08 Jan

The Long Road to Empowerment

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By Emebet Regassa (Guest Blog)

Emebet is a young woman from the YWCA of Ehtiopia. She has been working at the YWCA in Addis Ababa and she shares with us her incredible journey to self-empowerment.

My name is Emebet and I work with the YWCA of Ethiopia. For me it has been a long journey to get to where I am today and dramatic changes had to take place in order for me to achieve all that I have.

I was born in a rural area where girls were not allowed to go to school. By the age of 7-8 girls are married rather than educated. Since I come from a well-to-do family an arranged marriage was a normal practice in our area and getting married is the only fate I had. In order to avoid that horrible situation I had to come to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, to live with my distant relatives.

Unfortunately life was not a bed of roses when I arrived to Addis and no one welcomed me with open hands. There was nobody that could help to send me to school or to give me a shelter. Thus I had to work as a domestic worker in order to attend evening classes. It was very difficult for me to attend school and to also complete all the house work which was expected of me. Despite all the hardship I managed to be successful in my studies and my teachers were very supportive.

I joined the YWCA Ethiopia when I was a high school student as a library user. I then joined the Addis Ababa University School of Social Sciences and I became the YWCA’s project beneficiary and volunteer. I participated in many of the trainings including on leadership, SRHR, mentoring, TUSAME – which means “let us speak out” in Swahili, as well as other activities. This brought a radical change to my life.

My self-esteem improved and I began to participate in different student activities, especially in activities that involved the participation of women at the University. When I graduated the YWCA employed me part-time as a youth mobiliser in their University project. This was the turning point in my life. After all the hassle that I had gone through, I became an NGO employee and an influential young woman at the University. When I graduated I was given the opportunity to work as a graduate assistant and I was also awarded the female scholarship which was provided by Addis Ababa University. I preferred to continue my post graduate studies rather than to work, though I did continue to work with the YWCA of Ethiopia.

After a year the YWCA employed me fulltime as their Project Officer. Since I have been working at the YWCA I have received so much exposure, especially at various international conferences and events, such as the African Union Summit and the ICASA Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. I never dreamed I could have made it this far when I was a young girl in my village!

Imagine what a great deal this is for a person like me! I can’t express in words how much the YWCA has changed my life. Being given the chance to travel to South Africa in December gave me the possibility to meet other young women and to share my experience with young people that come from different countries in Africa.

A study that was presented at the Youth Pre-Conference of ICASA shows that 33 million people in the world lives with HIV/AIDS. Though the number of AIDS related deaths has decreased drastically in recent years, the number of young people affected by HIV/AIDS is still very high and in some instances even rising. As an empowered young woman, I no longer need to find my own self-empowerment. Now I am responsible to empower others and to help us to, together, overcome these problems that we face as young people.

In my work at the YWCA I hope to improve our engagement and service and to further develop our work on comprehensive sexuality education.

First Published by World YWCA – Women Leading Change

08 Jan

Women Deserve a Place at the Table

The last month saw a sharp escalation of violence in South Sudan, with the usual impact on women and girls. The trauma has reverberated throughout the region, as the birth pangs of a new nation remain fresh. 

Media images show vulnerable women, fleeing with their children, huddled in camps or dying. But the other images of them as leaders and negotiators are silently absent. They fought with the men for freedom and independence; they were on the front lines while holding communities together during those dark years. They were actively involved in the peace processes and present when Sudan’s constitution was negotiated. These women were at the Oslo Donor’s Conference in 2005 asking to be involved as equals in monitoring the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

These days, from what I can tell, the only women visible at the negotiating tables are those serving in facilitating or supporting roles. The Sudanese women’s position, perspective and experience are missing. They know what they want for their country in terms of politics, security and natural resources. They hold a position on small arms and children’s militarization, as well as a clear vision on the peaceful and prosperous South Sudan they yearn for.

It’s been almost 15 years since the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, which “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” Why, therefore, are there no female advisers in the delegations and among mediators, nor space for Sudanese women to share their views?

We need a political solution upholding the constitution; safeguarding the nation’s resources; protecting human rights and ensuring healing of historical and new wounds. Another world is possible in South Sudan – but it demands a clear inclusion of women.

First Published in New York Times.

 

 

 

 

06 Jan

Child Brides, Polygamy and Personal Liberty

Mango treeToday, I just found this old notebook, in which I had scribbled “unbelievable and unacceptable“! These are notes from a session in Geneva held on 11 of October 2012, when one colleague gave a personal testimony of being born in a polygamous family. It was during the launch of the 1st International Day of the Girl.
Her father’s fifth wife -Dheme*, was almost her age, barely 14 when she married him. Within the ten minutes of her presentation, one could touch the pain, and the room was dead silent. She was narrating a reality which is least understood and least explored. Many of the young girls in such marriages simply have no voice, their rights and dignity is violated with impunity, and they have NO freedom.

