Kenya: Nurturing the spirit of young women

AWID speaks with Saida Ali, the dynamic Programmes Director of the Young Women’s Leadership Institute (YWLI), an organization based in Kenya.
YWLI is an organization whose overall aim is to encourage the leadership of young women by building their leadership capacities and by mainstreaming them into the women’s movement.
AWID: Please tell us about YWLI’s work.

SA: We have just embarked on a nationwide Gender and Governance Programme, where along with a consortium of youth and women’s organizations, we will be promoting the participation of young women in local governance structures and political parties. Our activities within this programme include dialoguing with the structures and parties, lobbying for the inclusion of young women in all areas of local leadership, and training young women to enable them engage with those structures, both as aspiring leaders and as an empowered constituency able to articulate their needs.

YWLI’s core activity is training young women in various leadership skills and we do this mainly through training workshops. In all of our training and most of our other interaction with the young women we deal with, we incorporate aspects of spiritual development, which is something that most other organizations are not doing.

We also have a Young Women’s Network, with members drawn from several countries in Africa. The Network serves as a forum for young women to discuss topics pertinent to them. It provides a safe space for them to air issues that they do not otherwise usually talk about, whether because they are not made a priority by other organizations working on women’s rights issues, or because they do not feel comfortable talking about them, such as their sexuality. We hold self-empowerment sessions and moderate email discussions for our Network members.

For the past couple of years YWLI has also been running a Mentorship and Leadership Programme for young women drawn from various universities and civil society organizations. This Programme links young women with older women leaders who mentor the young women. The young women in turn act as peer educators, passing on some of the skills and knowledge they have acquired during the Programme. We have had a lot of encouraging response from the young women we train. Some of them who are students at a local university have formed the Young Women’s Initiative to address the needs of women students. We are looking forward its launch on the International Women’s Day on March 8.

AWID: What do you mean when you refer to ‘spiritual development?’

SA: I strongly believe that every young woman has it in her to achieve anything she desires if she will only tap her inner power. When I refer to ‘spiritual development’ I do not mean that we promote any particular religion, but that we encourage young women to look within themselves and identify who they are at their core, recognize their talents and abilities, and clarify their values. Young women need to develop their essential self if they are going to be effective and powerful leaders. They need to separate this essential self – who they really are – from the social self, which is socially defined. Our aim in emphasizing spiritual development is to allow young women to clarify what they really want out of their lives and then to go for it. We want to help them gain the self-esteem and confidence that will enable them to take charge of their lives and provide effective leadership.

AWID: Why did you feel it was important to address the spiritual development of young women?

SA: YWLI was founded in 1999 by five young women, including myself, who attended the African Women’s Leadership Institute which was organized by Akina Mama wa Afrika. We were so inspired by what we learnt that we decided we needed to pass it on to other young women. The AWLI training had a component of personal development; self-esteem, public speaking and so on. When YWLI started its work, we did incorporate some personal development into our training programmes, which were based on the AWLI model. However we have taken this a step further and made it a core component of our programmes. Our decision to do this was prompted by several factors.

Firstly, at the time we started YWLI, I was working in the refugee camps in North-Eastern Kenya amongst the Somali community. My job involved working to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in an area where the prevalence rate of the practice is 98%, and the majority of girls undergo infibulation, which is the most severe form of FGM. Any girl or woman who is not circumcised is looked upon as an outcast. The issue of whether or not a girl or woman is circumcised is therefore linked to her very identity and she needs to be strong to withstand the isolation she may face. In my work, by default, I ended up hosting forums where women could talk about deeply personal issues surrounding FGM. I was also inspired by one particular elderly woman who for more than half her life had been a circumciser. She later put down the tools of her trade, changed sides and became one of our strongest anti-FGM advocates. She said that the reason she stopped was that she listened to her inner voice, not to social convention.

Another incident made us realize that it was important and even urgent to address the spiritual development of young women. Along with a number of other YWLI members, I used to attend readings organized by another women’s organization. One day they featured readings by young women in high schools and universities. A common thread that unintentionally emerged in all their writing, without exception, was an overwhelming feeling of passiveness and despair. They all seemed to be wishing that someone would come and rescue them from their particular situations. It struck us that young women do not believe that they themselves have the power to achieve what they want to.

Of course, there are numerous external obstacles that we face, such as discrimination, but unless we realize that we can take the initiative to change our circumstances, all the human rights training in the world is not going to help us. Nobody is just going to take it upon themselves to smooth our way for us, so we have to take the initiative.

We have realized that it is not possible to adequately address gender-based violence without addressing the self of women. It is also impossible to encourage young women to vie for political office or any other aspect of leadership without providing the necessary support that will enable them to be confident in themselves and withstand the rigours of the process. We had high hopes that a young woman would be elected to parliament in our last elections at the end of 2002. There had been much rhetoric from women’s organizations and political parties. However as it turned out, young women were pushed to the periphery and I feel that one of the factors that led to their dismal performance is the inadequate preparation they had for the rough and tumble of political campaigning. This is quite apart from the outright discrimination they faced as female candidates. They were also betrayed by older women leaders who want them around just to ‘look pretty’ but are not committed to creating space for them and encouraging their leadership.

AWID: What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

SA: Most donors do not yet fund young women’s programmes adequately. They do not take youth programmes seriously and are even less supportive of young women. On top of that, the kind of personal development work that we do is new to many donors and we do not receive enough financial support for it.