Who runs the world? Girls. It’s certainly the case in Africa, where young women are increasingly leading the fight against different forms of injustice.
From the young women who are vocal in calling for political change, to activists who are fighting harmful cultural practices, there is no doubt that the continent’s young women are shaping its future.
Now, as the world again marks International Women’s Day on March 8, here are five formidable young women who are impacting lives both in their countries and across the continent.
1. Gogontlejang Phaladi, Botswana
Gogontlejang Phaladi, 25, calls herself the “indomitable Gogontlejang”, and it’s a description that goes well with her work and impact.
She is a member of the African Union’s advisory group of humanitarian effectiveness in Africa; sits on the Botswana Presidential Task Team; and serves as a UNICEF Botswana ambassador.
On top of that, Phaladi is also a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory group for the health of adolescents.
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Phaladi has been fighting for the rights of others since she was just five years old, when her parents helped her launch the Gogontlejang Phaladi Pillar of Hope Project.
The organisation supports children who have been orphaned by HIV and AIDS, with Botswana having one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world — despite providing free antiretroviral treatment to all people living with HIV.
Avert, a UK-based non-governmental organisation that works with HIV and AIDS data globally, reports that as of 2018 there were 370,000 Batswana who are HIV positive.
“Many lives were lost [as a result of HIV/AIDS] and children orphaned,” Phaladi told the United Nations for a 2018 profile.
When Phaladi launched her Pillar of Hope organisation in 2001, 27% of people aged between 15 and 49 were HIV positive. By the end of 2003, 330,000 people between the ages of 15 and 49 were living with HIV or AIDS.
“I wanted to do anything to help,” Phaladi told the United Nations, adding that believes in the power that young people have to help shape Africa.
Phaladi, who is also a farmer, mentors girls and women through #SIMI (She Is My Inspiration). The initiative is aimed at helping girls connect with their power and purpose.
She told She Leads Africa: “[I’m] passionate about transforming lives and believe a world free of poverty, with equity and dignity, is possible.”
2. Irene Zalira, Malawi
Growing up in Malawi, Irene Zalira didn’t have access to information about sexual and reproductive healthcare, much less about her rights. Now, she’s turned helping others to better know and understand their rights into her life’s work.
It’s a task that’s timely when it comes to access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights in Malawi.
Furthermore, 40% of unmarried women don’t have access to complete family planning resources, according to the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA).
Zalira told the Global Health Corps about her own introduction to her sexual and reproductive health.
“I vividly remember when I started my periods and the time leading up to it,” she said. “I had little information about my body, as you can imagine as a young 12-year-old primary school girl.”
“But I remember learning about it in class with a classroom half full of boys, and all the male teacher said was that when girls get to a certain stage they start bleeding and they bleed every month,” she added.
Zalira said the lesson was a nightmare for girls, who were laughed at and teased by their male classmates.
She said she was left even more confused by the treatment she got from her mother when her period finally started.
Among other things she was told about menstruating was that she could not cook while on her period, and that her father would go blind if he saw her period blood.
Taboos about periods perpetuate gender-based discrimination, according to the UNFPA. Meanwhile, because the onset of a period is often seen as a sign of womanhood, it also increases the risk of child marriage.
Zalira, who has a podcast called Feministing While Malawian, also has a community initiative in Kauma, on the outskirts of Lilongwe, working to address teenage pregnancies.
She told Nyasa Times newspaper: “We noticed teenage pregnancies were prevalent, resulting in high school dropout rates for girls. Initially, the plan was to go through the project a local church in the area had started to address the issue, to talk to the girls and encourage them, then move on with our lives.”
But as a result of their work in Kauma, Zalira and her friends then co-founded an initiative called Growing Ambitions — which is currently supporting more than 20 girls with school fees and school materials.
“We envision a Malawi where girls, regardless of their socio-economic status or negative experiences, take charge of their lives and thrive,” Zalira said.
“We believe that girls are amazingly determined and resourceful in their fight to achieve a better future.”
3. Angeline Makore, Zimbabwe
In her case, she was expected to become her brother-in-law’s second wife. Makore was 14 years old at the time.
She is now a human rights advocate fighting against child marriage in Zimbabwe, where 32% of girls are married beore their 18th birthday.
Her non-governmental organisation, SPARK Read, runs girls’ clubs in several communities across the country.
The clubs use performance arts like poetry, drama, and dance to educate girls about their rights, and the negative impact that early marriage can have on their education, health, and access to opportunities.
SPARK Read also runs mentorship programmes that empower girls with leadership and public-speaking skills.
