An Interview with Neema Namadamu: a Warrior of Peace

Today, 20 February, is World Day of Social Justice. To celebrate, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with women’s rights advocate and social justice champion, Neema Namadamu.

Neema is a remarkable woman with the resilience and fortitude of a warrior and the natural beauty of a wild flower. When I sat with her, I noticed the self confidence that flowed through every word that she spoke. She is truly a force of feminine strength, grit and influence.

She shared her views on the various obstacles that women and girls face in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well explaining several interventions that her organization has in place to ameliorate these challenges. As Founder and Executive Director of Hero Women Rising, Neema works to empower children and women through access to quality education, especially women with disabilities. It is a hub for technological exploration and cultural exchange for many women. In addition, Neema and the amazing staff members of Hero Women Rising strive to encourage leadership through the Girl Ambassador for Peace program.

Here are some of her thoughts on social justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  1. If you could describe yourself in two words, what would they be?

Powerful Woman

  1. How would you describe yourself as a component of your family, school and larger community?

I’ve become an integral part of my community, my family, and my school. I’m unforgettable now, I am a rock, I am a lioness. I am known, and I have become a model for other women and for fathers to envision the possibilities for their daughters.

  1. Thinking back on your childhood and your progression to adulthood, who were some of the most significant people in your life?

My mom. She loved me, she supported me, and she never gave up on me. She appreciated me for who I was, she gave me dignity and education. Also my friends – the ones who included me and didn’t exclude me because of my disability.

Sometimes even strangers! Strangers who would show me kindness even though they didn’t know me, and then we would become friends.

  1. What are your goals for the DRC and the organizations you lead?

I want peace. I want to see people living in peace, having the employment and the resources that they need, and working together. I want women to have a voice and a significant role in the peace process; this is one of the ultimate goals of my organization. I think that if women are included in a serious way, we can achieve peace.

  1. Can you think of any occasion in your personal or professional life in which you felt a push or pull toward a certain line of work. Can you explain that feeling and what led up to it?

I have often felt pulled to work in the realm of gender and women’s empowerment. I noticed throughout my career that I began to feel more and more vulnerable, both myself and my work. As a woman, I was not treated as an equal and valued. I often didn’t have access to opportunities.

Similarly, because I had a disability, it would take me longer to do many things, and this made me feel frustrated. This made people have a particular opinion about me or my work, which was often not true. For example, when I tried to meet with certain officials, they all thought I would be begging for something, and they didn’t want to meet me. It wasn’t until much later, when I had become quite successful, that these same officials came back and asked ME for meetings. So I told them I was too busy to come to their office, but if they wanted to meet, they could come see me at my office.

Both of these experiences made me really want to contribute to rights and opportunities for women, and especially for women with disabilities.

  1. Do you feel that you have accomplished all of your goals for your organization?

I’m just beginning!

Photo credit: Neema Namadamu

On this World Social Justice Day and everyday, channel your inner lioness and be a warrior for peace like Neema! 

 

Standing Up for Girls in the Time of Trump

Trump is threatening the rights and well-being of adolescent girls domestically and globally, especially those whose skin color, religion and country of origin do not meet his approval. The person holding the most powerful and prestigious office in one of the most influential global nations is a sex offender who fetishes his daughter, believes “putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing” and views girls and women as a sum of their sexual parts. He is now turning this disgusting misogyny and racism, xenophobia and many other forms of hate, into policy.

My work as an advocate for girls just got a lot harder.

My work, like all work, begins at home. I visibly resist hate for and with my own daughters, two immigrants of color who are growing up in a time when integral parts of their identity are being challenged. They, and all girls in my life, must see me modeling contested truths: black lives matter, native lives matter and refugee lives matter; women’s rights are human rights; no human being is illegal and love is love is love is love.

This work extends to the community and involves protests and phone calls, letter writing and teach-ins. It means knowing when to call-out folks who don’t want to understand and when to call-in folks who do. It means spending less so I can donate more. It entails applying my talents while listening to women of color, native women, refugee women, single mothers and all those who have known all along what many of us (especially us white women) struggle to see: we do not have equal rights or social standing. We are still the second sex.

In my professional realm, I resist the trends that bring us farther away from a time “in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned.” Ivanka Trump’s brand of privileged empowerment won’t work for girls in Flint who don’t have clean water or girls living on Pine Ridge where teenage suicide rates are 150% higher than the national average.

And Ivanka’s work hosting the Miss Teen USA pageant couldn’t be farther from my work advocating for the rights and wellbeing of refugee girls in the Middle East, those same girls who were just banned from the United States by her father.  I turn away from this elite distraction and focus on issues like ending child marriage, access to quality education and stopping sexual violence. Over the next four years, I will do more with less funding. I will work unpaid hours and volunteer for organizations with less resources. I will connect more directly with girls because ultimately I work for them.

I commit to standing between the misogyny of the most powerful man in the world and the most marginalized and vulnerable girls in the world.

This is my work today. In the future, my work might be deciphering just laws from unjust laws and following my conscience. Trump has asked for the names of those working on gender programs. If my name is on his list, I invite him to call me with questions so that I have the opportunity to tell him that I stand for girls, for adolescents like the ones he violated with his gaze in a dressing room. I’ll keep standing for girls. If he and his supporters try to stop me, I will continue to resist, I will continue to take direct action and I will not be silenced.

What can you do for girls?

Volunteer: Girls, Inc., Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, Girl Scouts, YWCA all provide opportunities to connect adults with girls in their community. The Malala Fund has resources for community organizing on the rights of girls globally.

Donate: Find an organization that you believe in and give what you can. As we learned from Bernie Sanders, who broke a fundraising record via small donations, every little bit truly counts.

