By Jensine Larsen
In February I traveled with a World Pulse delegation of women leaders across the dusty Kenya plains to the lush hills of Rwanda and met face to face with hundreds of World Pulse online community members, danced and connected with grassroots women in churches and fields, and hosted Speak Out forums with leading figures in parliament, human rights, law, and media. I came away irrevocably convinced of the readiness of women leaders to push their voices to higher levels and to use communications technology and new media to accelerate women’s empowerment in their communities.
You can view photos from the trip here. We had intimate conversations with women entrepreneurs from Africa’s fastest growing microfinance program in Kibera slums, lunched with Wanjira Mathai of the Green Belt Movement (Nobel Peace Winner Wangari Mathaai’s daughter), dialogued under Acacia trees with Masaai women, consulted with the 300,000 strong network of Rwanda’s women genocide survivors, and toured model HIV antiretroviral distribution, income generating, and legal justice programs.
In Kenya, women told us that the rapidly approaching 2012 elections are top of mind and that the last thing they want is a repeat of the bloody 2007/2008 post-election violence. With only 10% of women in parliament “we are an embarrassment” they cried, calling for organizing of a women’s platform, funding for candidates similar to a Kenyan Emily’s List, support networks for women opting to run, bodyguard protection for candidates, and savvy media campaigns.
During the Kenya Speak Out, inspiration was so high that three women announced that they would run for office. You could feel the electricity in the room pop! As a result, World Pulse is working with our partners in Kenya to create a steering committee to advance the women’s platform and online support network leading up to the crucial 2012 elections. Kenya is at a historic turning point and with the passage of the new constitution there is a real window for women to drive change (before August women weren’t considered citizens and couldn’t even own land). We heard the call loud and clear that the women of Kenya need support as they make it happen. They are ready.
In Rwanda, the situation was very different. Already at 56% female representation in parliament, and with one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, not to mention model education, health care, and AIDS treatment roll-outs—women felt that strong progress had been made at the highest levels. Gains that—they were quick to point out—surpass even the United States. Yet, they reported that these gains were not reaching into the rural areas which comprise 83% of the country’s population, and women are not yet claiming their rights en mass. For Rwanda the mantra was training and education. They want more ICT training, business training, empowerment training, and English training.
After consulting with the Rwandan women leaders, we decided to equip Rwandan women with internet communications technology training to train other women how to use World Pulse to speak out to the global public, connect, and access needed resources. Even the members of Parliament were asking for the training!
I can still smell the tang of sweat and strength as I danced hand in hand with my new rafikis (friends) and passed the light of joy between our eyes. The now common phrase of the untapped “power of African women” has become heart-stoppingly real to me. I have lived it, and I am stronger for it.