Interview by Adam Phillips with Young Leaders William Otuck and Dr. Joannie Bewa | Voice of America | 1 October 2018
MC: As the 73rd UN General Assembly meets in New York, its Sustainable Development Goals continue to be key to its mission. The global NGO Women Deliver contributes to those efforts with its Young Leaders Program. Since its inception in 2010, it has helped over 700 youth advocates for girls and women around the world build and strengthen their skills. VOAs Adam Phillips spoke with two African Young Leaders Women Deliver invited to New York in connection with the US General Assembly and its satellite events.
Phillips: That’s the pop singer turned Women Deliver Young Leader William Otuck of Tanzania singing his song, “Girls,” on YouTube.
OTUCK: “The song talks about giving girls access to education and contraceptives, so they can stay girls and not mommas when they’re not ready.”
Phillips: Today, Otuck works with the International Youth Alliance for Family Planning, a network for young people.
OTUCK: What we do is to build the capacity, support them with small initiatives in their communities with advocacy, community organization, sensitivity and gender issues. Whatever they want to do, we are supporting them.
VOA: What does your work actually involve on a concrete level?
OTUCK: It’s a lot of things. A lot of meetings, policy dialogues with governments and policymakers, trying to engage them and see how we can change policies, we can improve policies and programs that we can reach a lot of young people.”
Phillips: The group’s work firmly aligns with several the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include “Good Health and Well-Being.”
OTUCK: “Our aim is to make sure that young people and women and everybody in general have access to heath services and they stay healthy.”
Phillips: Otuck asserts that for youth, staying healthy also means being informed about sexuality and reproduction.
OTUCK:“Young girls, they don’t have enough information. Because sex is a taboo in most of our communities, people don’t want to talk about sex openly. And so we see a lot of teenage pregnancies. We see a lot of unsafe abortions. We see a lot of gender-based violence. So our work is to empower people. By doing that, we aren’t telling people to abstain. We are telling people ‘do whatever you want to do, but you have to be informed to make the right choices.
By empowering women with information and access, the power to make decisions on their own about bodies, we are just giving them power. Once you’re given power, we can realize gender equality.”
Phillips: At 29, Women Deliver Youth Leader Dr. Joannie Bewa already holds a medical degree, a master's degree in public health, and on track for a Ph.D. Bewa also teaches rural girls in her native Benin.
BEWA: We are talking about menstruation. But also we talk about the hygiene of the body, how to take care of themselves and young girls as young women, but also talking about about sexual intercourses and how to use a condom.
Phillips: There must be a lot of laughs during that!
BEWA: A lot of laughs, but a lot of interest. Because they want to understand!
Phillips: As a freelance consultant for the United Nations Fund for Population, OXFAM and other global groups, Dr. Bewa is accustomed to the public spotlight. However, her work stems from a deeply personal experience. When she and her friend were 12, her friend became pregnant, then died from an illegal abortion.
BEWA: “So at this moment, I started thinking about how can I a little bit start to contribute to awareness, and that’s how I started. And after that, advocacy. And after that bringing my work into the policy level.”
Phillips: In 2010, Bewa founded the Young Beninese Leaders Association, or YBLA.
BEWA: “It started as a march, a simple march on HIV-AIDS with 300 people and it became a big campaign for all the world.“
Phillips: Recently, YBLA received a grant from the First Lady Michelle Obama Young African Women Leaders Small Grant Program. Bewa parlayed the money into an education and advocacy effort that has touched the lives of some 3000 girls in Benin. Bewa is proud to say that hers hai is a progressive country, open to change.
BEWA: “But I think we need to more to do more to make sure that there are more spaces and opportunities in Africa to support young women who are willing to put themselves out there. We have ideas, and initiatives. But how do we sustain that? It requires a strong support system. Young people are passionate to push the UN agenda and to advocate for what is meaningful for us.”
Phillips: The work continues in Africa and the world, as it must, according to Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen, who adds “Young leaders are not only the leaders of tomorrow, they are the leaders of today. We need to invest in youth. They are the ones who will have to fix all the problems that we have made.”