Women steering innovative leadership

Urgent Action Fund Africa and her partners, including the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa hosted the Women Steering Innovative Leadership in Africa Conference from 9-11 September in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe – bringing together 250 delegates to discuss critical issues such as Africa’s development, feminist leadership for social justice and decision making, and thought leadership and development.

October 3rd, 2013

Urgent Action Fund Africa and her partners, including the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa hosted the Women Steering Innovative Leadership in Africa Conference from 9-11 September in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe – bringing together 250 delegates to discuss critical issues such as Africa’s development, feminist leadership for social justice and decision making, and thought leadership and development.

The had plenary sessions for major topics and for motivational speakers on selected subjects, as well as side workshops on issues such as bridging feminist theories and practice in leadership in conflict and post-conflict Africa and evolving capacity development for women leaders, and donor roundtables on how to navigate the funding terrain.

At the heart of the conference was the notion of nurturing young feminist leaders who stand for social justice and who bring out the best in others in the struggle for social justice. Iconic leaders from a variety of sectors across Africa engaged young women in intergenerational dialogue and shared feminist and pan African values and principles, leadership journeys, and personal narratives and perspectives on thought leadership development.

Pre-conference session on 8 September

OSISA and Akili Dada brought together the young women delegates for a pre-conference session. The aim of the session was to allow the young women to get to know each other and give each other tips on how to fully participate and enjoy the conference. It was also designed to allow the young women delegates to mingle with some of the key speakers at the conference before it officially got underway.

All the set out objectives for the pre-conference session were met as young women engaged in “speed introductions” using a maximum of five minutes to introduce themselves to one person and then move on to the next. The space was alive as young women engaged and shared tips – and learned about the importance of networking with not only other young women but also with the older women participants as well. But what came out most clearly was the importance of listening as well as engaging.

Day One – Opening Ceremony

The morning part of the programme focused on the official opening with remarks from the Director, who thanked the Malawian government for allowing the conference to be held in the country. She also acknowledged and thanked the Gender Coordination Network in Malawi for the hard work involved in planning the conference. The Minister of Gender and Social Welfare in Malawi also made welcoming remarks, extending greetings from President Joyce Banda and mentioning how it was such an honour for Malawi to host the African Women Steering Innovative Leadership Conference. Her Royal Highness Slvia Nagginda Luswata, the Queen of Buganda Kingdom in Uganda, also spoke, highlighting the importance of acknowledging and understanding culture as we pursue Gender Equality. She shared programmes that she is currently involved in which seeks to empower the girl child, while also teaching people about the importance of culture.


Dr Thelma Awori led the grounding session, which was mainly aimed at sharing the conference objectives, expectations, process and structure. The objectives of the conference as shared my Dr Thelma were to:

  • Initiate a process for projecting women’s voices and presence as well as influence the African Development Agenda;
  • Create a critical and much needed intergenerational dialogue;
  • Develop a four year programme on growing women’s leadership in Africa; and
  • Develop a regional agenda on African Women’s Leadership.

She further shared how the process of the conference would unfold with presentation of pre-researched topics, round table engagements and discussions. She encouraged participants to be fully active and to make personal commitments to ensure that the above objectives are met.

Session one: Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation

Dr Thelma Awori facilitated this session. She shared her own personal leadership journey from how she started participating in activism as a child in her church with the support of her mother. She shared how far she had come as an African Women Leader. She then allowed the participants to reflect on their own leadership journeys and share amongst themselves. This was a good moment to look back to see how far each person had come. What came out was that most people had faced a number of challenges in their journey but are still pushing to move forward.

Feminist Leadership for Movement Building: Just Associates Southern Africa (JASS)

Just Associates led a very interactive session on a movement building programme that they are conducting in Malawi. The programme focuses on the need to access ARVs and was created as a result of challenges that women on ARVs face in Malawi. They stated that the standard of the medication was low and thus led to a number of effects/deformities on their bodies. Through their programme they were able to address a number of cases and also challenge the government to ensure that good medication is provided. The women who had participated in the programme were also present to share their experiences.

Dinner Reception

The dinner was more of an informal setting for delegates to unwind, mingle and network. However, there was a presentation from the Malawian Minister of Gender and Social Welfare and also a presentation from Zimbabwe on the women’s movement.

Day Two - Sectoral Leadership: Young Women’s Leadership, Media, Economic Empowerment

Day two started on a high note with Nyaradzai Gumbondzvanda –YWCA Geneva facilitating on the need for a young women’s movement and also highlighting the need for intergenerational dialogues to ensure that the gap between the different generations is breached. Participants were requested to stand according to their age group beginning with those in the sixties to those in their teens. The participants were then asked to dance to some of the greatest hits of their time and it was an amazing experience to see African women, comfortable and having a good time. The exercise was meant to show that each of the different groups brought forth something different but equally important, it was to show that our diversity and different age groups should not pull us apart but bring us together as African women.

Nyaradzayi did an excellent job highlighting the importance and relevance of the young women’s movement across the globe. She shared alarming statistics, such as:

  • One million girls die because of pregnancy complication;
  • There is high maternal mortality rate amongst young women;
  • 39000 girls are married each day;
  • There is high trafficking rate amongst young women;
  • 57% of unemployed people are young women;
  • Internalization of patriarchy; and
  • High level of vulnerability amongst young women.


