As the year draws to a close we commend and congratulate all our sisters who shared with us their leadership journeys through 2014. In ending the year we are happy to share with you one very exciting leadership journey of Lingalireni captured this exclusive interview in which she vividly speaks of her African Women Leadership Institute (AWLI) experience...
Qn. Briefly tell us about Lingalireni?
Ans. My name is Lingalireni Ndekha Mihowa I am a Malawian. I consider myself a development Practitioner and Social Justice Activist. I am passionate about women and girls' rights activism. And I am currently Country Coordinator for a Livelihood and Food Security Technical Assistance (LIFT) Project in FHI 360 Malawi
Qn. What are some of your unique qualities that define your personality as an African woman of strength?
Ans. I think for me it has been the inspiration. I was born in a family that never set any limits for me so I grew up believing in myself; and this greatly influenced my personality. I have no remembrance of limitation. I grew up believing that anything can be done; I saw strong men and women become successful. So this belief in oneself is a quality that helped me break many mental barriers. Growing up, I saw many forms of inequalities in the country, and while in school my eyes opened to gender inequalities. For example; the poor attitudes of some of the female and male teachers displayed towards girls' capabilities in primary school.
In my time at university, I noted the subtle and blatant attacks on female students that resisted male subordination and oppression. So such experiences made me resolve that as an African woman I should play a role to remove the injustice. And of course, I was also shaped by the four years I spent at one of the best girl's secondary school in Malawi, Providence Secondary School. Our headmistress Sister Kambilonje, a Catholic nun, inspired us. She taught us many things about self esteem, ambition in life and excellence. All girls' schools have greatly and positively impacted on many women in Malawi. Today, when I attend a meeting, and there's a confident woman making her contributions on the table, I assume she's been to a girl's only school. And most of the times, my assumptions is correct!
Qn. What was your AWLI experience like? How has it impacted on your personal life and career development?
Ans. I went through the AWLI in 1999 and for me this was a life changing experience. I was one of the first Malawian participants. The AWLI helped me define myself as an African Women. I met amazing leaders who mentored me; the likes of Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Sarah Mukasa, Jerusha Arothe-Vaughan, Hon Miriam Matembe. To date I have continued to cherish these women in terms of their belief in the women's movement. The AWLI for me opened new doors that allowed me to meet other women from the continent who have continued to relate with and who have supported my leadership journey.
Qn. What were the unique aspects of the AWLI training? Are there some lessons you got from AWLI that have proved particularly effective in improving your work with women?
Ans. Well I think for me the self-belief is critical we meet so many barriers that limit our horizon so sessions like the ones on self-esteem, assertiveness, contextualizing oneself continue to shape the space I stand in. There are many young women who pursue their career but have not had the safe space to reflect on issues that affect our woman hood, African nature and femininity. The AWLI influenced me around the role of young women's leadership in the women's movement in my country. It is for this reason that I co-founded the Young Women Leader's Network in Malawi in 2000. The Network has reached out to many emerging and established women leaders, girls in schools with various programs on personal empowerment, leadership and career building. Many organizations found the concept of leadership development very relevant to today's world and I am pleased that the Network received various forms of support from the Malawi's Ministry of Gender, development partners like the British Council, CIDA, private sector companies and of course sister organizations like the African Women Development Fund (AWDF).
Qn. Would you recommend any young woman to undertake the AWLI training? Please give reasons for your answer.
Ans. Yes! I would certainly recommend a young woman to attend the AWLI.I trust the AWLI would impact this young woman who would in turn influence others; creating a multiplier effect in empowerment of other young women.
Qn. What do you think has supported the women's movement through the years and how have they been able to deal with the challenges they continually face as they advocate for women's rights?
Ans. Years after Beijing there was a visible presence of the women's movement especially in Malawi. We saw issues that were never discussed being raised such as violence against women, women's sexual rights yet prior to Beijing it was more of the safe areas that were given attention such as education, economic empowerment of women. But from 1995 we saw more spaces opening up. There were an increased number of women participating in leadership. As one of the women who worked in the office of the former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda I felt the presence of women in political leadership. In Liberia we saw a woman President, Gambia and Zimbabwe with female Vice Presidents. Women's presence in political, corporate and civil society leadership is more visible than was the case some ten years ago. All this has been encouraging! However there are new challenges; the women's movement in the SADC region needs to be revived particularly in Malawi. Women have now moved away from the movement and looked at the space as jobs and not activism. It is of concern that here in Malawi women's activism has lost the steam. We need to come out of the office spaces, the consultancy spaces and get to work to reinvigorate the movement. Currently, we are more less trapped in our everyday jobs, we have forgotten the bigger picture, and that is to confront inequality, fight injustice and challenge the oppressor!. A movement should be able to transcend the barriers that we face – be it political differences, age differences, diversity of sectors we are working in. We need to create new and inclusive spaces and conversations on women's rights and feminism.
Qn. In light of the ongoing debates on the post 2015 development agenda and beyond what would like to see African governments commit to and why?
Ans. It might be difficult for us to achieve all we want because this development architecture is about all countries. So as you now, in trying to get a consensus, not all key issues from our perspective as African Women can be included. Of course, the High Level Panel on the post 2015 development agenda, has tried to centre women at the centre of everything. President Ellen Sirleaf who is a member of the panel, has always highlighted this aspect on the global platform. This is a good starting point. But as Africans we have our own instruments that are progressive like the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), the SADC Gender Protocol which already elaborate our struggles and our aspirations. African governments need to recommit themselves to the implementation of these instruments. The AU declared the decade of African women and this is an opportunity for us to make progressive strides in women's position and conditions. We need to look into the issues that still haunt us; issues of violence against women, HIV/Aids, the burden faced by female headed households, the rise of religious fundamentalism, women in conflict situations, we need to be put these back on the table. Some countries have made strides in these areas however there are countries that are still struggling.
Women's meaningful participation is important in political space. Women are still challenged by the subtle patriarchal systems that make leadership spaces unsafe for women.
Girl's education! How do we protect our girls? Currently, there is this sensitive issue of the abduction of girls and high rates of school dropout. We need to find ways of helping girls go to school in safe environments that enable them to get longer years of schooling.
Governments need to ensure that gender machineries are just not on paper but rather equipped with the right people and resources. There is need for a political will from governments to see that the Ministries of gender are strong and are able to respond to the agenda in all the other Ministries.
Qn. What is your message for any young women interested in political leadership in Country?
Ans. Believe that you can do anything when you have the will. We need the intergenerational dialogue where we can support each other and younger women can avoid the mistakes that the senior sisters made. Back to my 1999 AWLI in Uganda, I will never forget the lasting impact that Hon Miriam Matembe left on me when she shared her experiences in politics. We need more of the sharing!
Qn. Which one thing would you want the world to remember you for?
Ans. I contributed to the fight against patriarchy and made the young women leadership visible. I started a conversation around young women's leadership in Malawi and that conversation has been carried on by other sisters.
Qn. Do you have any other message you would like to share?
Ans. I appreciate Akina Mama wa Afrika for the African Women Leadership Institute that it has continued to train other young women and I am happy that AMwA is still committed to its passion and has moved on to engage with other countries that they did not focus on in the past. The AWLI opened many doors for me at personal and professional levels, and provided me an opportunity to engage other emerging women here in Malawi and find our space and voice in leadership.