Up, close and personal with the UN Women boss, Delphine Serumaga

Dudziro Nhengu
Posted July 8, 2015 from Zimbabwe

“I am a woman on a continuous journey. Like many African women, I became conscious of my physical and emotional struggle as an African girl at a very tender age, realising that a lot of what I was going through needed comradery and support from fellow women to navigate this male biased world. My message to fellow women leaders across the globe is - walk boldly into the spaces and places where men have dared to go without hesitation or doubt.We too have the rights and abilities to be there.One key point to remember is, because of our multiple identities we tend to hold back on pushing hard in any one direction, leadership is one of them. We are capable of excelling without guilt that is imposed on us by societies’ gender role expectations.” Delphine Serumaga, UNW omen Country Representative, Zimbabwe country office.

This article on Delphine Serumaga, the newly appointed UN Women Country Representative to Zimbabwe is a special dedication to all women leaders and upcoming leaders in Africa and beyond. The write up follows a special demand from women members of World pulse, who after reading Delphine’s welcome message from Christine Musisi, the UN Women Eastern and Southern Africa Director, believed that her voice would inspire many female leaders globally.

For those reading us for the first time, World-pulse/Pulse-wire is a powerful online community of women and allies from 190 countries, speaking out and building solutions to today’s biggest challenges. A number of women’s organisations and agencies, including UN Women, are partners of World-pulse globally.

It took me more than a month to interview and profile Delphine, and each day I took time to reflect on the implications of the assignment thrust upon me by Pulse-wire, and this reflection further sunk me into writer’s block, and I started pursuing Shakespeare’s ‘to be or not to be’ sub-conscious dialogue between my conscience and fiend.

Conscience: You are a feminist self-acclaimed writer and citizen journalist. You are also an online champion, and your duty is to magnify women leaders’ voices and to make them visible.

Fiend: But Delphine is your boss, how can you. Remember the theories of citizen journalism, you risk three things: a) failure, b) rejection and c) success. Your failure to portray her accordingly may result in her rejection by the wider world and debilitate on you because she will reject you too.

Conscience: But what is success, and what is failure, and who determines it? Haven’t you read Chimamanda, and the dangers of a single story, go ahead write. Those who appreciate womanhood will accept your writing, and those who won’t appreciate do not matter because they do not know the essence and value of women leadership.

Fiend: Do you know Delphine? What if you interview her and she claims what does not belong to her?

Conscience: You can still interview her, wait until you interact with her enough in the office, and then write.

I sought for a compromise between my conscience and my fiend. I agreed with my field. Truly so, a profile story is a portrait of a person in words, and just like Da Vinci’s best painted portraits, the best profile captures the character, spirit and style of the subject. It must delve beneath the surface to look at what motivates the personality, what excites them and what makes them interesting. Good profiles get into the heart of the person and find out what makes them tick.

This being said, my fiend was right, I had to take my time to study Delphine in space. I also agreed with my conscience that it is my duty, as a woman, and more rightly so, as a feminist subordinate in the space, to amplify my leader’s personality, but doing it with care and feminist reflexivity. I familiarised myself with the readings on profiling personalities, and remembered my lecturer Amina Mama’s class notes in the feminist school at the African Gender Institute, that women are not objects, but subjectivities, and their lives too complex to fit into once off articles and blogs, no matter how much space is allocated for them. I admitted to my conscience and fiend that I would indeed take the risk of the backlash I will receive, because I know I will be accused of the “seeking to please syndrome.” However, because I do not suffer from any traits of the Stockholm syndrome, I don’t normally side with my accusers, so I will take the risk, and write still. I also told both my conscience and fiend that it takes a thorough understanding of a person’s life to create a revealing sketch of their real life. I was going to spend as much time as possible at the feet of my new boss, to ensure that I write a balanced story. But how would I do this, given that she is my superior, and following her around would not make practical sense. How would I also leave my work desk to strike good and revealing conversations with her, long enough for me to observe and learn? But Delphine’s leadership style and skills made it very easy for me to accomplish my task.

Delphine has an exceptional open door policy, and the only times I have seen her door closed at a practical level since she joined UN Women is when she is out of the office. Her open door policy made it easy for me to strike conversations, built trust based on respect and learning, and observe her working moods each time I wanted to do so, pretending to be sorting out papers on the printer desk directly opposite to her workstation in the reception.

