Ulemu Kanyongolo: Founder and president of the Young Feminists Network

Malawi has been facing a lot of cases of women abuse as evidenced by videos and photographs that make rounds on social media. The pictures depict women as object that men and women are free to do with as they please.

Many more cases go unreported because of ignorance by victims and communities.

Thank God for law enforcers who rise to the occasion to arrest perpetrators. Thank God also for women and human right activists that speak out against such attacks to aid justice.

Ulemu Kanyogolo is founder and president of the Young Feminists Network (YFN), one of the organisations that looks out for the plight of the Malawian woman and girl.

Through her work and effort, she earned the recognition of UN Women as one of the young emerging activists for her work in the advancement of gender justice.

She is also a member of the Youth Task Force for Amnesty International’s Global Strategy and was a youth representative at Oxfam’s Global Strategy Forum in September 2019.

Her network has 44 members with chapters in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Zomba.

The 22-year-old founded the network on the premise of advocating for gender justice, raising awareness on human rights, strengthening policy implementation on women’s rights and empowering Malawian youth to speak out on social injustices.

It was on these principles that the she, alongside other organisations and activists held protests in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu against the latest video recorded abuse on a woman in Blantyre seen beaten and undressed by a gang.

The protests included speaking against the sexually assault of girls and women in Msundwe to raise awareness and call for action to ensure justice is served.

Says Ulemu: “I am passionate about young Africans harnessing their power and bringing about transformational change in their communities in whatever way they can. I was concerned by the lack of a young feminist movement in Malawi and believe I should create the change I want to see as opposed to waiting for someone to do it on my behalf.

“I was raised by my parents to unapologetically speak my mind and to use my voice to fight injustice and I came to the realisation that it was time for me to walk the talk.”

This, she says, drove her to mobilise like-minded youth passionate about social justice and feminism to create change and contribute towards the fight for gender equality and human rights in our country.

Her network was established in November 2018 and is just over a year old.

“But so far, we have engaged in two 16 Days of Activism campaigns (2018 and 2019) and acted as a link between victims of gender-based violence (GBV) and various channels such as the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), the police and legal practitioners.

She prides in linking 246 girls with the necessary channels and demanded for justice after their private contact details were shared without their consent in December 2018.

In March last year, Ulemu says participating in the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) march against the killings of persons with albinism and advocacy regarding the same as part of the network’s further achievement.

“We have worked with fellow student-led organisations to raise awareness on sexual harassment in tertiary institutions,” she says.

Their other achievements include working in secondary schools to facilitate dialogue on gender issues and positive masculinities, social media advocacy on human rights and gender issues

Ulemu is in her final year of law school at Chancellor College. She was born in Norwich, England on May 30 1997 to Fidelis and Ngeyi Ruth Kanyongolo.

She attended primary school at All Souls Primary School in England and Zomba Private Primary School and completed her IGCSEs at Kamuzu Academy.

From 2016 to 2018, she was chairperson of the Gender Justice Clinic at Chancellor College.

In view of women’s rights, Ulemu says as a country, we have succeeded firstly in enacting laws which uphold and promote women’s rights.

“The Bill of Rights in the Constitution has a specific section on women’s rights and the Constitution provides for gender equality as one of the principles of national policy.

“Furthermore, there has been the enactment of the Gender Equality Act. The Electronic Transactions and Cyber Security Act, although not making specific mention of women’s rights, provides for data protection and the prohibition of cyber harassment,” she adds.

She observes that women are often susceptible to such violations; therefore, the enactment of this law is also a step forward in the fight for women’s rights.

However, Ulemu notes that effective implementation of these laws and policies has hindered the progress of women’s rights in Malawi.

Inspite of strides made both locally and internationally she says the realisation of women’s rights in this country has been far from satisfactory.

Commenting on continued harassments and abuses of women, the activist says the State needs to recognise the urgency and severity of violence against women and girls and channel necessary efforts in protecting them.

“The state is the primary duty-bearer regarding human rights and it has a duty to protect all its citizens. It is evident that not enough is being done and the State needs to strengthen its efforts and engage more stakeholders to bring perpetrators to book,” says Ulemu.

She adds: “Causes of violence amongst women, just as is the case of violence amongst men, differ according to circumstances and there can be no single, exhaustive list. However, the ways of dealing with violence amongst women are the same as those where the perpetrator is male. There has to be swift access to justice and such matters must not be trivialised merely because the perpetrator is female.”

Ulemu says violence against women should not be assumed as some perpetual curse that will never be done away with.

She adds that the patriarchy and its institutions will exist for as long as we let them exist.

“We must rise up, speak out and be ready to dismantle the status quo and societal norms if we are to smash the patriarchy. Change never came about through silence or compliance with the very institutions which oppress us. Radical change requires radical action,” says the activist.

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