Knowing Self-Worth: A Conversation with Women Human Rights Defender Hannah Natasja Chidaya.

In October 2000, the UN Security Council endorsed the groundbreaking Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security (WPS). UNSCR 1325 responded to a raft of lessons learned over the previous decade or more on peacekeeping and peacebuilding. 

The nature of warfare was changing, with civilians increasingly targeted, and women, in particular, often bearing the brunt of conflict. Women suffered a range of harms, from sexual and gender-based violence inflicted by combatants, to the loss of their spouses and families, to the loss of their livelihoods and personal autonomy. Furthermore, even during transitional and peacebuilding periods, it became clear that women continued to be marginalized, with domestic and international stakeholders overlooking their contributions and excluding them from peace processes. 

There is now a growing understanding that sexual minorities and non-binary gender identities also face distinct vulnerabilities during conflict, which should be reflected in a broader framing of the WPS agenda. UNSCR 1325 called on countries to address the impacts that conflict had on women and girls around the globe and to systematically include women in peacebuilding efforts, including peace talks, peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction efforts. Over the last two decades, UNSCR 1325 has been complemented by an additional nine resolutions on women, peace and security . Together, these resolutions provide guidance to national and international actors on their roles in relation to WPS. 

Word Smash Poetry Movement in partnership with Oxfam International is running a campaign called ‘Mwala’- The Rock which seeks to amplify Women Human Rights Defenders voices against suppression of their voices and celebrate the wins.

In this Session, Word Smash Poetry Movement engages Hannah Natasja Chidaya a Women Human Rights Activist with Action Aid Malawi. Follow the conversation below:

Sometimes with life being life, we tend to easily forget that the sanity we call peace is difficult to have and maintain. When did the realization of peace’s vulnerability occur to you? And when did you go: ‘well my people’s human rights need to be defended and I am the one to do it?

My realization for my people’s peace and vulnerability did not come easily, it was a rude awakening, and it was in 2013 a year after I had graduated from University. In search for a job I joined a Muslim Secondary School as a teacher, the School was managed by Indians, they had good facilities but with no human resources policy for employees, only those that danced to their tune were favoured and if you dared argue against their decisions you risked to be sucked. I could not watch my people or myself being subjected to oppression, so I would speak up, well did I not risk my job? Yes, I did, and was laid off!!!

In a nutshell, how has been your experience being a woman human rights defender? What are some of the highlights of your human rights activist journey?

It has been a wonderful experience, there were times I would want to give up, but the smiles and gratitude of young girls upon realizing their power within them gave me the energy to go on. Being a member of the Forum for African Women Educationalists of Malawi (FAWEMA), I was involved in establishing Tuseme clubs, literally meaning “Speak Out Clubs.” The clubs targeted young girls and boys and empowered them to speak out about their human rights including their sexual reproductive health rights, how wonderful it was seeing a number of girls returning to school, pursuing their education, and confronting harmful cultural practices that would send them into early marriage.  

Another highlight was in 2018 when we launched the #Ndiulura Campaign a localized #MeToo Campaign where we encouraged women to speak out and report sexual harassment in their safe spaces (School or workplace) it received overwhelming support off, young women came out, and justice was served.

I know for a fact that your contributions to defending human rights in your community and country are not flimsy, but to improve human rights activism and the involvement of women and girls (within your community and country) what interventions must be enforced?

I would encourage activities that conscientize young women, activities that will make them realize their self-worth, spark the fire in them. Until women know the power within them and oppression around them is then, that they can fight for their own and fellow women’s rights.

To be able to remove a speck of wood from another’s eye, you’ve got to make sure yours are clean. How does knowing and enjoying your human rights influence how well you defend the rights of others? Are there human rights you are still not yet fully enjoying and how does this reality negatively or positively affect your advocacy?