Well, just to be clear at the outset that I have problems with the word “child bride” itself.  It’s a word that sanitize an unacceptable moral and often criminal act (either rape, sexual abuse, forced labour, abduction/kidnapping, abuse of culture etc). It gives legality and a moral cloak of decency to sexual, social and economic exploitation of girls. Oh yes, there is still that loophole in many countries, where the legal age of majority is not necessarily the age of marriage. These are the anomalies at law that needs legislative reform.

Anyway, Dheme was about a 15-year-old when she was married off to a 60-year-old. She was the fifth wife. She had no say in the arrangements as the families belonged to the same church. Dheme’s husband had children and a grandchild almost her age. She found herself socially leaning to the girls company, yearning to just be an adolescent “again”, for whom she was. Dheme enjoyed being in the presence of peers. Yet, she was now a married woman, had to carry herself as one. While the children and grandchildren tolerated her, they could not fully accept her as a friend. She was an unwelcome aunt, who drove their father away from their mother?

Dheme was expected to keep herself in the company of the women, older women and her co-wives. She was treated as a daughter by the older wives. She had no voice on family matters, yet she has to be on her feet the whole day attending to family and community chores. Dheme was not accorded the love, care and understanding that she expected  from the co-wives as was promised the day she moved in. A promise that the other women where okay with this marriage. She was competition! She had to learn and endure the intrigues of polygamy.

Therefore her relationships with other women in this household was so complicated. While she lived in the company of other women; she was deeply lonely, sad and had no freedom.

The relationships with men in the household was even more complicated. The husband was ultra jealousy. Dheme could not have a single conversation with her brothers in-law or with her husband’s older male children.  This old man was always sending his older male children away from home, to live and work elsewhere, once they turned 18 years. Dheme never went on errands, social or community events such as funerals alone. She was always expected to be company another person, a woman preferably or children. Her husband simply did not trust that she was fully committed to him, as a partner. He was controlling and vulnerable. Dheme’s civic liberties was heavily circumscribed. No freedom, no voice and no identity in the household.

Dheme finally got pregnant after some years in this marriage, an issue that had brought tension within the household. “Why marry if she ca not give you a child”, were some of the whisperings around her.  When she visited the clinic for the first time, they confirmed that she was pregnant and in addition she had a sexually transmitted infection (STI). She was advised to bring her partner for treatment. She could not bring herself to discuss such matters to her husband. She had never discussed  issues of sexual and reproductive health or family planning. She had no words or way of discussing such issues with him. She had never known another man in her life, and could not understand how she got this disease.

Dheme could not confide in the co-wives for fear that she will be blamed or ostracised. She felt the world around her crumbling. She loved her child and yet could not face her people. She packed her bags, and in the welcoming darkness of the night, she slipped away to the unknown.  She lived in the streets of a major city and gave birth to a baby girl. Years later Dheme looked for her friend, that girl her age who had welcomed her into the family when she got married to the old man. Dheme simply wanted her daughter to know that she has family.

Someone had rescued Dheme and had sponsored her to get back to school. Education, friendship and empathy, gave Dheme new opportunities in life.

As I listened to this presentation in the Human Rights Council, I was lost in thought. I immediately understood why the world must simply answer to this urgent call Each one of us can take action to end early, forced and child marriage within a single generation.  This is doable. This will not be a collective act of charity, but an act that rightly restores respect and dignity to women and girls in the world.  This is our call, yours and mine!

* Dheme, name changed for purposes of confidentiality

* Today 42 million girls enter into early, forced or child marriage each year world-wide. (UNFPA 2012).

 

 

05 Jan

My Yellow Dress With Big Black Buttons

Yellow Dress

It was a full length dress in bright yellow. It had big round black buttons in front. It was of criplene material. Its that kind of material that melts when it catches fire and does not burn like normal cotton cloth. It was my Easter and Sunday best for many many years. This dress lasted forever ~ chiramba kusakara. It was  wash and wear, so no need for ironing and all that.

My dress had this the yellow colour never faded out. It was remained this bright yellow for as long as I can remember. One could identify me from afar. My friend Veronicq Basvi, would say  “Ndakuona uchiri kumhiri uko, ndikati Nyara Uyoo!! Yes, it was easy to be identified from afar with this special colour which dazzleded the eyes, and made one to stand out in the crowd.

My brother had bought me this dress one Easter holiday. Mother had sent simple message to him at christmas, “if you manage some savings, could you buy your sister a dress because she has nothing decent for church ~ mutengere mwana hembe haasisina chekupfeka pane vamwe“.

He simply stopped at Mapereke stores and picked the nearest garment which could fit my size and his pocket, and all done with love, understanding and consideration. My mother, a hard working widow was happy; I was happiest and my brother was content.

