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Misean Cara Project Officer Ivanna Youtchak and CEO Heydi Foster met Minister Counselor at the Kenyan Embassy Immaculate Wambua, and H.E. Lela-alem Gebreyohannes Tedla, Ambassador of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Photo: Misean Cara.

 

Yesterday, the Trinity International Development Initiative (TIDI) ‘Inspiring Change: Empowering Women’s Futures in Africa’ hosted its Africa Day 2015 conference.

The African Union marks 2015 as the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063’, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform, facilitated by UN Women, which supports gender equality globally. The conference looked at key issues in gender; on how movements towards equality for women and girls has progressed globally, what the barriers are to female empowerment and gender equality and how can they be overcome and what opportunities exist in 2015 to progress the gender equality platform, given the activities happening this year.

The conference Opening Address was presented by Misean Cara CEO Heydi Foster.

Opening Address

I’m Heydi Foster, the CEO of Misean Cara and an Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioner. I am honoured and privileged to be here, and I would like to thank the organisers of today’s event for the invitation to open what promises to be a very interesting afternoon.

Africa Day is a wonderful opportunity to remind everyone, that Africa is not a country! Nor is African a language! Instead it is a richly diverse continent – the second largest with the second biggest population – which contributes so much to the world. Host to 54 countries, over 2,000 languages, and 100 million Facebook users. Africa’s wealth surely lies in the diversity of its people.

As CEO of Misean Cara, I represent the largest missionary member organisation in Ireland. Our members have been active in their communities across Africa for decades, working with some of the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised populations in the world.

This first wave of development workers bravely travelled to remote and isolated parts of Africa. And they stayed there – establishing themselves, living side by side and working in solidarity with their communities. They founded schools and hospitals, trained locals, provided seed funding for micro-projects and supported local responses to local problems.

Missionaries’ resilience and responsiveness was recently tested again with the outbreak of Ebola. But they stood firm, providing crucial resources in times of crisis, with unparalleled access to some of the worst affected by the outbreak. And when the media spotlight fades and moves on to the next attention-grabbing story, our Members will stay, roll up their sleeves, and help rebuild lives and dreams.

Ebola is the latest catastrophe to befall Africa. It has endured a painful and tragic past, marred by colonisation and civil war. The Pan-African dream was never realised post-independence. Today we witness poor leadership and decision-making. Despotic leaders refuse to step down, preside over widespread corruption and put their own interests over the welfare of their people.

But it would naïve and self-serving to think that the position of Africa in the world is of its own making. For much of modern times there was deep prejudice on the part of the rest of the world towards Africa. This prejudice relates to the colour of the skin of the majority of the people living there. The people of Africa were exploited through slavery and plundering of resources. Such racial prejudice has not, unfortunately, been eliminated from some people’s views of Africa and, even if others have moved on, the legacy of former attitudes has left Africa in a much weaker position relative to more prosperous parts of the world.

My own story is that of a member of a bi-racial family who fled my home country of Guatemala due to civil war and human rights abuses. I worked with Guatemalan orphans in Mexico and poor women migrants from my home country and other parts of Latin America and Africa who had resettled in the United States.

So the position of African women is close to my heart. Women in Africa continue to endure some of the greatest human rights violations of our time – sex trafficking, child brides, rape as a weapon of war and Female Genital Mutilation to name but a few. Women not only suffer racial discrimination, they also endure more oppression due to gender inequality.

As I said, we are quick to accuse African leaders of self-interest and poor governance. We base our first-world criticisms on values such as equality, human rights and basic respect for the humanity of all individuals and groups. But what does our espousal of these values mean when we see fellow human beings fleeing war and persecution and drowning off the coast of Europe? Do our actions meet the standard of the values we espouse to African leaders?

Shamefully, no.

Instead we fail to recognise and confront the racial prejudice that constrains our response. There are truly awful consequences to our choice of bureaucratic inaction over the provision of a proper lifeline and refuge to fellow humans.

We must not allow prejudice and bureaucracy obscure our personal and collective responsibility to exercise human decency and compassion. We must act immediately to address the risk to life on our doorstep.

But we must also work with communities in Africa and elsewhere to build local livelihoods and improve social conditions.

During a recent trip to Zambia, I met with Mary. Mary was the single mother of a daughter with a disability. Mary’s daughter was shunned by her village. Mary and her child faced great social stigma. Her daughter never played with other children or went to school. In the absence of any formal assistance, Mary carried her on her back and was her sole carer.

Mary and some other mothers approached our Members with their concerns that their children were invisible. With support from Misean Cara, together, they established a small school for children with disabilities. Mary’s daughter was provided with a wheelchair and she began to learn to read and write.

The visibility of children with disabilities in the village challenged stereotypes and superstitions. Through outreach and education programmes, villagers learnt of the importance of human dignity, inclusion and acceptance.

Today Mary’s daughter is an independent young woman and represents a clear shift in understanding. She is appreciated and respected by her peers and works a full-time job.

Mary’s painful yet positive story represents the women of Africa. Women driving change on behalf of themselves and their loved ones, pillars in their societies, the unrecognised leaders of their communities.

Beijing +20’s campaign ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!’ seeks to point us towards a more just future. Empowering women can be achieved at a multitude of levels. Ensuring girls go to school, providing a loan to a mother to purchase a shop stall, promoting female participation in business, sitting in parliament or leading states.

We must assist African women to claim this space (pause)! Equality is not a gift to women; it is a fundamental human right, an entitlement from birth. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is attracting a new generation of readers to African literature. And she challenges us on gender and feminism she says: “Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable”.

  • But be under no illusion, African women are challenging the status quo. There are many inspiring stories:
    There are strong traditions going back many years in parts of Africa within which women have played a central role. I met members of the Bemba tribe in Zambia this year. The Bemba uses a matriarchal system whereby women are responsible for planting, harvesting, drying and pounding the dried grain into flour allowing them full control over food security.
  • The African National Congress Women’s League, the women’s wing of the African National Congress was a powerful force in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
  • In Rwanda post-genocide, women made up 70% of the population, and they led a social revolution moving away from traditional roles to get involved in politics. Now decades later, the Rwandan parliament has more women representatives than anywhere else in the world.

And individual African women leaders are also inspiring others:

  • Kenya’s Wangari Muta Maathai, an environmental and political activist, became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was also an elected member of parliament, and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
  • President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female elected head of state in Africa. She took over from Charles Taylor who was subsequently convicted of war crimes. She was re-elected in 2011 and in the same year she shared in winning the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for women’s human rights and safety. She led her countries’ response to Ebola and after more than a year and some missteps Liberia has thankfully this month been declared Ebola free.
  • Recently I had the opportunity to hear Lindine Mazibuko speak. She is just 35 years of age and has been Parliamentary Leader of the Democratic Alliance in South Africa. She is a powerful advocate for women’s participation in South African politics and society generally.

There are many other examples of inspiring African women leaders. Such inspiration is present here today. I am humbled to share the stage with eminent and formidable leaders; Martina, Lilian, Bikiya, Faiza, Minna, Michelle, and His Excellency Anas Khales.

And so I hand over to my counterparts who continue to lead and inspire change. We salute your courage and leadership. We urge and support you to take your rightful place – centre stage. So that Africa is no longer isolated and African women no longer marginalised. Please share your stories, make us think, provoke us, make us responsible for our actions and our inactions. We are here to cheer you on.

Thank you.