Realization of my own rights has helped to confront attitudes with a clean conscience and take my own stand without guilt as a woman. I may not be aware of my other rights but that does not limit my advocacy.  Honestly, I struggle in my advocacy because of women who are not aware of their rights or are aware but are confined by patriarchal rules, that is a big obstacle!

What is the attitude of your community and country towards women human rights defenders? Are they supportive or inhibitive, and why are they that way?

My society prefers women who are quiet, who don’t often speak, continuous defending women’s rights puts you on a spot where your love life, marriage, and morals are questioned, and at times you are labeled bitter or frustrated. The environment is so open but inhibitive at the same time.

As a general trend, a progressive one at that, today women in Africa are voicing out and acting more towards being free, enjoying their human rights, and contributing to the development of societies they live in without restraint. How does this new urgency among women make you feel about the next 10 years in line with women and human rights?

Very mind easing and encouraging, hoping that women’s rights will be a norm and not favor as is regarded now.

In studies, everyone seems to agree that there is no sustainable peace-building without women’s participation in it but on the ground, neglect is cast on women’s inclusion in this agenda. What are your feelings about this half-roll, and what would you like other women and men concerned about peace and security to note as the importance of women and girls in this fight?

Women’s involvement or inclusion especially in areas of peacebuilding will always be but tokenism unless the world changes how it perceives women. Where I come from women are regarded as stay home people and look after the family, their socio-economic activities are defined and hardly would you find them in decision-making or influencing groups only if they are issues of disciplining girls. There is a need for deliberate involvement of women, right from a tender age so they can make meaningful participation in peace-building activities, no woman would want bloodshed or economical hardships because of power egos or selfishness. 

From your interactions and conversations with other Women Human Rights Defenders across the continent, what do you think most countries are doing wrong in effectively engaging and protecting women human rights defenders?

Women are recognized during set dates, either on international women’s day or when it benefits society to recognize them. The world would be a better place if women are meaningfully engaged, supported by the law. Oftentimes women rights defenders face gender stereotyping once they speak or general public backlash, as I said one’s life is put to public scrutiny, the effects of such are quite different from men, women have to face body shaming and life choices they have made. Governments have a right to protect each and every individual equally and engage them meaningfully to create peace and sanity not chaos and violence 

Activism is a gift that keeps giving. What is that one experience you forever cherish that came along your path of being a woman human rights defender that keeps you churning energy towards the liberation of others?

There was no other better moment than the time I was teaching, it was a time I realized the vulnerability of working women and young professionals, a time that I vowed to give my support towards women empowerment and realization of human rights. A lot of women suffer because they know not of their rights, but feel they are been given a favor! No we all deserve equal working opportunities 

What would you suggest is the key to successful human rights activism by women? Some tips for growth and impactful activism from your life are very welcome.

Well, the largest obstacle to women’s activism is a woman, either who is adamant about their rights or is aware but playing the patriarchal cards. Surprisingly the greatest key to successful women’s activism is a woman, one who is aware and liberated from all society’s ill bondage. This woman fights for their own rights and others, cultivates other women to the call and that is what women activists should be. Women’s activism shouldn’t be a war for women, but rather a pursuit by all, allying with other human rights defenders for maximum impact and community support.

Hannah Natasja Chidaya, is a gender activist working with ActionAid Malawi as a Technical project officer. She promotes women and young people’s rights. She believes(hopes) in a future where every individual will be able to enjoy their fundamental human rights

Word Smash Poetry (WSP) is a creative free expression Southern African youth Artivists Social-Enterprise. Its main thrust is to provide a platform for young creative feminist activists, Women Human Rights Defenders, LGBTQI+ and artivists to speak truth to power through spoken word. As a social movement, Word Smash Poetry was established in August 2017 and was later legally listed as a social business in February 2019 for administrative purposes but remains fluid and an energetic Social Movement. We amplify the stage works on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Wordsmashpoetrymovement / and www.wordsmash.poetry.blog/ .

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