Her expertise on gender, peace and security issues, an area I am currently also responsible for, also gave me an opportunity to better understand her human security lens on peace and security programming in Zimbabwe. In my conversations with her, Delphine is happy that Zimbabwe is not facing direct violence, but loses sleep over the plight of women in the face of obtaining structural differences in the country, a stagnant industry and early warning signs of food shortages, especially amongst the rural households where women carry the burden of feeding families owing to gender roles prescribed to them. I caught Delphine strategizing for a strategic intervention modality that will prompt the development agencies and government of Zimbabwe to pay attention to the need to cushion rural women from the effects of hunger and food shortages, and she was in discussion with Molline Marume, my colleague here at UN Women.

“I was reading a report on the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). Due to the erratic and inconsistent rainfall experienced during the 2014/15 rainy season, there are early warning signs that Zimbabwe will most likely be facing a severe drought. There have been reports of crop failures in many parts of the country particularly in the north. Low lying areas of the Zambezi valley experienced flooding early this year and communities in and around those areas have started asking for food aid. FEWS NET have reported that the prolonged dry spells and erratic seasonal rainfall in the southern parts of Zimbabwe, including Matebeleland North, and parts of Midlands and Manicaland Provinces have resulted in severe crop wilting and loss. According to them the main harvests in these areas is expected to be one of the worst in the past five years. Poor households in these traditionally cereal-deficit areas are already finding it difficult to afford essential non-food items and are expected to be Stressed (IPC Phase 2) by April and in crisis by July this year[1]. We need to be proactive and find ways of engaging other UN agencies in a thinking and active process to better understand the effects of the impending crisis on women and girls, in an effort to help mitigate the effects of the impending crisis in relation to women and girls' livelihoods, food security and possible vulnerability.”

UN Women is a member of the UNCT whose mandate is to support other agencies to gender mainstream and ensure the empowerment of women and gender equality. Based on this, I find Delphine to be a proactive leader, whose vision is in line with the UN Women global mandate on easing burdens on women’s lives. I also find her to be a profound leader, sensitive to the needs of the people she is intended to serve, and rightly so mirroring the mandate of the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development in Zimbabwe in terms of ensuring that mainstream structures respond to the needs of women and girls in the country. This sensitivity should not be taken for granted, but comes with a self-awareness and consciousness of one’s personal identity as a woman and a true African.

Barely a month in the office, Delphine is already leading her staff in putting together a basket fund from the agency’s different programme budgets to finance is a rapid assessment study seeking to better understand the effects of the impending drought on women and girls in different districts in Zimbabwe. What also caught my attention is how this initiative has put my colleague Molline Marume on alert mode, as it was amazing to see her motivation in practice as she rallied the efforts of colleagues towards this worthy cause. I believe in mentorship in practice, and in the power of delegating authority as well as recognising potential in one’s followers. Until Molline embarked on this initiative, it had never occurred to me that she had such good organisational skills. With time I will surely learn good leadership skills at the feet of my superior Delphine, and I hope I will be able to also delegate without fear or favour to my colleague I share office and project duties with. I learnt that acknowledging other people’s potential and trusting them with duties without fear of competition makes the work of women eladers easy.

But Delphine’s leadership prowess did not come easy, it is a result of a long process of expansion, experience and knowledge gained after many years of learning and working with both women and men in different spaces globally. She is also a woman on a continuous journey who at an early age, like many African teenage girls, became conscious of her physical and emotional struggles, realising that a lot of what she was going through needed comradery and support to navigate this male biased world.; and this is what she said about her experience over time in an oral interview we had together.

“After my first degree in Canada, my first job in the late 80’s was working for the City of Toronto in administration. A the end of that job, and having recently becoming a single parent, I knew that I was not ready to stay at home raising my lovely daughter, which was an option being in a country that has social networks and services to support the process, something many countries can learn from. This option was appreciated. However, I had worked and studied since an early age and felt I needed to be in the labour market. I was convinced that I needed to engage with ‘helping’ women,this stemmed from my academic interest in women and development, so I made some changes and moved out of the big city and back to the city our family, originally migrated to in Canada, London Ontario.

