Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The fighter with a big "Haart"

Sophie Otiende
Sometimes, the catalyst for change needn't be external: but can come from within. Sophie Otiende is a chip of an inspiring block, and is not one to be defeated by life's curveballs. An integral part of HAART Kenya, where she works as a consultant, Sophie shares her story.

I grew up with a father and mother who believed in gender equality but the society around me believed different. They thought my parents were letting a little girl run loose yet the world does not allow that. I knew from an early age that being bold and outspoken was not going to make me popular. However, I purposed at an early age that girls like me would not have to change who they are to fit in the society.

I decided to study education in school because I knew that that is what I needed to do. I knew that the change that I wanted to see would only come through education. Women and girls have to be taught how to look at themselves and see the potential that they have. They have to be taught that some of the demands that society places upon them are wrong. The only demand that we have to honor is to become true to ourselves. As a society we also have to change how we treat human beings because that is what women are. They are human beings first.

I started volunteering in organizations since I was 15. The experience has allowed me to develop into a consultant for organizations over the years. I like coming up with ideas that organizations can implement to create change in the society. Currently, I am working to end human trafficking with Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART Kenya). Most of the people affected by trafficking are women. I am passionate about this specific issue because I was once a victim and realizing how widespread this issue is in my country spurred me to action. I work to rehabilitate victims of human trafficking back to the society.

I suffered sexual abuse at an early age and the person that committed the act always reminded me that it was discipline. This was what happened to girls who were too intelligent and too loud. They had to be taught their place. This only made me angry since the person that abused me was not a stranger but someone close.  I decided that I would not let the incident define me. I would not let him win by becoming who he wanted me to be. I was going to rebel by becoming his worst nightmare: a strong, bold and outspoken woman speaking against social injustice.  

Image (c) Sophie Otiende
I have been through sexual abuse more than once and that leaves scars and dealing with those scars have been a personal challenge for me. I am very idealistic and that rubs people the wrong way sometimes so getting an organization that can be able to accommodate my strong opinions has not been easy. Corruption is also a challenge. Dealing with corrupt systems both in the government and in non-governmental organizations is also difficult and waters down the work that we do.  

I am learning to appreciate who I am and I have sought professional help for my personal issues. Working as a consultant makes it easy for me to be independent in the work that I do while still contributing in a team. I am still learning different ways to deal with corruption. I will expose corruption when I find it in my space.  

What saddens me is that the challenges that women face are mostly imposed by the society. It is her brother, father and teacher that inflicts pain to her. I think that we are moving in the right direction but there is still more to do to ensure that women are safe and they can thrive. I think what we are ignoring when discussing the gender conversation is identity. We have focused so much on what is happening to women that we have forgotten that part of the problem is that a woman has always been told who she is and who she is not. Society expectations of women are simple to downright ridiculous. She is expected to be beautiful, submissive, weak and strong at the same time. Women do not get the opportunity to choose without being judged for their choices. If they decide to stay childless, they are selfish. If they decide to pursue a career, they are too ambitious. If they stay at home, feminists will judge her for not choosing the opposite. We demand that she becomes the goals that our project has set out. How can she identify herself when the programs that we set up also give her another identity?
I have a simple dream for women that they can be who they are and not apologize. We as women have apologized for so long. It is time for each woman to define herself and when we do that we can fully thrive. I want to meet more women who are unapologetic about who they are and are making a difference in their society.

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