By Florence Gichoya
Sara Longwe is a woman who exudes so much charisma and humility that you can’t help but admire her. She is an African Laureate and the 2003 winner of Africa Prize for Leadership. When I approached her for an interview she was very receptive and glad to share her journey of activism to inspire women from all generations and backgrounds in Kenya.
She believes that her activism career started from a very tender age. As the last born in her family and only daughter she noticed that her elder brother did not do household chores and when she asked why she was told girls are expected to do the chores unlike boys. She realized that her brother was not lazy as she thought but rather the society was the problem. After a while her brother begrudgingly joined her in the chores. It is then that Sara learnt a valuable lesson that if you are not comfortable with a situation you need to challenge and show unfairness and eventually bring change.
Sara worked hard in school and excelled very well qualifying to be a high school teacher. In the mid 70’s she taught in Kabuloga high school in Lusaka. Female teachers in the school were not allowed to wear trousers. She challenged that notion by saying women can wear what they want as long as its modest. Moreover it was not against the law. The case spiraled to the Permanent Secretary – Ministry of Education. Eventually Sara emerged victorious and today Zambian female teachers can comfortably go to work with trousers.
Due to continual gender activism activities, in 1977 she resigned as a teacher. Sara comprehended that there was need for collective activism with other women in order to have an impact.
Sara also learnt that Zambia did not have data and on gender related issues, she founded ZARD (Zambia Association for Research and Development) in 1984. The organization also put pressure on the government to endorse CEDAW (Convetion on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women) which Zambia was a signatory in 1980. Women activists used CEDAW as a gender policy guideline which advocates for peace, development and equality.
Sara fights personal battles for herself and everyone and when she wins, it’s a win for everyone. She concurs that its always better to fight collectively.
Her journey takes us back to 1984. In the 80’s hotels had the pre-colonial unconstitutional rule of ‘right of admission’. This is where unaccompanied women were not allowed to get into a hotel. One evening she had gone to pick her children from a party that was held in Intercontinental hotel-Lusaka, but reaching the hotel entrance a guard denied her access to the hotel because she was unaccompanied female. The guard roughed her up and she had to forcefully break free from his grip and run inside to make a complaint. Its unfortunate that she could not sue the hotel because the Zambian constitution did not include right against discrimination based on gender or sex.
In 1992 she made headlines again when a similar incident happened, she was about to join her husband and friends at the Intercontinental Hotel bar and she was blocked by the security guards because she was an unaccompanied female. Since the constitution had been amended that Sex and Marital Status are not grounds for discrimination, she sued the intercontinental hotel and won the high court case. It was such a landmark victory that law students from commonwealth countries study her case.
Sara emphasizes that there is need for conscietization to the society. This is a where the society have to be aware and their way of thinking on gender issues changed.
In 1990 she published the world renowned Longwe Frameworks for gender analysis. Throughout her involvement in gender activism, she understood that there are 5 elements for women empowerment in order to achieve gender equality. These are;
- Welfare – Pertains to level of material welfare of women, relative to men, with respect to food supply, income and medical care, without reference to whether women are themselves the active creators and producers of their material needs
- Mobilization – Pertains to women’s equal participation in the decision-making process, policy-making, planning and administration. In development projects, it includes involvement in needs assessment, project design, implementation and evaluation.
- Access – Pertains to Equality of access, which is obtained by securing equality of opportunity through legal reform to remove discriminatory provisions.
- Control – Using the participation of women in the decision making process to achieve balance of control between men and women over the factors of production, without one in a position of dominance.
- Conscietization – Pertains to an understanding of the difference between sex roles and gender roles and the belief that gender relations and the gender division of labour should be fair and agreeable to both sides, and not based on the domination of one over the other
These frameworks have been adopted by the Oxford Manual and UNICEF gender training manual. Many leading universities in the world teach them in gender studies courses.
Still the war for fighting for womens rights is far from over; in year 2011 Sara intended to join politics to champion womens rights unfortunately she was not adopted by the Patriotic Front Party which was the leading party during the elections. It is this experience that revealed to her just how patriarchy is entrenched in African politics. “Men in leadership don’t want to work with free thinking women who are independent and not easy to manipulate.” Sara says. In fact she was termed a ‘rebel’, because she doesn’t conform to the norms.
She notes with a lot of concern that sometimes women movements in Africa have a wrong approach in their activism. For instance we tend to concentrate on women MP’s and not councilors, yet councilors play a vital role in sensitization and mobilization at the grassroots level. Activists need to concentrate on both.
The society should be conscientized and every opportunity used to fight gender discrimination. She advises that Kenyan women need to fight in a collective way. Fighting together achieves bigger milestones for women from all walks of life.
What keeps her going
Sara’s sharp consciousness on inequality in our African society keeps her going. She says as an activist you need to keep people uncomfortable, question the norms and keep fighting. Its about challenging the ‘norms’ and getting results. There is so much she would want to see change and battle is far from won.
She is inspired and proud of her husband Roy Clarke and their four children who are also involved in gender activism.