Here I landed a job asa counsellor in a women’s shelter for abused women.London Ontario, had started becoming increasingly multicultural, which meant that women from all walks of life and from different cultures and ethnic groups started using the service.I noted that the staff who were all what was then the mainstream Canadian (English or European decent) could not understand some of the nuances of the women in need. The counsellors were challenged with relating to the dynamics or backgrounds of some of the newcomers to Canada. I took it upon myself to pay more attention to learning more about providing services for a culturally diverse group of women all experiencing a common social issue. I took it even further by always taking the opportunity to assist my colleagues with understanding or at least becoming more sensitive and conscious of their efforts when assisting women of different backgrounds.

I soon moved on to working for an organisation that specifically provided services to immigrant women. This opportunity further sharpened my skills and interest in women’s joint social challenges and needs, including integration and social transformation.This was fulfilling work as getting to understand women from around the world and their individual as well as social needs enabled me to start addressing community, government structures and institutions to adapt to the new Canadian make-up, and specifically address the gender and cultural aspects of communities and society at large. I knew I was working with women, one at a time, but I also knew that I was making a difference for these women, some of whom are now my lifelong friends.”

My problem when I write is that I digress, but I cannot help it, especially if I do so to highlight nuances in women’s life narratives; nuances that can be of help in our continuous struggles to make women’s spaces and lives better. I am hearing a voice of a multiple talented leader, and one with layers of potential and womanhood. I hear the voice of a loving single mother, the voice of a responsible and passionate women’s rights worker, the voice of a talented social worker and the voice of a transformative leader. It is surely one thing to lead and work with women, but it is another to make a difference in these women’s lives. From my few engagements with Delphine so far, I have noticed how she pays attention to my specific needs each time she sits down with me to provide guidance in the work that we do together. There is nothing as empowering as knowing that your frontrunner has sought to understand you better before they make judgements about you, it restores confidence and makes the ‘fallen’ better people once again in work spaces.

Delphine went on to tell me about her other experiences before she joined UN Women, and as I listened, I learnt how our consciousness and development as women leaders can be shaped by our lifetime experiences and historical conditions surrounding us, depending of course on how we choose to relate with processes. While traumatising situations can destroy us, the same events can also strengthen us and make us wiser and better people if we relate to them with wisdom. Indeed life experiences are a training ground whose lessons we must use to curve better trajectories for ourselves and our fellow women. Indeed the truest book in the bible is the one where Saul is possessed by an eveil spirit and constantly pursuing innocent David with death, but in the process making little David stronger and more visible. Likewise patriarchy (through its foot soldiers who can be both some women and some men), can derail and bellitle us, but if we adopt wisdom we will become bettter women finally, and at least in Africa we have a set target, Vision 2063.

“After a number of years working with immigrant women and eventually immigrant men, I realised I was actually sitting on the reactive end of a larger social problem. Canada was and still isa receiver of immigrants on a large scale. My work entailed assisting individuals coming from war torn countries dealing with the traumas of social and physical scars and displacement including those who had been living in refugee camps for numerous years. Now the new challenge was trying to integrate in a very different environment which caused new issues or deepened already existing challenging social issues.

As much as I appreciated the Canadian government’s efforts to enable people’s ability to live dignified lives including my mother and us her children who arrived there as refugees, it was clear that I needed to be as close as I could to the frontline of the larger social problem.So, while I call Canada my home, I relate to issues that African women face and experience on the African continent. I could not continue receiving women in my office for integration into a new society without paying attention to the issues that make them leave in the first place. I was concerned about the brain drain and level of migration wondering where it would leave our continent.I decided to seek work on the African continent, it did not matter which country as I knew women across the continent experience similar challenges with varying degrees so wherever I landed, I was determined to make a difference. I managed to get a job as a skilled volunteer providing strategic advice to a fledgling women’s rights organisation in South Africa, I went on to become the Executive Director of the same organisation which I proudly led and made a household name by the time I resigned.

There I met women with great economic and social challenges as well as decision-makers at the top of the decision-making chains. I was able to bring the realities and voices of women to the table forboth government and private sectors to address.I do hope and to a degree know that some of my efforts did at least bring attention to the plight of women in South Africa and to the African continent.

