Shaking off conformity and non-action

Over the past week, two quotes stated by two different women of two different generations stood out for me. Yet both of them advocated for a similar cause in different regions of the world despite the gap in decades between them.
The first quote:

Deeds not words”

~ Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British Suffragette movement which led to women’s right to vote and founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). This famous statement became the permanent motto of the WSPU.

The second quote:

We should be the change we want to see… Women should be change agents …. to transform, not to conform”

~ Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC). Zuma shared this at the official opening ceremony of the 8th Gender AUC Pre-Summit on January 19th, 2016.


Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at the AUC 8th Gender Pre-Summit – Jan. 2016
These two quotes feature prominently for me over the past week as I reflect on the African Union Summit that is taking place in Addis Ababa currently, with the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government happening in a few days. Moving out of the 2015 theme of Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063” and towards the 2016 theme of ” African Year of Human Rights with Specific focus on Women’s Rights”, I am filled with both optimism and skepticism.
My optimism is rooted in the symbolism behind the choice of theme itself, which indicates to a great extent the work of advocates on gender issues is bearing fruit. While of course no ground breaking decisions occur during the AU summit itself and a majority of agreements are reached well in advance, the issue of women’s empowerment and women’s rights featuring prominently two years in a row is validation to activists, advocates and champions of the issues.
On the other hand, my skepticism emanates from a place of wondering if the ambitious theme is a recipe concocted in fantasy. The year 2016 marks the anniversary of some instruments crafted to promote and protect human rights. Specifically, the African Charter on Human and People’s rights and the adoption of its related Protocol at the continental level and the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), at the global level. In addition to these instruments, many other mechanisms have been developed over the last several years. Yet the continent still grapples with grave breaches of human rights, with women and girls disproportionately affected. The challenge to realizing the ideals of all these sound legal instruments has often surfaced as ” implementation capacity”. And some of the requisite capacities point to member state’s institutional capacity limitations, including but not limited to financial resources. Or, to put it in my own blunt words, the challenge remains to be inadequate allocation of financial resources to these issues backed by political will.
It is in this vein that one of my favorite quotes of the week; ” Deeds not words” stands out in reflecting on the 2016 theme. African women are long overdue in claiming what has been ” given” on paper where it was rightfully ours to begin with. Perhaps an addendum to the theme could be Emmeline’s quote itself, serving as rallying cry to women and girls of the continent that what we want to see are concrete actions translated from these legal instruments. A tweet I came across related to the pre-summit read ” Enough with solemn declarations, we need solemn deliverables!”
Moving towards action entails innovation in overcoming the often times stated limitations to why member states fail to deliver on the legal instruments they are signatories to. Innovating and transforming the way the instruments are realized, how governments relate to civil society, how civil society organizations lead and advocate for the issues as well as how average citizens engage in these issues which are personal
Zuma called upon women to transform and not conform. This second favorite quote of the week says a lot in terms of not only how women on the continent should engage and become change agents, but also how individuals and groups mobilizing to realize women’s full rights need to push boundaries. To transform our narratives, our activism, our organizing, our methods and our conversations – moving away from what has been tried and died towards conceptualizing alternative means to achieving our end goals. The power of Zuma’s quote is in the notion that conformity not only maintains the status quo but also feeds its reinforcements.
Here’s to a 2016 of transforming words to deeds!
Love & Light