Elevating Voices & Education: A Q&A with Theo Sowa – Women Deliver

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Produced by Women Deliver February 25, 2019 Theo Sowa African Women's Development Fund

Elevating Voices & Education: A Q&A with Theo Sowa


From education and health to economic, social, and political development, approaches to development and advancing gender equality must take into account the lived realities of girls and women. And that requires girls and women to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

This month, Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, joins Deliver for Good in a special Q&A on the power of education and the importance of elevating women’s voices to break down silos and fuel lasting change within their families and communities.


  1. Women Deliver:  You are the CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund – the first pan-African women’s grant maker which works to build the capacity of women’s organizations across Africa. What is your “secret sauce” to advancing women’s leadership and what can others learn from the work you are doing to advance gender equality in Africa?

Theo Sowa: Hmmm. ‘secret sauce’? I don’t think that there is a secret sauce. What we have is an organisation that came out of the desire of African feminist movements to have independent resourcing of their own agendas and try to limit the tendency of funders to tell women what they think should be their agendas. AWDF was birthed from the minds and passions of three amazing African women: the late Joana Foster, Bisi Adeleye Fayemi and Hilda Tadria. One secret of our success has been our determination to stay true to our core values and principles in all of our work - to reflect our lived experiences of extraordinary vision and agency, even in the face of systemic discrimination; and our ability to listen to a full range of African women and act on the agendas that those activists and organisations develop. We work from the basis of supporting African women to make the changes that they decide on and acknowledging that African women are powerful agents of change. So, no secret sauce but respect, hard work, courage, vision, professionalism, listening and learning, love and a little sprinkling of joy from and with our sisters… and pride in positive disruption!

2. Women Deliver: One of the strategic pillars of the Deliver for Good Campaign aims to change the narrative around girls and women from victims and vulnerable to powerful agents of change. You have spoken about this by explaining the need to stop painting pictures of “one-dimensional victims.” In your opinion, what is needed to shift the narrative and how it will it contribute to larger impact and action for gender equality?

Theo Sowa: WE need to start listening to ALL women, not only women who have been privileged through birth, geography, economics or just luck. We need to recognise that strength comes in different forms and that women’s power does not have to be an echo of traditional male power – that we can and do bring more to the table and can break the false barriers that constrain both women and men. We need to stop exploiting vulnerability and start promoting the generations of African women’s leadership at all levels of our communities and societies. And we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and stereotypes. Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian Nobel Peace Laureate tells a story of taking a group of journalists to the DRC to speak with some of the women survivors of violence in that conflict. A first woman stood and told a story of surviving horrific violence –  then added ‘And then the women came. They helped me rebuild my life; they helped me bury my children; they helped me find a new home’. Each woman who stood told variations of that story – and each one finished smiling and saying ‘And then the women came and helped me feel human again, helped me find my children, helped me get back to work etc.’. When it came to the time for the journalists to ask questions, one after the other asked questions like, ‘how many times were you raped? How many of your children died? How many times was your village attacked? Until Leymah stopped the questions. Where she had heard stories of women’s strength, resilience and solidarity, where she had heard ‘And then the women came’, the journalists heard stories of victimhood and chose to emphasise vulnerability over strength.

When we box women into single story victim roles, we become part of systemic disempowerment. That means we join in the undermining of confidence, the withdrawal of choice, the ignoring of power and leadership… and that needs to stop.  

3. Women Deliver: You have been a longtime advocate for girls’ education. As a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, you work with other thought leaders to build the case to inspire and persuade world leaders to take action toward financing education. What is the economic case for investing in education for girls and women in Africa?

Theo Sowa: The Commission’s report (The learning Generation) lays out a raft of economic arguments for investing in education.  However, I truly believe that the case for investing in girls education goes beyond what we know about the increase in GDP, the decrease in health deficits, the increase in preventative health measures and the increase in child and community survival and thrive rates – even beyond the better employment prospects that come from investing in good quality education for girls. It is a matter of justice, of equal opportunity, of giving girls a real basis for choice in their lives. Investing in girls’ education is about healthy, happy girls and communities who can take their leadership roles in our societies.


4. Women Deliver: The number of girls in schools continues to increase yet we still see a significant gap in their access to education and jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). February 11th marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – how can the global community – and African leaders more specifically – take action to break down the barriers that hold girls and women back in school and in future earning potential?

Theo Sowa: I think that part of the problem is that we continue to treat the education and overall development of girls and children from marginalized populations in silos. Girls do not lead single issue lives, so when we are trying to improve their educational outcomes, we need to be looking holistically at their development. Issues in girls’ lives intersect and our approaches need to take that into account. It is of little use to run science camps for girls if their self-confidence has been destroyed by bad teaching or lack of access to education in their early years. It is of little use to train teachers to encourage girls into STEM if those girls are not safe from sexual exploitation and harassment at school or if the messages they get daily from media and communication sources imply that STEM is for boys and men, not women and girls.  African and global leaders need to look at holistic approaches to girls lives, with education as a central component of that, not a silo. And we need to listen to girls when they tell us what they need in order to improve their lives and their educational outcomes. Numbers are definitely better than they have been in the past, but we have a long way to go on the journey to true diversity, inclusion and quality in the education and lives of girls and children from marginalized populations. Yet we have the information, the research, the technology and the innovation to get this done… and no excuse to continue to lag.


5. Women Deliver:  In speaking about women, you once said: "We are the backbones of our communities. We are strong. We are visionary. We have faith.  Africa cannot survive without us."  Unfortunately we both know when decision makers’ talk about development, women’s voices are often left out of the conversation. Earlier this month, African leaders and Heads’ of State met in Ethiopia for the African Union Summit. As they continue their work across the continent what is your main, tweetable message to ensure the voices, perspectives, and lived experiences of girls and women are prioritized?

Theo Sowa:

  • Walk the talk - Put women at the centre of our economic, political and social development.
  • Stop talking about women’s rights when women are not at the heart of that discussion, of planning and of implementing
  • Invest in women and girls – our communities deserve the leadership that African women bring. This is not a matter of charity or benevolence -  it is a matter of rights and of common sense.
  • Stop patronizing women and girls – we have proved over and over again that investing in us brings huge benefits to our families and nations
6. Women Deliver: You have been listed as a leading African feminist helping to inspire the next generation of women leaders across Africa – and truly all around the world. Who are your sheros and how did they inspire you to become such a key voice for gender equality? Given this month’s editorial focus, if you have any education specific examples, please share!

I have so many sheroes! Too many to list. For today though, I’d mention my mother and grandmother, who believed in the power of a good education, made sure that all the children in our family had that opportunity – but also made sure that we understood and appreciated the full potential, diversity and power of women – and the importance of listening, learning from and respecting all people. I’d mention Graca Machel, who pushed me to use my voice rather than staying in my comfort zone of helping other people to use their voices and show the world their own versions and visions of leadership. She taught me the importance of women recognizing and using our power constructively, and not colluding with those who would strip us of our power or tell us that to be visionary, powerful and amazing changemakers is somehow not feminine or not African. I would mention the fantastic women and girls that I met over the years in refugee and displaced persons camps in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda (amongst other places) who had been through such horror, but showed every day that they were not victims but survivors and pushed to change the injustices in our world so that other women and girls did not go through the horrors that they had experienced. I’d mention the girls, adolescents, women and grandmothers who have taught me about resilience and solidarity – and all my sheroes who have taught me that rights and justice without love does not make a feminist revolution. 

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