“The girls that come to Spark READ are now actively involved in engaging other young people and the leaders in their communities,” Makore told Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1,000 organisations combatting child marriage.
“Through their efforts they are addressing child marriage in many ways and are making a real difference on the ground.”
Makore is also helping fight period poverty in her country through the Mwedzi Social Enterprise, a project that teaches menstrual health and hygiene to adolescent girls, and also offers reusable sanitary pads.
Makore told global advocacy organisation Women Deliver: “In every breath I take, somewhere a girl is facing injustices — so it is my duty to address them.”
4. Sitawa Wafula, Kenya
“Whatever you do, do not let what happened silence you,” Sitawa Wafula told Together For Girls when asked what her advice to survivors of sexual violence would be.
Wafula was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 17. She was sexually assaulted a year later.
“That unchecked trauma from the assault was later given a mental health diagnosis, bipolar disorder,” she explained to Together For Girls.
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“In my early 20s, I found myself dealing with a dual diagnosis and not finding proper mental health information and support.” Wafula is now 34 years old.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 6 million people in Kenya, where Wafula lives, live with depression, stress, anxiety, or substance abuse.
The WHO further said in a 2017 report that Kenya has among the highest rates of depression in Africa, with 1.9 million people living with the illness (around 4.4% of the population).
Meanwhile, there are only 80 psychiatrists and 30 clinical psychologists in the country, according to the United Nations (UN). The UN also found that about 70% of all mental health facilities in Kenya are in its capital, Nairobi.
Wafula initially turned to blogging to help amplify her voice. She then took her work a step further in 2013 when she launched My Mind, My Funk — a digital platform created as a safe space to help Africans start conversations about mental health care and challenges on the continent.
My Mind, My Funk is also Kenya’s first free support line, and gets around 25,000 text messages every year.
Wafula scaled her work in January 2018 with the launch of the Sitawa Wafula Mental Health Academy, which is aimed at nurturing mental health champions and advocates around Africa.
The Academy runs a 40-week incubation programme with people living with mental health conditions, and provides participants with tools for self-care, resources for self-care, storytelling, and social entrepreneurship.
5. Mabel Suglo, Ghana
Mabel Suglo, 26, is using her business smarts to help drive social change through her footwear company, Dignified Wear.
The company turns old tyres, cotton threads, recycled glass, and plastic bottles and beads into shoes, handbags, and jewellery. But there’s more to Dignified Wear’s work than promoting recycling and environmental health.
Dignified Wear also provides dignified work to people who live with disabilities, inspired by the experiences of Suglo’s own grandmother. Suglo’s grandmother had leprosy, which led to her being stigmatised and marginalised.
“I never really understood it when I was growing up, but with time I started to realise what life must have been like for her,” Suglo told digital platform Rising Africa.
“Then one day I went to town, and I saw a disabled man begging for money. One person didn’t give him money, but started telling him that he is good for nothing, useless, and that kind of thing.”
People with disabilities in Ghana continue to experience various forms of discrimination and social exclusion, writes academic Joseph Ocran of the Central University in Tema, Ghana.
People with disabilities are also stigmatised, making it harder to complete their education, find work, and experience full inclusion in society.
According to the United Nations, there are more than 80 million people who live with disabilities in Africa.
The United Nations magazine Africa Renewal explains: “In Africa’s major capitals such as Accra, Lagos, and Lusaka, hundreds of people with disabilities can be found by the roadsides begging for alms. The UN warns that aging populations, malnutrition, conflicts, and disease, among other factors, can be expected to increase the number of the disabled in the near future.”
After seeing how isolating it can be to live with a disability, Suglo resolved to be a force for change, starting with the man whose humiliation she had just witnessed.
“I just walked up to him and I asked him if he could get a job that would pay better than begging, would he be ready to work? And he said yes,” she explained to Africa Rising. She reportedly went on to make a list of unemployed people with disabilities, and set her mind to finding a business model so she could employ them.
The idea to use old tyres was also inspired by her grandmother, whose disability left her without toes, which meant that her feet couldn’t fit into shoes that were on the market at the time.
“My grandmother actually used to wear bits of old car tyres for shoes because she had no toes and no shoes could fit her feet. So she just took a car tyre, cut it into short pieces and tied it with a rope and it worked well. Other farmers did the same too,” she told Rising Africa.
Suglo found two business partners, and started working with three employees. Dignified Wear currently had 13 employees in 2015, and worked alongside a school for people with disabilities in Kumasi, Ghana, to train more people.