For years, my yellow dress was the only and the special one. When it started to run out there were many ways to keep it going. Having a patch on the hole was one sure way to keep it going. Unfortunately with its yellow colour it was very hard to find an appropriate patch, matching in colour, type of cloth and sewing thread.

Aaah, then my yellow dress shifted places, from being my Sunday best to that dress one uses when watering the garden. Even then, it was no longer that functional. The black buttons had dropped and I could not find the right size of buttons,  yet I could not throw my dress away. It was so much part of me. I held on to it. I could not give up on it. Then, it found its way into my pillow.

It was many years later when I was to wash this pillow, and removing the rags inside when I had a reunion with my yellow dress. My eyes went wide open when I had this almost fresh encounter with my very special yellow dress. It  was not boasting of  only 3 big black buttons. I held it with love, a hug and an extra hug. A little thank you, for all the times and years of intimacy.

I woke up this today, thinking of all the special people that have come into our lives. People who gave meaning to our lives, clothed us in dignity and brightened our paths. Along the way they seem to fall by the wayside, and some into seeming oblivion. Yet they are there in our hearts, they are part of our lives and will always be there.

To all my family, my siblings, my in-laws, friends and mentors, I love you just so much, like my beautiful yellow dress. We all grow up and move on, yet, you should know , that you are in my pillow. You continue to cushion and comfort me every day. You are in my heart. Treasured!

My yellow dress reminds me that there is more to life, often invisible and intangible. Its called love.

05 Jan

Where Are the Women in the South Sudan Peace Talks?

South Sudan Flag

South Sudan Flag

The South Sudan crisis is with us and the peace talks are on-going in Ethiopia. Today 1,000 people are reported to have died, and 180,000 are displaced, according to the United Nations. Just like in any other conflict, the majority of the victims are civilians,  mostly women and children.

For many years, I have walked the path searching for peace with my sisters in the South Sudan. For many years, the women South Sudan fought side by side with their male folks for the independence of the country. They struggled to be in the IGAD facilitated peace talks at Machakos and other places. I recall my years with UNIFEM and the many consultations held with women, strategising to be part of the humanitarian response, the post conflict needs assessments, the constitutional review processes, community peace building among others. They pushed for 25% representation of women in all institutions of decision making. I had the opportunity to visit South Sudan many times during this transition, encouraging my sisters that another world is possible. The work of groups like the YWCA in Yambio have been sowing the seeds of opportunities in local communities especially for women, children and young people.

At the Oslo Donors’s Conference on Sudan, it was such a momentous occasion when the Sudanese women, from both north and south had a moment of direct presentation of their issues to the Sudan Vice President Taha of Sudan and Dr John Garang de Mabior, Leader of the SPLM. I was facilitating that meeting, where the women adopted the Sudanese Women’s Priorities and Recommendations to the Oslo Donors’ Conference. They addressed several key themes including a) governance and the rule of law; b) gender based violence; c) capacity building and institutional development; d) economic policy and management; e) livelihoods and productive sectors and f) basic social services covering health and education. The Sudanese women recalled the existing commitments, and called for specific actions:

“Guided by UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000), the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals, the African Union Protocol on Women’s Human Rights, the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, the IGAD Gender Policy, as well as other existing commitments, principles, goals and actions set out in the various 
national, regional, continental and international instruments on women’s human rights Cognizant of the huge impact of war on women and women’s human rights, the erosion of capacities of women and the fundamental divisions that war creates;

Deeply concerned by the continued existence of conflict in some parts of Sudan, especially the  Darfurs, and its impact on women and children; 
Recognizing women’s role in peace-building, peacemaking, reconstruction and sustaining  families and communities amidst the ravages of war, poverty and HIV/AIDS and women’s fundamental human right to be full and equal partners in all sectors and at all levels, from local through national, but bearing in mind the different status of women in the different areas of Sudan………we the women delegates recommend for the urgent minimum priority to …Ensure the representation of women in the monitoring mechanisms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and all peace missions”.

South Sudan, the youngest country in the world today is in crisis, and there are no women on the peace table! Why do we have all these baskets and baskets of resolutions, statements and policies when they can not be implemented! What is needed is for commitment to for an inclusive process from Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union, the parties to the negotiations; the United Nations, the media and civil society networks. The inclusion of women in the negotiations has many peace dividends; and it expands the perspectives, the focus and the analysis. The power of the nation and the sustainability of peace lies in the belly of the ordinary citizens, men and women of South Sudan.

I join others around the world in rallying for the real support and presence of  South Sudan women in the peace talks. Women are not just victims of war, they are part of the solution.

References

http://www.unifem.org/attachments/events/SudaneseWomenStatementToOsloDonorsConference.pdf

http://www.women24.com/News/South-Sudan-peace-talks-to-open-in-Ethiopia-20140102-2

 

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