Young African Feminism leveraging social media for SRHR advocacy

We spoke with Catherine Nyambura, responsible for advocacy at FEMNET, a pan-African organization that was born with the aim of facilitating and coordinating the exchange of experiences for the promotion of the human rights of African women and girls. She tells us her experience and vision.

Catherine Nyambura self identifies herself as a feminist policy expert, with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV/AIDS, gender and development. Catherine is a 2016 Mandela fellow, a fellowship that recognizes Young African leaders of social transformation in their communities, launched by president Barrack Obama under the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). She is also a 2016 Women Deliver young leader and among the inaugural 120 Under 40 winners. All of these awards and recognition are due to her work to enable teenage girls and young women access information and services, and foster innovation in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

Catherine has nearly 10 years of experience in advancing gender equality and SRHR, through movement-building, digital and social media, policy advocacy and capacity-building, with a focus on young women and teenage girls. She has engaged and taken leadership in various global and regional policy and multi-lateral processes, such as the ICPD Beyond 2014 review, Beijing +20, Financing for Development, post 2015 agenda, TICAD, World Trade Organization and African Union summits. She has also been part of the Kenyan government delegation.

Catherine has extensive experience in multi-lateral advocacy, coalition building, program management and leadership. She is currently the advocacy officer and SRHR Lead at FEMNET, the African women development and communications network; sits in the board of Msichana Kuria, a young women-led organization working to end child marriage and female genital mutilation, and also sits in various technical and international working groups and advisory boards for global campaigns and partnerships aimed at advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Catherine, tell us how was FEMNET born and what is the philosophy behind it.

The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) is a pan-African women’s rights organization, that was initiated in 1988 by African feminist activists. FEMNET was born to provide a coordination platform for African women’s and girls’ engagement in policy as well as decisions making on national, regional and global level, on issues that affect them. As the name indicates, the organization is committed to African women’s organizations around shared objectives, through networking, communication, capacity-building and advocacy.

Today, FEMNET is present in 48 African countries, across all 5 sub regions of Africa and has 630 members. FEMNET has an organizational vision of: an African society where gender equality is achieved, and women and girls enjoy all their rights and live in dignity. Our members participate in many ways, including shaping the organization’s vision through programmatic priorities articulated in the strategic plan. Additionally, members are crucial in implementing this vision through joint implementation and co-creation of activities, and especially collective advocacy at different decision-making strategies.

You promote new strategies in order to engage women and girls within the AIDS response. Tell us about the #WhatWomenWant campaign.

I am affiliated with the ATHENA Initiative, as a member of the core team. The ATHENA Initiative is a global women’s rights organization, feminist collective and networking, to amplify convergences between HIV, women’s rights and human rights. ATHENA Initiative launched the #WhatWomenWant campaign, a vehicle to advance gender equality within and outside the HIV response. Through it, ATHENA seeks to amplify women’s voices, highlight their realities and power collective solutions, by creating a platform for women, including young women, to influence global policy discourse, without requiring an invitation or a visa.

The campaign engages through an expanding network of primarily women-led organizations and individuals, who are working towards gender equality, focusing on women’s rights and health.
With each contribution, #WhatWomenWant aims to:

  • Bring attention to the urgent need to address women’s rights and gender-related disparities, within and beyond the HIV response.
  • Catalyze joined up action, where gender equality, human rights, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), gender-based violence (GBV), and HIV intersect.
  • Put women and young women in charge of defining their own agendas.
  • Harness the experience lived by women and young women, in all of their diversity to create advocacy tools by and for women, to advance their own solutions wherever they are.
  • Identify leadership opportunities for women and young women in all of their diversity, to engage stakeholders and be meaningfully involved in the decision-making processes that most affect their lives.

To date, #WhatWomenWant has included in-person organizing, social media organizing in the form of twitter chats, WhatsApp group consultations, young feminist blog series and research, aimed at narrative building by articulating the perspectives of women and girls in their diversity on HIV/AIDS, SRHR and Gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Can you tell us about some specific actions FEMNET is carrying out to reduce gender gaps and defend Social Rights?

FEMNET is currently working across the African continent to enable access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights, economic justice, to eliminate of all forms of violence against women including harmful practices and enhance women’s leadership. I lead the work on sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as young women’s engagement. As part of my lead role, I spearhead the “Young Women; Stand Up be Counted” project. The project aims to strengthen the capacity of young women towards harnessing concerted advocacy and communication skills to consolidate young women’s input into national, regional and global advocacy movements. The project utilizes dialogue, capacity building, coalition building, media engagement, including social media and leveraging on the power of sports and art to mobilize, train and facilitate young women’s informed, effective and strategic input and engagement at all levels. So far, the project has provided FEMNET with a tool to foster deliberate focus and strengthened interaction between its young women members. It has also created essential pathways for young women’s meaningful participation and contribution to national, regional and global policy advocacy. By fostering innovation and creativity, the project is a demonstration concept on scalable models, for engaging young women and for creating space for them in the mainstream women’s movements.

