack of education and information on what the constitutions of their countries say and how the systems/ institutions/laws that are supposed to run their nations should work.

In 10 years, we need to look back at the African Women’s Decade and be proud of what we have achieved as individuals and as a global community.

VA: What is “Make Every Woman Count” up to now?

RSOW: MEWC is currently working on its 2nd annual report on Women’s political participation & Elections monitoring in Africa over 2012.

We are also organising a month long campaigning in March to invite young African Women between 15-35 years-old to enter the stage, pick up the microphone, and let their voices heard. We are asking them to share their vision for the future and tell the word “the future they want.”

MEWC is also tirelessly working to secure funding to start a leadership and technology training for young African women starting this year.

VA: You are launching a fund-raising right now, what is your organisation hoping to do with that?

RSOW: Since its launch in 2011, MEWC has been operating successfully with virtually no funding beyond the in-kind donation of services that it is already receiving for the last 2 years. While MEWC will continue to embrace volunteerism and in-kind support as a key part of its sustainability and strategic planning; we simply cannot expand our organisation, nor continue to offer the services already established without the income to cover the very real costs that we incur.

With these funds, MEWC will: monitor the status of women’s rights in all 54 African countries in 2013/2014; monitor Women’s political participation and elections throughout Africa in 2013 and 2013; provide two more years of online services, daily news update and resources through our website; launch two years of leadership and technology training workshops for young African women; and organise workshops/training for diaspora African women in UK.

VA: What advice do you have for the African women or girl child reading this?

SOW: First of all, you need to know what you want and make clear plans for your future. If you know what you want and you have the passion and motivation to do it, nothing will stand in your way. More importantly, you have to believe in yourself and stand by your decisions. Life is full of challenges and you will never overcome these challenges if you doubt yourself. Always remember that nothing is impossible if you believe in it and put some work into it, you will succeed. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

VA: What are your future plans?

RSOW: I have many so many that if I start telling you all of them, I will spend the all day on it (laughs) …… but right now, my main plan is to secure enough funding to sustain the MEWC’s work and launch our training project for young African women.

Thank you for your time and keep up the good work.