I went on to hold jobs where I provided expert advice on gender mainstreaming, justice and addressing gender based violence. The last job I held before joining UN Women was as the Executive Director of a regionally focussed organisation, based in South Africa, which addresses the social causes of violence, addressing transitional justice, interpersonal to collective and structural violence. This work remains dear to me as it furthered my growth in understanding the varied cycles of violence and how to address violence of the most marginalised. My concentration was of course on women and gender justice, where I continued making sure that a gendered dimension was always present in the development of transformational processes towards peacebuilding.”

Zimbabwe has made a number of beautiful strides in legal reform, and this includes adoption of a gender sensitive Constitution with special measures for ensuring gender equality in the long run. However, the major problem is still the patriarchal mind-set besetting the country, which is the major cause of violence against women in many spaces. In this vein we listen to what Delphine believes is her mission and relevance in Zimbabwe.

“My decision to join UN Women is in fact in my opinion, a strategically excellent choice when it comes to organisations. I maintain a global and multi-dimensional view on women’s rights. UN Women is global and therefore as the UNW Country Representative for Zimbabwe, I can continue promoting my fundamental believes of women’s rights at country level while contributing the global discourse. This position allows me to grow through my engagements at this level. Addressing women’s issues from a multiple and not singular perspective is important to me because women’s identities are multiple. Being able to work in an interdisciplinary manner gives me confidence that we will make a difference for women in a holistic manner.

My vision for Zimbabwe will be mainly guided by what the voices of women in Zimbabwe are saying. I do not come with a prescriptive approach, I stand to be informed and corrected, while I too provide my expertise and knowledge that I have gained over my career and life journey. What I do know to be a steadfast goal is that women are heard and not spoken for, that women are given platforms to express what their needs are and we remain the vessel that ensures that with human rights approaches we enable women to realise their rights in a dignified manner.”

Again I digress reader, and I feel like writing a poem in resonance with Delphine’s wise words above,

Yes! women are heard, not spoken for

Women are listened to, not patronised

Women are engaged, not forcibly led

Women are respected, not intimidated

Zimbabwean women are led, not ruled

Women are, women can, women will!

Reader, I loved Delphine’s ‘power analysis framework’, rightly so as it explains the patriarchal dynamics currently obtaining, and place us uniquely as African women in relation to how we have experienced oppression on the continent, but mostly in terms of how we have been agents for transformation despite our history. It is an analysis that at another level places us together with our men, victims of long years and chains of slavery and colonialism. It has often been easy for the arrogance of the West to classify African men as oppressors, and African women as custodians of oppression, without however taking time to assess how their many years of paternalising us, subjugating us and pilfering our resources have affected us. I digress again reader, and I am sorry that I do so with anger, but some issues of life are unavoidable.

Says Delphine,

“I have always maintained that the inequalities women face in Africa is twofold,one comes from the cultural standards or norms that we embody or have embodied for centuries which have in themselves evolved to suit our male counterparts.The second is the colonial and post-colonial institutions that we adopted and adapted as part of our new social structures.These two approaches and attitudes have always reinforced themselves from a social behavioural point of view as well as within law where for example in some countries women were or are still considered minors to their husbands. Or where customary law takes precedent over statutory law. With such entrenched social understandings by both men and women, our challenge primarily lies in addressing attitudinal and behavioural change within the home and institutions.

Our partners andcounterparts in Zimbabwe are community groups, individuals, traditional structures, government structures and like-minded agencies such as other UN agencies and the donor community.All these stakeholders bring complementary skills, knowledge and expertise that we can utilise and lend our knowledge to for the greater good of addressing women’s inequality so, we are assured that gender equality is included from varied perspectives both direct and indirect.

My goal is to ensure we as an agency always maintain enabling environments and act as conduits for transformation in Zimbabwe.Joint approaches to addressing the multiple issues, lends to my previous point of women having multiple identities and therefore their issues should be dealt from a holistic point of view.”

I have liked Delphine’s top down approach to programming, because it informs a theory of change that brings the marginalized to the centre, whilst allowing the expression of their voices and aspirations to influence wider processes. We have many times watched with sadness as thousands of dollars get flushed down the trash-bins of uninformed programming strategies that target the privileged at the expense of the poor. Welcome to Zimbabwe Delphine, and thank you for focusing at the lowest rung of our peacebuilding pyramid.