How do you benefit and make use of the power of a new generation of young African women leaders, who use social media to amplify and integrate a gender-transformative response to HIV?

The #WhatWomenWant and #WhatGirlsWant have provided avenues and platforms to leverage social and digital media to define the intersections of gender equality, HIV and SRHR.

A good example is the “Young Feminist Blog Series” launched as a part of the #WhatWomenWant campaign. Through the blog series, young feminists from across the globe, and especially from Africa, shared their own voices and those of the constituencies they serve, to highlight solutions for programming, policy and funding priorities. The Serie was launched ahead of the 2016 High Level meeting on HIV/AIDS. By the time the meeting was hosted in New York, the blog series had span 16 countries and territories.

The blog continues to be authored by activists and feminists working for HIV prevention, care and treatment for diverse populations, law and policy making, and academic people demonstrating the broad- base and extension of the agenda beyond HIV and AIDS, etc. Some of the topics covered within this series framework include SRHR, contraception, youth friendly services, finance and legal issues, LGBTI issues, gender-based violence, trans rights, implementation, follow up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What led you to a career in advocacy building with a core focus on young women and teenage girls in Africa?

I began my own journey as a young feminist consciously in 2008, even though I like to think of myself as always being a feminist. During a feminist leadership class in 2013, I was able to articulate my own personal vision and conviction. During this period as a feminist and in my career as a gender and SRHR expert, I have worked on various exciting topics, including abortion rights in a criminalized context, working towards policy reforms and addressing abortion stigma. This includes profiling the role and leadership of young feminists towards realizing sustainable social changes and articulating the intersectionality between SRHR, HIV/AIDS and broader gender equality and women’s rights issues. Working for and focusing my professional expertise on sexual and reproductive health and rights has definitely grounded my feminist journey and perspectives.

The personal side is political, and my professional experience has certainly very much influenced my personal experience. I grew in one of the biggest slums in Nairobi, which gave me insights into what intersectionality means. A big part of the issues I address through my work, are issues to which I have very deep connections, from personal experiences or deep wounds from how my friends and those close to me have been affected directly or indirectly. For example, I have lost friends because of maternal mortality, AIDS and have friends who have fallen back to unsafe abortions.

What is the place given to African women in the 2030 Agenda? Do you think women are left behind?

African women and girls are stakeholders and direct actors of development that have worked over time to exercise and demonstrate their political, social and economic force. African women and girls are key elements in ensuring that the current commitments encapsulated in 2030 Agenda integrate a strong gender lens enshrined in SDG5 and in indicators in other goals.

It is therefore critical that national efforts recognize this fact and create space for women’s rights organizations and individual African women and girls to support the implementation, follow up and review of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development (SDGs). At the heart of 2030 Agenda for sustainable development is a commitment to leave no one behind. This includes the voices of African women and girls at all levels of implementation, follow up and review of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Quality Education and Gender Equality are both very strong Sustainable Development Goals focus points. How do you think technology can contribute to their achievement?

Technology provides an opportunity to bridge gaps that continue to proliferate inequalities. Internet has opened up new spaces for positive impact and specially to create new political spaces for young people, including young women, and to provide ways to disseminate information and cost-effective mobilization. Yet, despite Internet’s rise as a democratic space, barriers to access it are deeply entrenched along gender, socio-economic and rural-urban divides, which further advances inequalities among young people. These divides are further compounded where teenage girls and young women are not educated. Therefore, even though the internet and technology broadly are phenomenal and represent huge opportunities, it is important to remember that it is not readily available, or affordable, to all. Owning a personal computer, laptop, cellphone, etc. remains a luxury for many, and yet in daily life and across all sectors, innovations and solutions are often assuming that these tools are unspoken basic input for solutions.

What advice would you give to any girl out there who wants to make a difference?

It is very possible to change your current situation, to aspire and want better for yourself. I remember already knowing I wanted better for myself when I was as young as 10 years. That drive has kept me going until now. It has been the fuel for my focus and the spirit that holds me together when I want to give up. Over time, I have realized the need for a strong support system, giving back and being the ladder for others to climb. I do not take the situation I have for granted and call on every young woman with dreams to keep dreaming and to take on the world. I also want to highlight that being a young girl and young woman with dreams means being aware of the challenges and most of them systematic, that will stand in your way. I will not blindly tell young women to just have ambition without recognizing that the world is not fair nor equal for young women who have dreams similar to those of young men and boys, as they already have an unfair head start, given the patriarchal system and world we find ourselves in. Many women have supported me as I have figured my way through life, and I want to offer myself to young women who identify themselves in my story, journey and aspirations in life to reach out. Let’s do this together!!

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