Hendrica Okondo, from Kenya, is the Global Manager for SRHR and HIV and a focal point for Africa. Here, she reflects on the importance of having access to safe spaces and talks about her path to empowerment.
Often young women in rural Africa have nowhere to go except under trees. This space is a significant and sacred space in Africa, as it is where our wise men exercise their power. It is also a space that was forbidden to women and children in my village because the shade of the trees provided cool resting areas for poisonous snakes, and only men were allowed to carry the sticks which kill snakes.
This significance was once announced to me by fellow tribesmen in my animal anatomy class. While we were meant to be dissecting a fish, the men questioned the value of educating women, basing their arguments on their perception that educated women disrespected their husbands, brought shame on their communities, and could not kill a snake. “Ha ha,” laughed the women at this nonsense, reminding the men that this was an independent Kenya in the 20th century and you don’t need a stick to kill a snake! A snake can be charmed into the lab, defanged, emptied of its poison, and taken to the Snake Park where tourists pay to see it.
Some men were furious and swore not to marry us. Others laughed and said that we had taken their words literally, and soon after that I became an activist. This alarmed my mother, for she believed that no man would marry me. She was wrong however, for later I would meet a man from my village that was willing to let me kill the snake of disempowerment. This was a man who, like my father before him, trusted me with the clan stick and allowed me to sit under the tree.
The symbolism of this story returns to me when I visit African YWCAs. The space under the tree can be safe or unsafe depending on who else is there. YWCAs in 28 African countries strive to make safe spaces by providing accurate information on sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV - subjects that are often forbidden to young women by culture and religion.
In the patriarchal communities that these women live in, systematic discrimination and exclusion from the decision making processes are a way of life. Young women are often denied rights and their mobility is restricted. While parents, religious leaders and the community at large mean well, this discrimination stems from the normalisation of patriarchal structures that define women and girls as inferior and are derived from stereotypes of subservient social roles, like the requirement to greet all men, no matter their age, on your knees.
In many cultures women are ignored, controlled and silenced as a form of consolidating male authority over them. This denial of young women’s right to self-empowerment is a gross violation of their human rights. We have a duty and an obligation to provide young women with safe spaces to exercise their power, their need for knowledge and to protect the integrity of their bodies.
The YWCA provides skills and training opportunities for leadership that enable women to set the agenda at the family, community, national and global levels. Young women need that space under the tree, both physically and metaphorically. It is a place for dialogue and for exploration of the different forms of empowerment and self determination. Young women have healthy expectations. They don't want to die while giving birth, they don't want to be violated; if born positive they want to live positive, they want to have access to quality education and to participate and overcome occupational segregation. Young women want safe spaces that enable them to exercise their rights to make informed decisions no matter what the context.
I am happy to work for the YWCA because we strive to make the space under the tree safe for young women to access information and services that will help them understand their sexuality and reduce unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. But, we also need to educate young men to respect women's self determination and to share responsibility with women in matters of sexuality and health.