On Friday the 1st of July, 2016 we had the lovely opportunity to converse with Juliet Were, a Feminist Leader and an African Women Leadership Institute Alumni, to pick her brain, soak up her wisdom, and reminisce with her as she recounted her success and challenges she has faced throughout her journey as an activist.
Who is Juliet Were? A leader, a mother, a friend, or an activist? All of the above. Juliet, who is the first born among seven children, spoke of how her role as the eldest child enabled her to cultivate leadership skills at a young age. She explained that this was the first platform that encouraged her to be outspoken and confident in her beliefs. When asked what unique quality she hones that may not be known to many, she affirmed that she is a gifted orator. It is through this gift that she is able to advocate, empower, and positively impact the lives of vulnerable women. Apart from being outspoken, her poised demeanor and amicable nature endorse her as a loyal friend and a person one could confine in.She ruminated on how she is able to keep the confidential tales of friends, but is deeply honored to be able to be a support system for many. This attribute has played a crucial part in her brilliant work as a researcher and counselor for women.
Juliet illuminated joy and donned a pensive expression, as she began to speak on the origins of her passion in women rights advocacy. She indicated, ‘Most people have passion, but many rarely act on it’. She explained that her passion was fueled by opportunities in working within a women rights advocacy organization – Isis-WICCE, right after completing university. This environment inspired her as she worked alongside eager and enthusiastic activists such as herself. She interjected that one of her greatest achievements was being selected to be a participant of the African Woman Leadership Institute in 2003 and explained how the faculty of this program were experienced and scholarly feminists leaders who were great facilitators in motivating her to advocate for women’s rights.
These bold feminist leaders helped her acquire tools to understand the concepts of Feminism and how she could use these strategies to cultivate her own journey as a feminist leader.She then personified her inspiration via a quote from Brazilian Educator and Author Paul Freire, 1999, “Our struggle today does not necessarily mean that we will achieve change, but without our struggle today, perhaps future generations would have to struggle much more. History does not finish with us, it goes beyond.”This quote gives her incentive to do the work she does. Though there are times where success and progress are fleeting, she has cultivated a large group of friends from grassroots level to authorities in various councils and has acquired support systems from around the world, who continuously express their gratitude and appreciation of the great work she does. It is through these connections, phone calls and opportunities that her drive is continuously restored, making her eager to continue to strive for a better life for women worldwide.
Juliet’s journey to become the distinguished feminist leader she is today was not always clear skies and butterflies; she gave us great insight on how her journey as an activist has not only created strong bonds of friendship across borders, religions, and economic stance, but how it has significantly narrowed her group of friends. She described how the career of advocacy takes a large amount of time, energy, and commitment and those previously stable relationships may wither over time.
Noting the energy and amount of time one invests in this line of work Juliet advises, that self-care is paramount when being an activist. The amount of sorrow and psychological toll that one witnesses on the job is vast and since we are all but human, activists should take care in making sure they look after themselves in every aspect. A word of advice she has for young feminists is that they should love themselves and their body first so they can actively take part in the healing of others. She also emphasizes on journaling, as a therapeutic way in voicing inner turmoil and working out difficult thoughts. Another piece of advice she gave was that young feminist should take advantage of the literature and academic research that the feminists before them have done, therefore they can use their passion to build on ideas and concepts that can be used to better the lives of women in need of support. She expresses her point further by stating that there are various types of feminism in the world, some could be radical, but it is up to every individual to be tolerant towards all forms of this movement and to forge a sisterhood aimed at transforming and liberating women globally.
As we continued our dialogue, Juliet shared with us one of her most memorable stories in the field that impacted her throughout her career. She spoke about a project she was conducting in Sierra Leone in 2008, whereby she and her colleagues were analyzing the extent to which women’s needs and priorities had been incorporated in the post conflict reconstruction phase. She and her colleagues traveled to Tambakha Chiefdom located on the border of Sierra Leone and Cote D’ivoire, a twenty-four hour drive on a very poor road. They were trying to move from point A to point B, but unfortunately got lost in a forest with no one to their rescue, well into the evening.Finally, they found makeshift military barracks which was the only viable place of refuge. They entered and addressed the head of the military group, explaining to him that they had gotten lost and that it was too late for them to continue their journey. The head of the troop ushered them inside, gave them water, and welcomed them to take refuge in the camp. Juliet was dumbfounded by how well received they were by the soldiers and the courtesy that was extended to them. “We were able to rest the whole night and continued our journey without hassle the next day!” she exclaimed with a tone of disbelief.
They had been terrified because of the varying negative attitudes and stories told bythe women they worked with who cited soldiers as being callous and violent. It was a truly eye opening and humbling experience for her to witness the soldiers treating her and her colleagues with respect. This story was one of the many Juliet happily shared with us. I must assure you each of these stories encompassed and elucidated her adventurous, brave, and daring spirit. She has travelled to many countries around the world, advocating and analyzing the ways in which the lives of women can be bettered in every aspect and at every level.
When we asked her what advice she would give future women advocates, she stated, they need to be bold and confident in what they are fighting for. She states that patriarchy is an ever changing enigma. Therefore it is up to us as feminists to also be flexible, innovate, and clever in formulating various ways to tackle this social norm.
Juliet shared with us the various drawbacks she has witnessed during the course of her journey as a feminist leader. Although they prove to be frustrating, she describes these challenges optimistically as means of improvement and reassessment. She articulated that the various policies and laws that are written, noted, and understood, by those at higher levels of legislation, are rarely reflected in the real life scenarios or at the grassroots level. She continued stating that it is imperative that these laws should be relayed and implemented in a more effective way. Another major drawback she touches on and also suggests as an improvement in the realm of women’s rights advocacy is pushing individuals, government institutions, as well as organizations of all sectors to become economically self-sufficient, waning off the reliance of foreign aid.
She explains that as a nation we are continuously sponsored by donors who have prerequisites and conditions to the money they donate. It is within these conditions that our sovereignty is jeopardized, thus subjecting us to stunted progress and development. As a country we need to look at self sustainability as one entity instead of constantly scavenging for the next shilling as individuals. Whether this is a person in the field or in head office, this particular form of economic poverty cripples us all. It is up to us as a nation to empower ourselves, and to abolish this reliance. This will then liberate us to make more effective changes, especially in the sector of women rights and advocacy.
Juliet Were is an inspiration, a motivational powerhouse and world changing African woman feminist who is successfully doing what she can with what she has, and is using her influential brilliance to encourage more women to dedicate their passion and gifts to bettering the lives of women worldwide.
By: Lwantale Kalemera, Akina Mama wa Afrika Intern