Educate yourself: See films like He Named Me Malala, read books like Half the Sky and talk to the girls in your community.

Connect with other resisters: We are indeed stronger together.

 

 

The Women Marched. Now What?

London. Miami. Nairobi. New York. Tokyo.

All over the world, women (and men!) took over the streets of their cities to join in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, which took place on the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

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It was a day when history was made. My social media and news feeds were flooded with articles, pictures, videos and comments about the women’s marches around the world. It’s impressive the reach that these marches had – literally on every continent – and I truly believe this fact cannot be belittled or ignored. The marches brought together people from different age groups and backgrounds, although the fact remains that some indigenous, women of color and other minorities felt left out and divided from the white majority that attended the marches. Important issues of the intersection between gender, race, class and religion were brought up during the marches, which amplifies their significance and relevance.

However, for the goals of the marches to become reality and for women’s rights to be truly respected and enjoyed, action needs to happen now that the marches are over. The message and the desire to fight for women’s rights must go beyond the streets and into our daily lives and routines for history to be made.

I didn’t attend a march, which gave me a unique opportunity to observe the marches from an outside perspective and to think about ways I can stand up and fight for women’s rights every day of my life, right here where I live.

In the aftermath of these marches the tendency is for the euphoria and excitement to wind down as our “real lives” kick in: as we get back to our routines of cleaning up after children, going to work, studying, having to deal with men catcalling us as we walk through the very same streets we marched on before. And although this is OK, I truly believe it must not mean that we became complacent again. We must not forget the cause of the marches, and most importantly we must not, ever, think that we cannot fight for women’s rights unless we are doing something big like marching, volunteering abroad or donating thousands of dollars.

We stand up for women’s rights when we take care of our children. When we encourage our daughters, sisters, nieces or granddaughters to keep playing soccer or getting a degree in science – even if they’re the only woman in the class. When we don’t judge or criticize other women for the choices they make about their lives and bodies – to be single, married, have children, or not have them.

These are the moments when the marches became reality. Yes, we must hold our governments accountable for respecting human and women’s rights. But we must set our own example as well. The quote “be the change you wish to see in the world” is a cliché, but I believe it is so because it’s true.

Donate some money, whatever amount you can afford, to an organization that supports women’s rights. Join a women’s rights organization in some capacity. Look for opportunities to mentor and encourage younger women at your work. Be kind towards other women. Do not judge and respect the choices they make regarding their career, relationships, etc. Speak up against sexist comments and attitudes in your daily life – an offensive joke or comment made by a co-worker or relative (my father has heard me many times say, “That’s sexist, Dad!”). These are just a few examples of small ways with big impacts that we can all stand up for women’s rights in our daily lives.

The marches have ended. What happens now? This next chapter is up to each one of us to write for women’s rights.

Featured image: CNN

The Deadly Power of a Cookstove

2016—the year of a vociferous political climate, monumental policy changes, and finally the year of a forceful push toward gender equality. As an 18-year-old college freshman, I have recognized for years the existing gender gap, but I did not realize that something as simple as a cookstove could be an immense obstacle for closing the gender gap.

I was a junior in high school when I had the opportunity to hear the CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, Radha Muthiah, and other esteemed women advocates promote the discourse about deleterious effects of climate justice on the global population, especially women. After listening to this Women In Peace panel, I truly realized that a girl’s fight across the globe, is also my fight; it is our fight.ha-gaccI am impassioned about the implications of primitive cooking methods because the effects are primarily on the health of women in low-income parts of the world. The underlying matter is that while open fire cooking and the burning of biomass and coal causes a significantly negative impact on the environment, a climate justice advocate would acknowledge the effects will continue to play a role in the health and wellbeing of people around the world.

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According to the World Health Organization, over 4 million people die each year because of debilitating chronic illnesses caused by inhalation of particulate matter when using traditional cooking methods. The chronic conditions are ubiquitous and include lung cancer, recurrent pneumonia, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. With little to no access to healthcare for many suffering from cooking-related chronic conditions, suffering increases for many families and puts a halt to the productivity of many families, pushing them further into poverty.

With ancient cooking methods, the gender gap inevitably arises. Women experience Time Poverty—the lack of time and unpaid labor that women are subjected to. Melinda Gates addresses Time Poverty in her annual letter stating that “Globally, women spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on unpaid work.” In developing nations, women spend time collecting fuel and then cooking, not to mention taking care of children and other stereotypical household tasks that women are usually delegated to do. Melinda Gates also described what girls and women could do with their time instead of spending time gathering and collecting fuel and then cooking.

“Girls in poorer countries might say they’d use extra time to do their homework. Housework comes first, so girls often fall behind in school. Global statistics show that it’s increasingly girls, not boys, who don’t know how to read. Mothers might say they’d go to the doctor. In poor countries, moms are usually responsible for their kids’ health. But breastfeeding and traveling to the clinic take time, and research shows that health care is one of the first trade-offs women make when they’re too busy.”

—Melinda Gates

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Be reminded whenever you use an electric cookstove, you have the amazing power to use your time for the greater good. With something as simple as an electric cookstove, you have infinite possibilities and time to achieve the life you want and to be productive. While we all take cooking with electric cookstove for granted, it is so important for each of us to realize the incredible obstacles and injustice that inappropriate cooking methods can place on for women and their families. It is imperative that we advocate for the elimination of these improper cooking methods and social injustice, which in turn will progress the movement for climate justice.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a United Nations Alliance dedicated to combatting use of primitive cooking methods. This organization also fights for 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Images: Gumilang Aryo Sawhadew / Flickr Creative Commons, CAFOD / Flickr Creative Commons