Women's Leadership Stories Forge Connections for Change

L to R: Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, Melinda Holmes, Hajia Aisha Futa, Hauwa Ibrabim, Hajia Azumi Ibrahim, Dawuda Sulley at the West Africa Human Rights Defenders Forum in Accra held in December 2015.

It was the end of the first day of a highly anticipated conference in Accra. The Carter Center and the Office of Ghana’s Chief Imam had convened more than 60 leaders from religious communities, development organizations, advocacy groups, and educational institutions in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Liberia to share successful strategies and continuing challenges in their efforts to improve the lives of women and girls in the region. The IDN long has focused on women’s concerns within developing countries, and I have participated in several of The Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forums focused on mobilizing faith for women and girls.  

At this conference, I was facilitating the Working Group on Women and Leadership. I looked around the room at 18 faces looking back at me, anticipating something. What?  

Institute for Developing Nations Director, Sita Ranchod-Nilsson with Liberian Chief Zanzan Karwar, Chairman, National Council of Chiefs and Elders.Each member of the group just had shared their expectations. Two women from Senegal wanted to know how others were teaching women and girls about their human rights. One was especially concerned with teaching teenage boys to respect the rights of girls. A woman from Nigeria wanted to find opportunities to collaborate with others to bring badly needed electoral reform to her country. A Ghanaian imam wanted to focus on what women and leadership looks like in the context of Islam.  

Some thought we should focus on strategies and programs that are working and find ways to replicate and expand them. Another challenged the group to affect change from unexpected places. How would these diverse experiences and expectations come together to focus on strategies for change? At the end of that first afternoon, the path forward was anything but clear.

I consulted with my co-facilitator, Hauwa Ibrahim, an internationally respected Nigerian human rights lawyer well known for her pro bono work defending women and children condemned under Sharia law.  We knew that, in the short time we had together, we had to keep the focus on concrete change and get people to connect genuinely with one another. After all, the most valuable part of these face-to-face gatherings is often the connections that lead to expanded networks for action. We decided to revise our facilitation plan radically for day two to make individual leadership stories the basis for forging connections. I worked long into the night to change the plan.

The next day, the group seemed excited about the revised plan and eager to tell their stories. A colleague from Tostan—an NGO that is often associated with ending female genital cutting in West Africa—described how he works to empower communities through a long-term process that involves men, women, and children and emphasizes agency and human dignity. The founder of a Nigerian NGO working on democracy and development told her moving personal story of love and tragic loss and how that has inspired her to work for meaningful transformation in her country. A Liberian representative of traditional people spoke powerfully about the connection between traditional leaders and their people and the critical role that traditional leaders played in stemming the Ebola pandemic last year. Two Senegalese women shared their experiences of speaking out in their communities and how that led to growing confidence for them and the women with whom they work. Hauwa also described growing up in northern Nigeria and why she works for women and children within the system of Sharia law.  

The Carter Center, the Office of the National Chief Imam of Ghana, regional civil society organizations and opinion leaders participating in the West Africa Human Rights

These deeply personal stories provided inspiration and, more important, a means of connecting to find common purpose and strategies for action.  As these leaders spoke, every person in the group listened intently, heads nodded in recognition and, at times, eyes filled with emotion. I was reminded of what I often have heard President Carter say—that all people want the same things: to be healthy, to be able to take care of their families, and to be treated with dignity. 

The energy level in the room was now buzzing as we split into small groups to develop strategies and action plans to bolster women’s leadership at the community level, in elected office, and within religious and traditional structures.

Sita Ranchod-Nilsson
Director, Institute for Developing Nations


Photo Top: L to R: Sita Ranchod-Nilsson, Melinda Holmes, Hajia Aisha Futa, Hauwa Ibrabim, Hajia Azumi Ibrahim, Dawuda Sulley at the West Africa Human Rights Defenders Forum in Accra held in December 2015.

Photo Middle: Institute for Developing Nations Director, Sita Ranchod-Nilsson with Liberian Chief Zanzan Karwar, Chairman, National Council of Chiefs and Elders.

Photo Bottom: The Carter Center, the Office of the National Chief Imam of Ghana, regional civil society organizations and opinion leaders participating in the West Africa Human Rights.

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