Her name is Mabel Imali Isolio, a transformative feminist who underwent the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) in 1998 in Naivasha, Kenya. She has been trained in sociology and literature and possesses a post graduate degree in mass communication and a Master’s degree in Gender and Development. Meet our alumna of the month!
Kindly tell us about yourself and your work
I have experience working with people in communities for example under USAID Kenya and Canadian government which had a project that aimed at economic, social and political empowerment of women. I also worked with Uraia Trust, a Non-Governmental organization (NGO) focusing civic education as a Gender Programme Manager where I managed a two-year women’s leadership project that contributed to increased women participation and representation in elective political leadership in the 2017 general elections. The achievement was largely due to the approaches used to demystify the socio-cultural and political barriers that hinder women’s participation in political leadership in the country.
I also worked with government of Kenya as a Court reporter and I realized that many women suffered from various forms of human rights violations, perpetuated by patriarchy. I have worked with women in many countries in Africa and mostly in Kenya and South Sudan, where I continue to empower them at different levels.
Where did your passion for feminist leadership stem from?
It goes back to growing up with my grandmother who was a feminist through her actions and attitude of helping women to succeed. I grew up as a feminist, but I didn’t know the word ‘feminism’ before the AWLI. It was not until the AWLI that I began to self-label as a feminist, with no Ifs, Buts or Howevers.
Why was the African Women Leadership Institute (AWLI) appealing for you to take part in as a leader?
It was appealing because I had worked with NGOs and government on issues regarding women rights before and I was against human rights violations and the AWLI equipped me with the tools to deconstruct the patriarchy and also connected me to the network of other powerful feminist sisters who we have continued to walk the journey, be mentored and mentor others too.
What were your expectations before joining and did the Institute live up to these expectations?
I expected to learn more about feminism and women rights. The AWLI met my expectations because I learnt more about feminism, human rights, leadership, and self-care hence it helped me to work within all spheres like in community and also with national, regional and international spaces. I enhanced my skills in leadership, built my confidence to challenge oppression and begun the journey to mentor other women.
What has been your biggest achievement following the AWLI training you attended?
Thanks to the AWLI, I had the opportunity to engage with various African women, I have also worked with several women especially in Kenya and South Sudan which I consider as my second home hence I owe my strength to them. The AWLI motivated me to engage with women with disabilities as I felt they were more marginalized and violated because of their circumstances and did not feature in decision making. I wrote a successful funding proposal to CIDA-GESP which enabled the implementation of a two-year project on paralegal education and entrepreneurship skills for women with disabilities in Western Kenya. The success of the project attracted the American Ambassador’s Fund for another 2 years, this time increasing the coverage to more districts in the region.
How was your interaction with faculty, who were they and how exactly did they impact your journey during AWLI and beyond?
The faculty had a great team of women that were so knowledgeable especially Bisi Adeleye, my biggest inspiration because of her approach in the training. She gave us assignments which further helped us to articulate ourselves at community level. She encouraged us to mentor other women and followed us up to find out whether we were using the feminist principles in our work and she continued to amplify our work, so I will always look up to her.
How important is sisterhood and networking in your line of work, and did the institute support you in this regard?
Sisterhood is important because after AWLI, I realized that nobody can work alone and achieve much and as my grandmother once told me “one thumb can’t kill a mouse”. As women, we need sisterhood to create change. We must work together and support each other.
What challenges have you faced during your journey, how have you conquered them?
The main challenge I have faced while working with women are the people around them because sometimes as we start mentoring women barriers such as family members and spouses may not allow them to continue with the programme. While the backlash is frustrating, I have never given up my support and will continue encouraging them to keep on keeping on.
Many would regard you as a resilient African feminist who has immensely contributed to the advancement of young women’s rights. How have you managed to maintain this brand and what is your advice to young women aspiring to lead?
I would like to advise young women that once you start, don’t look backwards don’t let anyone interfere with what you do as a feminist. I believe in forward ever backward never so young women must value their work of helping other women. I have managed to mentor very many women at national and county level and it helps me build my brand because I am known by so many people for the work I do with women. I even received a Head of State Commendation (HSC) for the Gender work I have done in Kenya and it was all because the women I mentored and the institutions I worked for recommended me for this State Honour.
Sometimes the work we do can be challenging and draining at the same time; what do you do to renew your energies?
I do a lot of exercising, reading and socializing with very many women so as to share experiences and knowledge with them .I also believe in God so it helps me in renewing my energy.
Why would you encourage young women out there to pursue the AWLI?
I would gladly recommend AWLI to young people because it’s the best feminist leadership training ever. To make the best out of the AWLI, women need to undertake a reality check of themselves to understand their leadership needs, so they get into it determining what they must achieve at the minimum. The sessions on confidence and self-esteem building are the building blocks of how women can navigate the barriers that hinder their involvement in decision making leadership.
Any future/prospects for young women in Africa?
Young women should always focus on the way forward and they should look out for inspirational women to become their mentors. We should also keep sharing experiences and knowledge because the world is changing and very fast too. I foresee a situation where, if women do not act very fast, they are going to be time-barred. But wait a minute, I have a plan!! My plan for a Women Leadership Academy is well at an advanced stage. Watch this space!!