Nyaradzai also made a few recommendations to young women about leadership and building the young women’s movement. Some of the recommendations that came up were as follows:

  • Young Women need to claim the space, they should not wait to be given the space because something that is given can easily be taken away but what you claim as yours remains yours.
  • Young women should unleash the power within them.
  • Young women are leaders in their own right they should lead and not be relegated to conducting only administrative work.
  • Young women need to ask themselves the “what question”.
  • Young women should be daring, feel good, be comfortable, do not try to be someone else and realize that one may not be good in everything and that the people around you can help.

The next session was conducted by a young woman from Zimbabwe, who shared her experiences in the establishment of a young women’s forum that deals with the rights of sex workers in Zimbabwe. She shared her personal experiences and challenges in the establishment of her institution. Another young woman from Nigeria shared her own personal experience as a young women leader working in the area of women and violence. She shared how she had personally experienced violence and how because of that experience she works with a lot of other young women and girls on violence prevention.

Young Women’s Leadership: OSISA and Akili Dada

The session was facilitated by Akili Dada it focused on the use of social media for advocacy in the young women’s movement. A few of the young women shared their experiences of how they use social media to promote their work and also to advocate on certain key topics. Issues that were raised included concerns that even though social media has made it a lot more easier to communicate and pass messages it has also caused some damage as there are a number of negative things that are said about the different movements, including the young women’s movement on social media. There were also concerns in the sense that some of the target audience may not have access to social media thus they are often left out of the activities.

Towards the end of the session, the Minister of Gender and Social Welfare joined the session and she was able to share her personal leadership journey stating that she has worked hard to achieve what she has achieved. She inspired the young women and told them that it is possible to live your dream so long as you work hard. Most participants appreciated the minister’s honesty and the fact that she was so open at that session it was easy to relate to her.

Women in Politics

Dr Kadi Sesay from Sierra Leone and Olubanke King from Liberia led the session. They shared their leadership experiences in politics and some of the challenges, successes and victories they had gone experienced. Olubanke King was an inspiration to most young women at the conference as she shared how as a former Minister of Trade in Liberia she made critical decisions about the country’s economy and was able to contribute to saving Liberia from falling back into war. She highlighted how she was challenged directly for making some of her decisions – but she stood by them.

Day Three – Capacitating Future Leaders

There were discussions on investing in the girl child’s education, its importance and relevance. There were also discussions on inspiring the African dream and capacitating the next generation.

There were a lot of discussions around navigating the donor community. Representatives from the donor community shared their frustrations about how some of the partners will request assistance that is not really practical, which often leaves them with no option but to decline. They also urged partners to ensure that they understand the requirements for each fund application, stop projectising issues and look into practical ways of addressing key issues, especially women’s issues, acknowledge competition and finding ways of working together as different partners in the field.

The session on self-care allowed participants to introspect and focus on self, what is going wrong in one’s life, why and what needs to be done. There were a few exercises that allowed the participants to really try and look at themselves and determine the most important thing that one needs to make life good.

Akina Mama presented future plans for a young women’s mentorship programme and the Minister of Gender made closing remarks.

Lessons learnt and Conclusion

The conference was an amazing opportunity for me as I was able to meet a lot of phenomenal African women, who shared a lot of wisdom and information. Being part of the space ignited the drive to do more within the young women’s movement and also at a personal level in terms of growing my own leadership skills.

The most important and relevant sessions for me included the session on young women’s leadership by Nyaradzai. This session showed some of the key statistics and justifications why the young women’s movement is important and relevant today. It also challenged all the young women to do more and also provided a platform to engage with women in different age groups on how the young women’s movement can be strengthened.

The topic on Women in Leadership in Post-Conflict Liberia by Olubanke King also stood out of me as she was able to clearly articulate some of the work that she has done. She was very real and inspirational. The short presentation by Thembe on branding the movement and personal branding was also very important as it taught us that all you do reflects on you in a certain way.

The conference was a life changing experience. One facilitator said “if you dreams do not scare you then they are not big enough” and since then I have continuously reminded myself of this when I get scared – telling myself it is ok because that shows my dreams are big enough.

A slight challenge that was noted was that, even though at the core of the conference was the empowerment of young women, it seemed that they had not been fully involved in the planning and rolling out of the conference. The few young women who presented at the conference were not on the programme. They were hand-picked to share their personal experiences, which were interesting, but an opportunity to share as a collective young women’s movement was missed as there was insufficient pre-planning and collective involvement. Most of the Malawian young women were running around working on logistics and seemed to have been left out of involvement in the content of the conference and that was also concerning.

Post Conference Activities

Newspaper Article: I submitted a write up to the daily newspaper the Times of Swaziland concerning the conference.

Morning Show TV Interview: I participated in a Kusile breakfast show, which airs every morning on Swazi TV, where I shared experiences on the conference.

Radio Show: I will be recording a one hour radio programme to discuss the conference.

Social Networking Event: I hosted a Social Networking event for Swazi Women themed “Women Working together, powering the African Dream”. The last part of the theme was adapted from the conference and the event aimed to allow women to network, showcase their talents and forge better ways of working together in future.


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