Monday, November 14, 2016

Activism for Change

Catherine Nyambura is a Young Leader, with the distinction of being a Mandela Fellow. A feminist and an SDGs advocate, Catherine's activism has revolutionized many lives. Here's her story in her own words. 

Let's start with your story. Tell us a bit about yourself - your childhood, education, growing years, turning points, and work. 
I grew up in one of the biggest slum in Nairobi- Mukuru Kayaba, the daily lived reality of my early childhood years was a combination of disappointment and stark inequalities. This meant witnessing my friends die from maternal mortality at the age of 17 and her daughter barely survive to be one month, losing my friends to HIV/AIDS at the age of 15 years and having to live with the loss of our close family friend to HIV( father, mother and child). This is not to mention my near attempted rape experience. One of the things that gave me strength and hope was that I did well in school and had a clear vision of not wanting to be ever be poor. I found solace in books and developed a culture of reading and exploring the world through books early. My excellence in class led me to get scholarships (even though with difficulty) and I went ahead to study Bachelor of Science and Technology in Egerton University. It is while at school that I was introduced to a special club (The Gender Students League). The league is a forum for students from all faculties that provides a platform  for students to discuss and advocate for gender equality, tackle harmful practices in pastoralist communities, sexual and reproductive health and rights, leadership, governance, mentor girls, fundraise for and promote girls education,  and inspire social change . I navigated hierarchy within the league to become one of the leaders and finally found not only a safe space but also what would be my career path after completing my undergraduate studies.

Let's talk about your work as an Activist. How did that come by? What is your core work in the field?
Having been a vibrant activist and social change thought leader during my undergraduate years, I made a personal strategic choice to continue with my contribution to the gender equality and women’s empowerment field even after completion. I joined Dandelion Kenya in 2012 where I worked on enabling access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services to adolescent girls, young people and women. This was through comprehensive sexuality education under our I Choose, My Life program implemented in schools to target young people in school aged 13-20years, creating channels for referrals and engaging in HIV Prevention work through community engagement and campaigning. One of the critical areas I have worked on is safe abortion advocacy. This experience coupled with the intensive movement building involved provided a platform to move from just being a gender equality advocate to self-identification as a feminist. In particular recognizing the patriarchal structures (sex, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability status) amongst others. I also use social media to accelerate information sharing, movement building and for advocacy. It is under my social media work that I founded the hashtag #SRHRDialogues where organizations and individuals can advance  a constructive discourse on SRHR and engage in structured advocacy, the hashtag has since been democratized and is used by various organizations without regulation.

You are also a Women Deliver Young Leader and an SDG5 activist. Can you share more about your choice of activism for gender equality, and how you contribute to it?
 As a feminist, I make a commitment to engage in activism and programming that bridges gaps, reclaims agency and amplifies voices of those left behind. I do this by promoting women and girls health and providing information while recognizing the factors and structures that slow progress.  Using the contextual community projects I work with to involve girls, I provide the global policy space with contextual input that propel the global policy advocacy efforts forward, I also bring to the table the voices of the women and girls I work with to ensure that their voices are reflected and their agency amplified beyond the community setting. In galvanizing young women’s voices through online campaigns such as #WhatWomenWant, we not only enable movement building amongst disenfranchised populations, but also offer young feminist leadership that shapes global policy advocacy on issues such as the HIV Response and maternal health. My contribution is enabled and grounded by own personal experiences growing up in a slum (bringing to the table the voices of my friends deceased from maternal mortality and HIV/AIDS and those who could not complete school due to teenage pregnancy). This is further reinforced by the young women and girls who constantly seek better by participating in our programs and contributing to our online dialogues and partners who support our social media work.

What does your role as a Mandela Fellow entail? 
 The Mandela fellowship is a US state department program under Presidents Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. Started in 2014, the program is aimed at investing in Young African Leaders on the areas of Civic Leadership, Public Management, Business and Entrepreneurship and Energy.  Across the continent more than 50,000 applied for just 1000positions. For my fellowship, I was placed at University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy. At the school, I studied various topics on leadership, inequality, gender diversity, public policy. I was placed for Followship at the City of Berkeley, Health, Housing and Community Services department where I learnt various skills under the mentorship of the director who contributed greatly into providing insights on how to reconcile ideals and navigating systems. As a Mandela fellow, I am part of a class of 1000 young African leaders identified as change makers on the continent by driving community projects and influencing change in various ways. My selection is based on my gender equality and feminist activism and going through the program has facilitated my feminist growth driving me to become more pluralistic.

What have your key challenges been, on your journey as an activist? How have you, or are you working, to overcome them?
Key among the challenges  has been Funding, capacity, structures and multiple levels of operations for a community activist. All of these have clearly called for us to be innovative and it is one of the reasons social media became an avenue and platform for us to engage given that it does not require a lot of funding. Relying on volunteer labour has been key when operating within contexts with capacity gaps. What has been helpful is the utilization of the wide networks we have developed to navigate the multi layered levels of operations. Sharing our work with partners and piggy backing on our allies platforms has provided an avenue to not only scale up our work but also enhance our visibility at the global level. It is on this premise that we believe anchoring our work within a feminist discourse and being strategic in pursuing partnerships has been of key value. Religious and cultural fundamentalism and instance of cyber violence are some of the other challenges. With this, I have relied on my feminist network and sisters to help grow my personal feminist discourse and not shy away from taking on the political stance of being an African feminist. This means constantly interrogating my feminist ideals and checking in with sisters from whose support I thrive. I have also tried to constantly give visibility to the gendered digital divide as a political issue and the articulation of cyber violence as a component of violence against women.

What inspires you most? What keeps you going?

Despite the challenges there has been immeasurable success and moments to be inspired. Most of these moments represent a nexus between my own personal and professional journeys. For example, implementing the I choose, My Life comprehensive sexuality education program for 4 years, I witnessed first-hand as girls agency was built, they blossomed before my eyes as they received more information and got more involved in challenging patriarchy at levels of their engagement. This also involved adding their voices onto community projects and lading change on issues such as challenging female genital mutilation and child marriage. Those experiences of seeing girls rise up to challenge patriarchy from an early age inspire me, seeing girls boldly articulate their vision to leaders and inject their voice into political discourse. Its those stories of girls succeeding despite odds that drive me. However most importantly is the fact, a girl who is 15, 12 or 16 might be going through what I went through compounded by the policy gaps, socio cultural, financial and infrastructural barriers that compel me to act.