Rwandan women’s rights advocate Dinah Musindarwezo has dropped some gems about her feminist awakening (part 1), and her experience of bringing her feminist values home in her family life - with her parents (part 2) and with her partner and son (part 3). However I couldn’t let her go without picking her brains on some big picture questions I have been struggling with as someone who, just like Dinah, has chosen policy advocacy for African women as my profession.
Your advocacy work focuses a lot on regional and international policies. Same for me, and I’ve often wondered if my work really made a difference in the lives of the individual women whom we advocate for. Their realities are so removed from the African Union or the United Nations and other spaces where we work. Do you ever struggle with that?
Let me answer with an example. In Zambia, a young girl who had been raped at school. There was no law in Zambia that protected her, but she used the Maputo Protocol, which is a regional framework that her country had adopted, and went to the courts to demand justice. She won the case, and as a result the Zambian government adopted a law on violence against women and protecting girls at school. That gives me hope that our regional advocacy improves lives of African women in a tangible way. Every level of the work we do matters.
“Our regional advocacy improves lives of African women in a tangible way.”
We need to document these stories more!
I think we also need to be more intentional about how we do advocacy. At FEMNET we would make sure that our delegation to big international forums like the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York was not just our own staff.
We wanted our members to come along: women and advocates directly affected by the issues who were then able to speak on their own behalf, call out their governments for saying things were doing well when they knew their international promises had not been translated into national policies, and proposing their own solutions. As advocates, if we want to feel like the levels are connected, we should be intentional about connecting the levels!
Still, some policy issues seem so big picture. Let’s take the question of economic policies. How do UN negotiations on economic policies impact life of my auntie, who lives in a remote village in Cameroon?
This reminds me of an African Union meeting last year where we had to write with an African Common position on rural women. I asked that we include some language on tax justice and financial flows, and a woman asked me: “are you for real? We’re talking about the lives of rural women and you want to talk about tax justice?” She couldn’t believe it.
And yet, the women who live in rural areas in Africa are most affected by financial flows than any of us. When there’s tax evasion and illicit financial flows, we are losing resources that should have been used for development projects in these women’s villages. Our development money is being taken out of the continent through illicit financial flows especially through tax abuse, paying illegitimate debts, unfavorable trade conditions etc. Research shows that money that goes out through these means is more money we receive through international aid.
“The women who live in rural areas in Africa are most affected by financial flows than any of us.”
Okay, please keep going. And do break it down like I’m clueless because I might or might not be…
What do you think happens when big multinational companies invest in Africa but don’t pay their fair share of taxes? Well, our public services are underfunded: our schools, our health centers, our social protection systems suffer. If tax evasion means the government cannot provide free education, then your auntie is struggling to send her kids to school. And what happens when she can only pay for one child to attend school? She pays school fees for her son because of the value the society gives to a son, and her daughter’s potential is ruined.
Or your auntie might need to go to the hospital, but our public hospitals are underfunded because of the financial flows problems I mentioned. We don’t have enough doctors and nurses, and there’s not enough medicine. Those of us who can afford it will go to private hospitals, but people with low/or no income will suffer - especially if they are women, like your auntie, because they use public hospitals more, if only to access reproductive health services.
And when your auntie has to stay at home sick and someone has to take care of her, who’s going to miss school or work to do that? Her daughter, your cousin. These are just a few examples of how macroeconomic policies issues affect a women’s everyday life.
Thank you for that! I like how you make it so clear. Another challenge many of us are facing is how we can, as African feminists, own our agenda when our organizations rely so heavily on Western funding? I guess it applies for all development practitioners, but I’m asking you from perspective as a feminist advocate who has headed a pan-African NGO.
The fact that we depend on external resources for our organizations’ survival and sustainability is a challenge, for sure. But you know, the African feminist movement has been very smart and strategic about this. How do you deal with it? Well, of course you must accept some of the conditions the donors impose and sometimes that means making hard decisions. Just make sure it’s nothing you can’t live with.
Make sure you are clear on what your own agenda is, and you allocate the largest percentage of the resources to the issues you strongly believe are going to make a difference in the lives of the constituency you are representing: girls and women. It’s all about negotiating!
But as we negotiate, we must remember one thing: we are asking for resources, but we too are a precious resource for all these donors. Let’s remember what we bring to the table as African feminists. Someone might be sitting in London with money and an idea, but without us they will never be able to implement it. That’s our power, and we need to use it to negotiate for what matters to us.
I like that! Now tell me: what’s your most unpopular opinion as an African feminist? Something you feel strongly about but you think many in the African feminist movement disagree with or just don’t think about?
As a feminist I believe in the rights of all women: no hierarchy, no selecting some rights and leaving out others. Within the women’s movement we agree mostly, but the issue of sexual minorities has been a sticky point. To me, it doesn’t matter whether you are a queer woman or a lesbian: you deserve to have your rights protected and to be part of the movement, just like any other woman. Many feminists don’t agree with that, and that caused me some challenges when I was leading FEMNET. Some members thought these issues should not be prioritized, and I disagreed. Whether we want it or not, lesbians and queer women are here, and we need to fight for their rights.
Abortion rights is another issue I sometimes feel isolated on. Many feminists have positions that are informed by their religion, and they don’t want to include abortion rights in our collective agenda as the African women’s rights movement. But I do.
These are two causes I wish the entire movement were more committed to. I find it interesting that many forget that their reasons for opposing these rights come from a colonial background.
That’s some food for thought right there. Here’s my last question for you Dinah: what is your feminist life motto?
“The personal is political”.
Thank you Dinah for such an enlightening conversation, and for being a trailblazer for African women’s rights! I have learned, laughed, and even teared up a little at different points of our discussion. What about you? How did Dinah’s perspectives inspire or challenge you? What’s your own approach to living a feminist life? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter and Facebook (and don’t forget to share!)