Taboos around key issues including gender identity, menstruation, and female genital mutilation (FGM) continue to hinder progress toward gender equality and health goals. Yet, throughout Africa, activists and organizations are leading the way for change, educating communities on ways to stop perpetuating harmful stigmas and taking action to change longstanding beliefs and practices.
The extent to which certain social taboos harm society is difficult to overstate. In Kenya, one million girls miss school each month because they cannot afford sanitary pads, while some share used ones. Although underreported and usually performed in secrecy, FGM remains prevalent in numerous African countries. Survivors of FGM experience a wide range of long-term complications, including chronic pain and psychological disturbances. Finally, issues related to gender identity continue to go unaddressed by many governments and transgender Africans have struggled to access healthcare and other services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This session from the 2020 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference features six prominent activists from across Africa. The panelists discuss how social taboos have impacted their own lives, how they engage communities to spur changes in attitudes and behaviors, and why they believe this work is imperative to achieving gender equality.
This panel features Jaha Dukureh, CEO & Founder, Safe Hands for Girls, King Kaka, Rapper and Menstrual Hygiene Management Activist, Barbara Kemigisa, Motivational Speaker and Activist, Alesandra Ogeta, Director of Programs, Jinsiangu, Redi Tlhabi, Journalist and Author, and moderator, and Adelle Onyango, Founder, Adelle Onyango Initiative.
Here are three things we learned:
- Amplify the voices of women with relevant lived experiences. Jaha Dukureh, who works primarily in The Gambia, emphasizes that survivors of FGM bring authenticity to social campaigns against the practice that others cannot. “It’s important to give those women the platform to lead change, whether its FGM, child marriage or sexual violence” says Dukureh. Those who have direct experience dealing with a given type of abuse or discrimination are best positioned manage initiatives for reform. She also underscores the importance of not sensationalizing the stories of survivors, but rather, focusing on the change these individuals are creating. “Focus on the change we are bringing in our communities,” she says.
- Demand rights as equal citizens. While discussing her work to help transgender Kenyans gain equal access to services, Alesandra Ogeta describes her organization’s “citizenship” approach to advocacy. This strategy hinges on the argument that all Kenyan citizens, regardless of whether they are transgender, are guaranteed certain rights. Ogeta says that members of the trans community in her country are “Kenyans first” and fights for the denial of adequate access to services. This is an approach that informs her team’s effort to review every bill that passes through Parliament so that trans issues are properly addressed.
- Educate and encourage action from both leaders and young people.
Barbara Kemigisa notes the difficulty for individuals and families to address the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS in their communities and talks about educating and encouraging people at all levels to use their voices for change. At the leadership level, she encourages leaders to speak about HIV/AIDS to help reduce the stigma for those living with the disease. At the community level, she teaches and encourages young people to use their voices to demand change from policymakers and decision-makers. King Kaka also talks about the importance of educating community leaders on key issues to ensure youth-focused programs can be effective and sustainable. “Community leaders play a big role,” says King Kaka.
Giving a nod to the individuals on the panel and many others, Redi Tlhabi notes the significant work done by Africans to advance change and lead social movements, “We need to shape the narrative. We need to complicate the narrative. We need to elevate and amplify voices from the global south. We need to do far more to create platforms where we really demonstrate that the global South, and Africa in particular, has a lot to contribute to these movements.”
Watch the full session here: