Ask Her Talks

African women experts speak out

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Ask Her Talks Videos

Please visit to view videos of all five inaugural Ask Her Talks.

Join us this World AIDS Day

In conjunction with World AIDS Day (December 1st), join the Stephen Lewis Foundation as we host the second Ask Her Talks. These Talks will address a range of urgent issues: from the state of the AIDS crisis, to the emerging powerful activist coalition of grandmothers and young women. Together, the speakers will address what is truly working—and what is not—in philanthropic support to AIDS initiatives.

Visit to learn more about all five speakers and to purchase your tickets.

Nov 23, 2015
Nov 25, 2015
Dec 1st, 2015

This past May, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the ground-breaking speaker series, the Ask Her Talks. Designed to bring the voices of African women experts firmly to the fore, the Ask Her Talks provide a rare opportunity to hear directly from the grassroots leaders at the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic, as they speak truth to power.

For the inaugural Ask Her Talks, the Foundation was joined by five exceptional leaders from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, and Ghana—who came to share their insights on philanthropy, change and power with Canadian audiences in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Speakers included Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund; Netty Musanhu, Executive Director of the Musasa Project; Marie-Jeanne M’bachu, Programme Manager at the City of Joy; Jessica Horn, Former Senior Advisor to the African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS; and Jennifer Ayot, Senior Legal Officer with War Child. The evening was hosted by gospel and blues luminary Jackie Richardson, and featured a performance by spoken word artist SashOYA Simpson. From beginning to end, the humour, chagrin, artistry and incisive analysis of these seven dynamic women gave us all something profound upon which to reflect.

We hope you will enjoy these excerpts from the powerful speeches of three of the inaugural Ask Her Talks speakers. These women work in daunting contexts and foster resilience and hope for the future with tenacity and vision. We turn to them for answers and insight, and we invite you to join us!

Theo Sowa  |  Netty Musanhu  |  Jessica Horn

Theo Sowa

Chief Executive Officer, the African Women‘s Development Fund, Ghana

Someone asked me a while ago why it mattered to have African women’s voices heard. It matters for all kinds of reasons. For a start, so many of the current narratives are lies—demeaning, undermining, undignified falsehoods. African women are not victims, African women can look after their children, African women are not charity cases. No one wants their story told in that way and what legacy, what sense of self worth do we leave for African girls when we allow this to go unchallenged? In addition, sticking to false narratives is just downright stupid. How does the world make sound decisions if those decisions are based on false perceptions? And most importantly for me, when we don’t listen to or hear the voices of African women the world misses out. We live in a world where we seem beset by intractable problems. We need all of our collective intelligence, ability, experience to deal constructively with those problems. So when we ignore African women, or distort images, we end up missing out on some of the smartest, most innovative, most resilient, caring and committed people our world has to offer.

The narrative matters. When people act as if MSF and militaries from the global north ‘saved’ Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea from Ebola, they miss the point. MSF were wonderful and played a role — especially when the rest of the world was not listening — but the true first responders were the communities of those countries, and in particular, the women’s organizations.

Sometimes I wonder how many times we have to learn the same lessons. The Ebola response was like a mini déjà vu of early responses to the HIV & AIDS pandemic… ignoring the disproportionate impact of the virus on women and girls; ignoring the stigma, discrimination and violence the virus heightened for women and girls; medicalising the response instead of recognising that physical, social, economic and other impacts had to be dealt with; taking for granted that women would carry the burden of care with few financial resources, while huge organizations from the global north attracted large sums of money… and taking an incredibly long time to recognise that it was women, and especially grandmothers, who were keeping families and communities together and that they were the heart of the response which finally began to turn the tide. And yet, just as we found hope of AIDS-free future generations, the funds that should be driving further progress have suddenly started to disappear.

We need to make better decisions about where people put their philanthropic dollars, their development dollars, even their economic investment dollars. Donors have an opportunity to lead that change in perception and action. The tradition of philanthropic giving has been different to that of government aid, or business investment. I believe that the best philanthropic practice takes risks, looks at the longer-term bigger picture, and asks questions that bureaucracies ignore. Canada has so often led the way on social justice movements and support internationally. You have the opportunity right now to hear the voices, and act on the achievement of African women’s organizations. You have the opportunity to ‘Ask Her’ — and then act on it. You have the opportunity to work in collaboration and partnership rather than imposing un-contextualised decisions.

The deliberate decision to partner with grassroots African organizations can make a huge difference in the effectiveness of your philanthropy. I am not saying that there should be an either/or in your giving. I am saying that if you listen to some of our amazing African women leaders (and I am not talking about politicians here, but the women leading families, communities, social change and justice in all spheres of our lives)… if you listen to them, you will want to support their causes, their movements, their activism.

That can be the difference between investing powerfully in real change led by women’s organizations, or deciding you will give a few pennies out of charity. And that difference in giving is marked: marked out in lives lost, or lives fulfilled; inequity fuelled, or sustainable worlds that thrive.

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Netty Musanhu

Executive Director, Musasa Project, Zimbabwe

Direct services to survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) are at the core of our work at Musasa. Making a difference to women and girls drives our agenda both at the community and national levels. In 2014 alone, our One Stop Care and Counselling Centre assisted about 25,000 women and girls presenting with differing cases of GBV. The majority of these clients are young adolescents who have experienced rape and sexual violence within their families. It is these extremely vulnerable women and girls that we target through our direct services. Given the harsh economic situation that the country is facing, as well as strong religious and cultural practices that perpetuate GBV against women, we have a huge demand for services which, however, is unmatched with the resources available. Why?

It is widely accepted that changing people’s attitudes, behaviours, norms and practices is a long term issue because you are moving people from their comfort zones to unfamiliar territories. We, however, always face serious challenges with partners that expect you to have made impact and changed attitudes in one year or even six months. There is always a reluctance to fund long term interventions that bring communities to the centre of the programmes and accept that grassroots women already know their situations but also solutions to them.

And oftentimes donors only provide funding for the ‘actual work,’ forgetting that grassroots women also need to sustain their families as well as run offices. How can you have counsellors and lawyers putting all their time and effort in without any means to support themselves? For projects to be effective, they need to be supported by people and therefore there is a need to invest in us as the front-liners as well. Some of our environments are not safe and women human rights defenders are threatened, and therefore any support should also take this into consideration.

Right now, donors are only providing support for just a fraction of the survivors, because providing assistance to individual survivors is never a priority. In fact, often times we are reminded that investing in individual women and girls is not really the flavour of donors. They would rather be associated with so-called ‘big things’ like governance, elections, democracy, etc. — as if you can make any impact with these so-called ‘big issues’ without protecting and empowering women and girls!

Our work in the community is at the heart of our interventions with ordinary women and girl survivors of GBV, ordinary grandmothers who are taking care of orphans resulting from high levels of HIV & AIDS and, in some cases, semi-illiterate women taking leadership to turn the tide of both HIV & AIDS and GBV in Zimbabwe. It is these sometimes perceived ‘victims of abuse and poverty’ who drive our agenda in the communities because they not only know first-hand the impact of violence at a personal level, but for their communities. It is them, therefore, that should be at the forefront of any community-based interventions.

The perception that grassroots women are victims who need charity from the West and are helpless to their situations should be challenged. Whilst we agree that these grassroots women lack financial resources, it does not mean that they do not even understand their problems or even the solutions to them. It is a basic tenet of human rights that the most affected should be at the lead in fighting GBV and HIV & AIDS. Zimbabwe has made huge strides in turning the tide of HIV in the community through the interventions of these powerful but ordinary women.

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Jessica Horn

Former Senior Advisor, African Institute for Integrated Responses to Violence Against Women & Girls & HIV/ AIDS

I, and the other women I am sharing the stage with tonight, work in a world of human calamity. Our day-to-day is focused on hope and justice, sure, but it’s generally spent trying to work out how to respond to individual or collective catastrophes—to various forms of violations of women’s rights. I wanted to use this time together to share some insights that I have learned about what constitutes resilience, and the role that African women play in transforming the world.

I’ll begin in a place that I go back to very often in my mind when I think about activism. It is a field of sunflowers and green beans ready for harvest. It is a field just outside of Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. This field was once the site of one of the largest refugee camps in the world, housing people fleeing the Rwandan genocide.

It has been reborn in the form of a collective farm where women who are former patients of the sexual violence unit at Panzi Hospital come together to grow food to feed themselves and their families, and to sell crops at the market as a way to regain their economic agency. Many of the women involved did not know each other prior to the conflict. As a result of displacement they have found themselves together and have agreed to live together in a way that nurtures social warmth. They work together, they support each other’s emotional healing, and they remind each other that they are welcome in this world. The resilience of the women’s spirits in that field is inspiring. However, I would contend that they don’t only do this because they are ‘nice people.’ To me, what they express there is a political stance. It is an intentional expression of collective care. They are standing in solidarity, and sharing the resources they have. They are being philanthropists.

We are here to talk. Dialogue is vital in coming to better understandings of the problems we face. But at some point something needs to be done. Philanthropy is a form of doing. Giving your resources — your time, your concern, your money, your voice — is an act that says, “I stand with you. I believe in your practical and intellectual capacity to remake the world.” And it may even be a way of saying, “I love you.”

Large humanitarian mechanisms take a long time to shift their protocols and policies. Philanthropy can be far more dynamic: learning lessons fast and finding ways to support more directly where it is needed. I think it is time for us to change the game ourselves, and direct resources to where we have learned time and again that it is needed: women’s community mobilising.

I began in a field of sunflowers and beans, and I would like to end by asking you all to join me there in your mind, and look around at each other standing there and remember that we are together. And then, to look up to the wide open sky. As you say in Kiswahili ‘uwezo ni wetu:’ the power to change is ours.

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Next: Grandmothers Campaign >>

Previous: << Ugandan Grandmothers' Statement


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