The ‘In Visibility’ interview series celebrates the inspiring feminists who fight for gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.
Faiza Jama Mohamed is Africa Regional Director of Equality Now. She has more than 20 years of experience working with international organisations and has been instrumental in building several women’s organisations with a focus on promoting peace, gender equality and advocacy for women’s rights. Prior to her current position, Faiza was an active member of the women’s movement in Somalia. In 1998, she received the Hundred Heroines Award in recognition of her activism in support of the human rights of Somali women. In 2008, she was awarded the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership for Sustainable End of Hunger. Faiza serves on numerous committees and boards dealing with women’s rights issues and closely supports the work of the African Union Commission.
Her mantra: “Always be optimistic! Obstacles or challenges are temporary and they can be overcome with determination and persistent effort!”
What is one reading, film, artwork you would recommend to others interested in supporting action to achieve gender equality?
Equality Now’s report on rape laws, “The World’s Shame – The Global Rape Epidemic” which will be out soon. It is an analysis of surveys on laws on rape and sexual assault from 82 jurisdictions and shows how laws around the world are failing to protect women and girls from sexual violence.
What do you think has been the most important legal case addressing violence against women?
[Editor’s note. Maria Da Penha Maia Fernandes v. Brazil (2001) is a case concerning women’s rights to: equal protection under the law without discrimination, a fair trial, justice and judicial protection – as well as state obligation to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women. In this case, the Inter-American Commission on human rights determined that in order for laws to protect women from violence, they must be effectively implemented.]
Were there any role models, acts of advocacy or social movements that influenced your journey?
My parents were (and still are) my great role models. From them I got the confidence and determination to enjoy my rights fully.
The many women and girls that I encountered in life have also influenced me to take up the kind of work I do. Every day I strive to make the world better and more just for women and girls so they may enjoy their rights, especially in Africa.
Is there a specific moment in your career that is most memorable to you?
I have many memorable moments.
- In 2001 when two young Kenyan girls took their father to court seeking protection orders from FGM. That was a tipping point for the fight against FGM in Kenya. After their success, another 17 girls also secured similar protections and this has influenced the Children’s Act 2001 which then prohibited FGM to be done on children (anyone under 18 years). At that time the FGM prevalence rate was 32% and today it has come down to 21%.
- When a young Ethiopian girl at the age of 13 years stood up against her abductor/rapist, and her whole community, who wanted to force her into marriage. She opted to take the matter to court. Her courage to keep fighting on even when her country’s highest court of justice failed to provide her justice was truly amazing and inspirational. Her case went to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in May 2007, and, in 2016, she successfully won when the Commission reached a decision that found the state to have failed to protect her and give her justice.
- March and July 2003, after successful advocacy efforts, African leaders adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. On 25 November 2005 it became the fastest treaty to enter into force – breaking the record for fewest years! Again, this was possible due to the sustained advocacy campaigns the Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) coalition engaged in during that time. Equality Now is a founding member of SOAWR and has served as its secretariat for the past 13 years.
- In 2008 when a young Zambia teenager won her civil suit against the state, the ministry of education and her school for failure to protect her from the rape her teacher committed against her.
- In 2010 when the UN Human Rights Council appointed a working group to end legal and de facto discrimination against women (the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice). Africa was key in this and our successful lobbying directed at the Africa group carried the day.
Empowering girls is critical. Once they know their rights they are fearless and seek support. All those courageous girls are role models for other girls who come across similar injustices. Experience also shows us that collective and coordinated action is important for us all to tackle the multi-faceted challenges confronting women and girls, and which reduce them to a vulnerable group.
What advice do you have for advocates and/or civil society organisations currently working to end gender-based discrimination? Do you think there are any underused opportunities that can be used to impact change on the ground?
The battle to end gender-based violence and discrimination against women and girls is far from over. We have certainly made some gains securing binding treaties such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; and won cases brought before national courts or at regional level (e.g. Equality Now vs. Ethiopia), etc. but more needs to be done. Our experience shows that sustained advocacy and consistently holding states accountable while at the same time offering them needed guidance and technical support are crucial in securing political will and investment in gender equality. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is an excellent opportunity for all of us to take advantage of in promoting gender equality. Governments have recognised that gender equality and development and linked. Hence, all stakeholders need to work together to successfully realise the set targets under the SDGs.
What do you believe is the biggest challenges to achieving gender equality today?
Lack of political will at different levels compounded with the patriarchal structure that continues to undermine gender equality. Additionally, the long time it takes for courts to conclude on cases is harmful to many women.
Are there any advocates or civil society organisations you believe are doing exceptional work to tackle violence against women?
There are many organisations that are doing amazing work and under very difficult conditions. Those that stand out for me are:
- The Legal Action for Persons with Disabilities (LAPD) (Uganda) which is dedicated to addressing sexual violence against girls living with disabilities who are facing multiple challenges in their strive to get justice.
- The Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development (GECPD) (Somalia) which is tirelessly fighting to end female genital mutilation and sexual violence.
- The Rural Education & Economic Enhancement Programme (REEP) (Kenya) which is supporting, through an empowerment model, girls who are sexually violated and also tiring takes up their cases to secure justice.
Want more? Visit Equality Now’s website to learn more about Faiza’s work.