Concerning her leadership style, Delphine has this to say, “I have always indicated to teams that I have led that my style is based on knowing when to lead from the front and when to lead from behind.I feel it is important to let individuals in teams to know that initiatives, ideas and concepts do not always belong to or come from the leader. Inclusivity of opinions for varying levels within a team is essential as I believe it brings about ownership and pride by all as well as dedication to our joint efforts. I do however remain conscious of the fact that being a leader means making the hard decisions, safeguarding the agreed strategic visions and being ultimately responsible for shortcomings of one’s team. Beinga strategist I like to believemy style includes being fair, broad minded yet decisive where I need to be.”

The backlash that African leaders have received on the continent is the failure to distinguish ‘male-stream’ leadership methods from women oriented ones, and this has really debilitated on the growth of the pool of African women leaders. To bring this analysis better home and to give it a realistic face, one if not two top female political eladers in Southern Africa (without mentioning names) have been accused of violating ‘women relations’ and adopting the corrupt and domineering tendencies often associated with men. Weather the accusations are true or not, reality is that their effects have reduced the numbers of top women leaders, gains hardly won but easily released. Major questions in my psyche right now are is it good or bad to be tough? What is toughness? Can one be firm and tough and still maintain ‘women relations? Does toughness mean driving your followers, both men and women helter-skelter towards framing each other, misrepresenting the truth, boot-licking your stilettos whilst fragmenting the work space? I too believe that a good leader can be firm and tough without losing their ‘woman finesse’. I too believe that tough decisions can be made without fear or favour, and without respecting persons but ideals. I have also gained wisdom from Delphine’s analysis because it gives back to the owners of processes. She is willing to bring her expertise to the Zimbabwean tables for women to learn and benefit from, but also willing to learn the context realities from the women of Zimbabwe.

Today’s world today believes that women make better leaders, and this is what Delphine believes about this,

“Women have historically been marginalised in leadership roles, if not been consciously excluded institutionally from structures of influence. My view is that world order was/is flawed as women play a critical role in social, economic and political structures both formally and informally. Women taking leadership roles has proven that we bring a much needed dimension and understanding of social, economic and political development and transformation. Saying women make better leaders is equal to patriarchal gender stereotyping, assumptions and ideological beliefs that women are inferior decision-makers to men. While I believe that;1) Women are as capable as men in leadership and were some women have taking the opportunity to lead,they have made significant and positive changes for society by eliminating the marginalization of women. 2) Where men have been the leaders for centuries, there have been some failings due to the flawed assumption of women’s abilities or inabilities. I maintain a fundamental principle while seeking women’s rights and equality. That is, I avoid adopting patriarchal forms of engagement which include gender stereotyping. The equality of women in leadership and decision-making is what I think makes a better solution to social development and peaceful transformation and more importantly raises women’s quality of life globally.”

The term ‘modesty is a virtue’ has become a cliché, one risks being accused of simplicity after using it. It is up to the reader to make their own decision after reading Delphine’s response below, following my question to her regarding how she describes herself as a leader.

”I don’t believe I can answer this question successfully. I have never been comfortable with self-descriptions also knowing that I hold multiple identities I would end up eliminating some important aspects of who I am.”

I always try to be thorough in all written submissions to my bosses, but my first submission to Delphine, oh boy! Sorry, I should have said oh girl! I had never seen such attention to detail. She is an amazing writer too! Welcome to Zimbabwe Delphine, and thank you for agreeing to feature your voice on Pulse-wire.

Comments 1

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Tamarack Verrall
Jul 18, 2015
Jul 18, 2015

Hi Chibairo,

It is always a thorough pleasure to sit down to a new piece from you. Thank you for introducing Delphine Serumaga with such detail and with such beautiful context woven in, offering us all a profound look at such a wonderful leader's work and philosophy of leadership, along with your own personal musings on leadership as well, and with the angst of how to honour such a leader through how you have  been inspired yourself, in what she has shared with you. What you have created here for us all is not only a beautiful tribute to Delphine and important information for us readers in what she has accomplished, (I was very interested in what she has done here in Canada), but also, through your gift of being able to share your own inner struggle to do her justice, you have created yet another masterpiece for us all in a deep study in how to be effective leaders ourselves. I plan to reread this a few times, to more fully contemplate growth and expansion of leadership by women. Brilliant.

Tam