MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women
By Ashley Hernandez, on 6 April 2016
On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.
The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.
While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.
- Moremi, Power and Politics
On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.
- Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice
One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.
- Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring
Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.
I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.
After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.
Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf
Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.
Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/
Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity. She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala.